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.
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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.

BB Blog 2

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.

BB Blog 1
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.

BB Hlog 3
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.

BB Blog 4.jpg
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.

Image result for deuces gif
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.

The Doldrums

Current status:

The stops and starts of the second semester are killing my motivation. One of my students pointed out today was our first full school day since last Thursday. We went: Power outage –> three days of school –> Ice Day –> MLK Day –> early release due to lake effect blizzard –> two hour delay.

The doldrums of the school year are here early. And I’m dead in the water.

Doldrums
Image via The Goog.

 

That Phases Of First Year Teaching thing applies even if you’re in your 15th year.

Wise people have suggested a makeover of the school calendar:

What if we just took January off? Let’s miss all the worst parts of winter altogether.

I gotta admit, it’s tempting. It’s still butt-dark at 7:00 am these days. Cold, snow, wind, ice. Gotta build in extra time in the morning to scrape car windows and let the car heat up. Just crawling out of bed is a monumental challenge.

Related image

It’s that time of year, even if you aren’t the praying sort:


 

All I know is: momentum is real. Inertia too. I need a push. Maybe helping my POE class learn to code will turn the tide. There are some glimmers of hope from the move to flip my instruction in Algebra II: students who have struggled are getting some small-group attention and it’s paying dividends. More than once I’ve heard a student say, leaving class, “hey, I learned something today!” I’m about to break out DIY Kahoot for a review activity. Because the one who does the work does the learning. Also, this is definitely the kind of group that keeps score. At this point, hey, anything to turn the sails.

Because just sitting here stewing and wishing ain’t gonna move the ship.

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Stock photo via Pexels.

 

 

 

Snow Day

Then…

And now..

E-Learning Day email

It’s not our first go-round with e-learning days. My son’s school did a practice day at the start of the school year, and their half-days for teacher PD are afternoon e-learning days for the kids. My school doesn’t return from break until Monday 1/8/18, so I thought this might be a good day to take in this one from a parent perspective, rather than a teacher.

And I’m off to a flying start, natch:

Having just finished Matt Miller’s Ditch That Textbook virtual summit over break, my head is filled with fantasies of all kinds of cool, techy, collaborative activities his teachers will offer as we sit together at the laptop in the front room.

I think realistically I should prepare myself for standard assignments, delivered electronically.  Time will tell.


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Image via Divine Office

OK, not quite 9:00 am and the Religion assignment is here. Actually, Liturgy Of The Hours would be a very cool way to start every day. Collect, prayer, daily scripture, reflection time, intercessions.

Math might kill us both (spoken as a math teacher). We’re gonna practice solving systems of linear equations by elimination, and work through some systems word problems. He totally gave me the combination “Ugh, With An Eye Roll” when I showed him the assignment.

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That prayer time is gonna come in handy. So is Desmos.

Teacher Me is like, “OK, he’s gonna need help, and motivation, to get this math done. Let’s do this.” Parent Me would be reaching for a Valium sandwich and keeping his teacher on speed dial. Actually, the teachers are all available by email from 10:00 am til 2:00 pm to provide help. But if I wasn’t a Highly Trained Math Person™ this assignment would make me panic.

Note to Self: when my school starts E-Learning days, we need to provide guidance for parents on how to access online help. We’re all embedding help inside Canvas for our students, but we need to train up mom and dad as well.


 

Shortly after 9:00: Health, Social Studies, and Science assignments are all “read and outline”. He’ll power through those without much need for guidance. Pro-tip: save them for last.

Now, where is that online book again?

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Via gifimage

What good is being a 1:1 G-Suite school if you don’t know how to offer your kids new ways to connect learning? Ditch That Textbook blog to the rescue!

So this email popped into my inbox yesterday. Matt Miller teamed up with guest blogger Laura Steinbrink to offer some cool Google Drawings tips:

  • Annotate
  • Caption This
  • Caption and Comment
  • Picture This And Take A Stance

I immediately saw uses in my math classroom. These would be an ideal way for my students to show their thinking during “Estimation 180” or “Would You Rather?“.

But man, would these have been awesome ways for students to show their learning from home on a snow day. Or a way to offer some student choice – make an outline or caption the Big Three Ideas from the reading or Flipgrid your reaction to the reading (or Flipgrid your solution to one of the math word problems – crowdsource an answer key!).

So, I’m a little spoiled. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with playing it straight. Here’s a worksheet, do some math. Here’s a reading assignment, take notes. At least until you know better. I didn’t know better for the first few years in the classroom. It took a lot of digging and connecting and trial and error before I could use all these tools. And I’m for sure not here to tell other teachers how to do their job.

But man, a Desmos activity and some opportunities to create and connect and learn would have been awesome for kids staring out the window at the Frozen Tundra. Sounds like all of us who are learning and sharing together online need to keep reaching out and spreading the word. Presenter proposals for South Shore E-Learning 2018 are opening Monday.

 

So, let’s go teach, and learn, together, on a day when Lake Effect Snow is a distant memory.

New Years Eve Lake Effect GIF
Animation of the New Years Eve lake effect storm that dropped like a foot and a half of snow, via weather.gov.

Hello, 2018!

I love it here in the future. I’ll never go back. And this morning I woke up one year farther into the 21st century.

Hello, 2018.

New Year's fireworks are seen along the Strip from the top of the Trump International, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Image via Las Vegas Review-Journal

One of the benefits of modern life is the support that comes from connectedness. When you scratch out that list of resolutions, you don’t have to look far for resources to help you along. You might still stumble and fall along the way, but you know someone’s got your back.

A few years ago the great Jen Fulwiler put together a Saint Name generator for folks who are looking to jump-start the search for a patron or intercessor. This year I got St. Francis de Sales (patron of writers and journalists).  He spent three years of his life going door-to-door throughout the French countryside trying to teach the faith. No one would listen. He had door after door slammed in his face.

I can relate. As Dan Meyer famously said, “I teach high school math. I sell a product that people don’t want, but are forced by law to buy.” At least in St. Francis I’ll have someone to commiserate with.

As an added bonus for 2017, Jen built a word generator. Perfect for those “One Word” or “word of the year” people who are everywhere today.

Of course, because Children Must Play™, some of Jen’s online connects mashed up their saint and word. Hilarity ensued:

I’m not that cool.

I’m Francis Presence. No editor or producer would take that character name seriously.

But, “presence.” Hmmm. Hold that thought….


spring break party GIF
Image via Giphy

A few weeks back I stumbled across a blog post by Allyson Apsey suggesting folks make a playlist for the new year, rather than making resolutions. I have the usual resolutions, yeah, but I also have a #2018Playlist. As I wrote when I first encountered Allyson’s post, I wanted a playlist in chunks that could be selected to fit a mood.

We’re at a place in the school year and just life in general where everything is a grind. Fitting that mood perfectly is a song I borrowed from one of my oldest son’s playlists, “Hurricane” by Band of Heathens (covering a Levon Helm tune)

Back that up with “All These Things I’ve Done” from the Killers, and a pair from Tenth Avenue North: “You Are More” and “Losing”, and we’re off to a low-key start to power through day-to-day frustrations.

The mid-section is designed to provide a power boost, or at least an upbeat accompaniment to housework or grading, anchored by Jet’s rave-up “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (which is also my go-to running song when I need to dig deep):

Queens Of The Stone Age and Greta Van Fleet both deal in an updated 70s sound, providing a bridge from past to present before the Church and Lord Huron bring the thing in for a landing.


 

So, I’m self-aware enough to build a playlist that is in tune with my needs. What about when we turn the tables? Can I shift gears to meet my students’ needs? Can I be “present” for them? It should be part of the package, like a basketball coach adjusting his playbook to match his players’ talents.

The turn of calendar brings soul-searching and goal-setting in many areas; the classroom is no different. And  this year, my tribe has some backup in the form of Indiana Connected Educators. ICE Indiana is offering teachers here a chance to jump-start their 2018 with an “I will” sharing challenge:

I responded:

We’re at the point of the Algebra II curriculum where everything is new and challenging, and more theoretical. My track 3 students are not likely to move on to Pre-Calculus as seniors, almost all will take either probability & statistics or a college readiness bridge course that hits the power standards of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. They need more time in class to work through practice problems and get help. Looking back to last year, the opposite happened. We would spend almost the entire period on warm-up, homework questions (numerous, because they didn’t get enough time to practice and ask questions in class), and new notes. By April we were all miserable.

Image result for miserable gif
Image via Tenor

So what am I going to try in order to fix this issue?

I am already embedding a video of me working through my notes into the Canvas page for each lesson. My hope is that students who are absent or want to work ahead or need to see the examples worked again can refer back to the video, as often as they need.

What if…. I followed the lead of several teachers in my department who are flipping their instruction? Students watch the video on their own, take notes, and write a brief summary (picked that up from Pooja Agarwal‘s Ditch That Textbook Summit session with Matt Miller). Then the bellringer is a quick formative assessment to gauge their understanding and engage prior knowledge, and the bulk of class is spent on working through the practice set. As Matt Miller and Alice Keeler point out in their book Ditch That Homework, this gives them access to a trained professional teacher when they need help.

OK, so now we’re building in work time in class, but what about my kids who need extra help? There’s still one of me and 30 of them.

Divide and Conquer, baby. Divide and conquer.

I picked up a strategy about 10 years ago at a workshop. Two downstate Indiana teachers who paired up to share their two classes developed a differentiated instruction method they called “Island – Peninsula – Land”. Based on a quick formative assessment (walking around and peeking over shoulders, even), the teacher quickly sorts his students into three groups:

  • The Island group is completely self-sufficient. These are the “just give me the assignment so I can get it over with” students. They don’t need my help, so they can go off and do their thing.
  • The Peninsula group can mostly do the work, but might need a boost from time to time. They can send an envoy to the Island group to ask for help with a specific question.
  • The Land group does not know how or where to start. They need the most help, so I sit with that group for the session.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used this tactic. The last few years my classes were all “Land” – I really didn’t have anybody who could work through a set of problems on their own, so I shelved I-P-L. This seems like as good a time as any to resurrect it.

Image via Women In Product

Gonna run this by my department chair and get ready to roll on 1/8/18.

And don’t be bashful. Jump on the #ICEindiana hashtag on Mondays and Try, and Share, and Encourage, and Remember, and Learn.

On Lockdown

We had a Lockdown Browser training at school last week. We have the Respondus browser at our disposal for Canvas quizzes. When it’s in use, students cannot leave the site, open other tabs, print, or do a screen cap.

I didn’t go, but I heard stories. Horror stories of the lengths students will go to cheat on a test. Live Google chats, Snapping each other, sharing photos of a test with friends either in class or with students who will have the class later. All the stuff we all used to do in hallways back in the day, just instant and visual. One of my Lunch Bunch said, “It’s like an arms race. We get tech-savvy, they get savvier.”

And it’s true. At my former school (where I taught PLTW and math in a computer lab) I saw students constantly searching online for answer keys to their other teachers’ worksheets or workbook assignments. I knew then that as we moved towards 1:1, if we were still handing out paper worksheets and expecting students to legitimately do the work we were kidding ourselves. We were gonna have to learn a new way to teach, pronto.

As a result: More and more I’m moving away from traditional assessments to performance assessments where students display their mastery by creating something. I did a Desmos Art project as an assessment for comic sections last year (that one’s gonna return, new and improved, this spring). And a super-ambitious DIY Row Games project for rational expressions. That one was a perfect for for the short Thanksgiving week, adapted to radical expressions.

Started by introducing them to Row Games on Monday, with a ready-made exercise via the great Kate Nowak. Then I gave them the challenge of designing their own Row Game. Docs here:

I told them they were gonna get a chance to turn the math inside-out. I told them it was a quiz grade. And I turned them loose.

Panic ensued. “We’re supposed to make up our own stuff? How?!?”  “We don’t even know how to do it forwards. How are we supposed to do it backwards?” That just means we’ve got a teaching opportunity. Let’s take it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Eventually they came up with some pretty cool stuff. I count it as a win.

But I see what’s going on here. We had a brief discussion about it around the lunch table. On my most recent quiz (solving quadratic equations) only 7 of 48 students could identify whether a quadratic was factorable, and then properly factor it. One colleague said her students are “factor-phobic”… that they’ll use the quadratic formula on everything. Another veteran laid the blame at the foot of multiple choice tests – students FOIL all the distractors until they find the right answer. Either way, students end up being too reliant on shortcuts and tricks and miss the underlying skills. Then when they need them, they’re lost.

Let’s be honest. Thinking is hard. Everyone (grownups included) is always on the lookout for an easy way out. But assessments like this, and Desmos activities, give my students also have a chance to dig deep, to make connections between the steps of an algorithm and the skills needed to solve open-ended problems. To learn the math, not the shortcuts. And I get that they can still cheat, and will. (Thanks, Adam and Eve!) But I’m kind of on a quest here. A quest to get them to do it the right way, not the easy way, because I think the right way will result in learning happening. And maybe help them be better prepared for classes (and life) to come.

It’s not pretty. The best stuff never is. But I’ll take imperfect and real every time. As Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago:

yet-once-youve-come-to-be-part-of-this-particular-patch-youll-never-love-another-like-loving-a-quote-1
Image via picturequotes.com

Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?

I wrote earlier this year about our new department policy weighting test/quiz scores as 75% of a student’s math grade.

We decided as a group if assessments were gonna be that high-stakes, we would need to offer remediation and re-take opportunities. Everyone was given free rein to design their own remediation plan, and most of us modeled ours after the school’s Extended Term program where students who grade out at 53% – 59% can work after school to remediate skills and show mastery with an online program. The payoff is a 60% D-minus for the quarter.

On Open House night I told parents about the new policy, and my plans to offer remediation. They all nodded that retakes were a fair way to balance the need for a performance-based grade with the opportunity to show mastery at a later date. We walked through the math: a 50% test/quiz average and 100% on the daily work (turning in practice sets, participating in Desmos activities and Three-Act Math, attempting all review work) would average out to a passing grade (D-minus) for the quarter.

I launched my remediation efforts after a Unit Two quiz. Only about a dozen students took advantage, and of those, roughly half had already done pretty well on the quiz. Those are the kids who wanted to bump a C to a B.  The kids with an F-minus-minus, who needed a 50% to have a prayer of passing the term? Ghosts. So it’s still a work in progress.

My plan shakes out like this:

I’m late to the party, as usual, but it turns out, I’m doing it right. Want proof? Check out an article by Matthew Beyranevand at medium.com that’s been making the rounds of my timeline:

View story at Medium.com

I was doing this on the fly. I just stumbled into this plan trying to do the right thing for my students, but according to this infographic, I’m right on target:

Image via medium.com.

I think this is what you call the fruits of hanging out with the right teachers online.


So: self-assessment time. How are things going so far? Well, I still only get a dozen or so kids in for remediation and retakes. I’m not sure it’s the right dozen, but the ones who come to me leave with a better understanding of the math we’re doing. So there’s that.

Remediation Roster Snip

Looking at the long game: the opportunity to retake quizzes keeps my students in the game. Nobody is so far in a hole after a low quiz score that they can’t climb out. Nobody is punished for an off-day, or for not learning as fast as someone else in the class.

Bigger picture, in my classes the quiz struggles are intertwined with poor study habits and a weak math foundation. Until I fix those things my kids will always have struggles come assessment time.

We are raising the bar of expectations at my school. That’s not gonna change. I can’t let my kids drown. That’s not gonna change.

Then what support am I providing to my struggling students?

Everything but the kitchen sink. My Canvas page for each lesson includes the slides I use for notes in class (including embedded videos of the example problems), so students can go back any time to see the examples worked out.

There’s also links to math help pages such as Purplemath and Virtual Nerd, and a video of me doing my notes as well as a selection of other videos on the same topic. And every teacher in my building is required to keep office hours (we call it “Flex Time”) for students to come to us for face-to-face help.

One person I showed this bounty smirked, “is that a golden platter you serve everything up on, or just silver?” I know. It sounds like overkill. Like we are babying a bunch of teeangers who are old enough to drive and work and make lots of important decisions. But my students need the support. I don’t know how many of them ever use any of these resources. Not many, based on the hits counter at youtube. But the alternative is to sit back and let them fail. They might fail anyway. But not because I sat on the sidelines and let it happen.

I think Teddy Roosevelt hit it on the head:

TR Moment of Decision
Via lifehack.

I’ve had that quote behind my desk for probably 10 years. I’ve done lots of right things, and lots of wrong things. I know for sure in this case, the worst thing I could do is nothing.