Day One

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Rampant stress. Like the kind you can feel welling up in your chest.

That was me Friday afternoon, 63 hours before students walk through my new classroom doors to begin the school year.

As background: we’re in the midst of a three-year, $140 million renovation project at my school. It’s being done in phases, so teachers have been shuffling from room to room as the construction project advances. “Flexibility” is practically our school motto.

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Under Construction. That space on the left will be the new music wing. Photo cred: me

My principal is a good guy with a really strong team. I don’t imagine it’s easy overseeing a huge 4-star school that aspires to be a top-10 school in the state each year. Doing that while in the midst of remaking the physical plant sounds like trying to defuse a bomb while someone repeatedly pokes me in the kidneys. There’s a million moving parts complicating the already complex process of opening school. “Building the airplane while flying it”, as the saying goes.

After a day of meetings, I arranged the desks and chairs into pods for a couple hours on Thursday. Good way to burn off nervous energy. These desks belong in the room of the teacher who was using that space last spring while her hallway was rebuilt. I knew intuitively the furniture was probably headed back to her room, but I held out hope her new classroom might be getting a furniture makeover.

Nope.

Walk in Friday morning to this. Surprise!

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Clean slate. At least I’m gonna have some bumpin’ speakers. Photo cred: me

So with freshman orientation and the activities fair eating up my morning, I shot a quick email to my office staff hoping for guidance and asking (gently, since everybody’s got a to-do list a mile long on the day before school opens) who I should see about getting some desks delivered.

Then I went to work. It was the best way I could think of to stave off the vision of my kids sitting on the floor for class Monday. I’m a first-day veteran. I know what my job is: to be ready to teach on Day One. They’ll tell me what to teach, who to teach, and where to teach, and I’ll take it from there. Friday’s Motto: I’ll do what’s in my hands and trust that others will do what’s in their hands. It’s all good.

(Sounds a little bit like this post from Sarah Carter, whose One Word Goal for the year is “grace”.)

And by the time I left the building at 5:00, the custodial staff was rounding up student desks from all corners of the building and delivering them to my room. Just like I knew would happen.

Image result for teamwork makes the dream work meme


  • Broke: Here’s the Syllabus
  • Woke: Here’s how we do things around here
  • Bespoke: Let’s do math and collaborate!

I’m loud. mostly because my students are loud. And after 10 weeks of summer, I’ve found I typically lose my voice by the end of day one. Because I talk too much. “Hey kids, I’m not gonna read the syllabus to you because I know you can read”…. then I read them the syllabus.

What if there was a better way?

The inspiration hit while Megan Hayes-Golding was tweeting during a Twitter Math Camp session this summer.

Oooooo. We could do that in Algebra II. We don’t even need a good reason. But I have a bunch. In 35 minutes on the first day of class, we can:

  • Do math
  • Be collaborative
  • Engage prior knowledge
  • Get students talking
    • To each other
  • Introduce how we’ll use tech this year (first year of 1:1 in my building)
    • Canvas, Google Forms, Desmos
  • Start a Math Fight if we’re lucky

Here’s the plan:

Students will reflect using a Google Form and submit a snap of their work solving the system (after we discuss and defend arguments) through Canvas.

I’m hoping to welcome a group of students who may not have had great math experiences in the past to my classroom. And have some fun.


 

In the last week before school I read Ditch That Homework by Alice Keeler and Matt Miller. This activity integrates several of their suggestions. I think it’s a good first step to making my classroom more student-centered and student-friendly.

We’ll introduce course expectations to students on Tuesday and to their parents on Wednesday at Open House. I’m hoping my kids will do some of the PR work for me after Monday’s activity. Either way, by then most of the stress of Back To School will have dissipated.

It’s Year 15 for me. And Year One for me and my students.

Let’s Go.

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Goals

When I was in high school, my buds and I had goals. We wanted to steal enough material from the chem lab to build a still, like Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H.

MASH Still
Makerspace, Korean-War-style. Via mash4077tv.com.

Pretty unrealistic, I know. In those pre-Google days, I’m not sure we even knew exactly what parts we would actually need. But we thought we had a decent shot at emulating Jeff Spicoli and ordering a pizza into class.

That never happened, either. Despite our inability to pull off the wackiness of Hollywood high school kids, senior year was pretty awesome, from a social standpoint at least. I had no idea what I really wanted to do after high school.

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Have I mentioned that we all really wanted to be like Spicoli? (Source).

I was good at math and science, and finally settled in on pre-dentistry. That lasted, like, a semester. Teaching was not even on my radar screen. Safe to say I took an L on my career goals as stated at age 17.

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Image via Project Smart

But in the grown-up world, it’s important to keep in mind goals need to be specific, measurable, and achievable. Day-to-day, year-to-year improvement at teaching is all of those things.


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To everything there is a season. Photo cred: me.

It’s early August. The school year is here. Or soon will be. Happy New Year, BTW.

It’s my 15th year of teaching, my second at my current school. I’ve done this enough times that the basics of the first week are pretty much scripted. And I’m new enough at my school to know I should still be asking plenty of questions.

On the positive, my courses are already set up in Canvas, and since I was a travelling teacher last year (and probably again, at least to start this year), I don’t have a whole lot of “classroom stuff” to set up. I can put about 96% of my efforts into curriculum planning & lesson design.

And thanks to a blogging challenge from my online PLN, a chance to sit down and plan intentionally for the year. To set some goals.

The two major initiatives in my building this year are a move to a 1:1 environment, and de-tracking our math classes. Big changes. Huge. Like, you can’t just roll up to the door on Day One and wing it.

Herman ! I sure could use your help.

  • For 1:1 I’m gonna lean on my PLN. I see Desmos Activities being a much bigger part of my classroom when I don’t have to wrestle a computer cart across the building to use this awesome tool. MyMathlab is the other piece of the puzzle for outside of class, self-paced, self-grading practice.
  • For de-tracking I look to my lean on my department team. They’ve taught Track 2 and Track 3 (where I was last year). They have intimate knowledge of how the two classes might mix, and how we can anticipate our students’ needs. Got a big planning meeting set for next week, but I imagine I’ll be in touch with the ladies on my team on a regular basis throughout the year. I’ve taught mixed-ability classes at a previous school and I’ve got some practices in mind that have seemed to benefit all students. Time to brush up on flexible seating and on-call groups, especially for formative assessment & quick feedback purposes.

For day-to-day lesson design, I’m still wrestling with two pieces. I need to make a call on bellringers & homework.

  • For the last two  years, following the lead of one of my online teacher connects, I’ve used a rotating series of tasks for bellringers. I know that giving my students an opportunity to begin each class with an opportunity to think deeply and critically, with a low barrier for entry, is beneficial. They don’t always see things the same as I do, tho. Several students, used to “sit & get”, wanted to spend less time on estimating or justifying, and more time on practice and note-taking. In a 50-minute class, they may have a point. Part of that is classroom management, and transitioning from task to task. That’s on me. If I dump the MTBoS-inspired bellringers, I am going to use a 3-2-1 or summary exit ticket. One way or another, I’m determined to have brain cells rubbing together in my class.
  • My big leap this year may be homework. We’re talking like Lance Armstrong/Deadman’s Hole-level leap here. It’s a little scary. But more and more I’m wondering if homework is doing what I need it to do for my students. Alice Keeler and Matt Miller have written a book (Ditch That Homework) that outlines the case. I’ve got it on order. For me, the big issue is: Can I give students the opportunity for practice, and the quality feedback they need, and notes, and everything else, in a 50 minute class? I bet the time we use “going over” yesterday’s homework can be re-purposed. And I’m already on board with “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do“.

My mental conflict is: how to balance discovery with practice. Part of that is me accepting alternate ways of students showing their learning. Ain’t but one way to find out. And the case for making the move is pretty solid:

Oh God. Number 4. I hate the fake “let me copy your homework” dance. Infographic via Alice Keeler.

 

From an Xs and Os standpoint, a couple of student support goals that I did haphazardly last year: Videos. Worked-out answer key. Posted to Canvas. Every. Damn. Day. If homework is going to go away, these are two critical pieces for my students, especially those that need additional help. I’m just going to have to carve out the time to make this happen.


 

So that’s it. Goals for the 2017-2018 school year. Last year I was getting my feet wet in a new building. My most trusted advisor, knowing my preference for out-of-the-box tactics and knowing the culture in my new building reminded me to “keep your head down” in year one. I’ve gone to school on myself and my students. In Year Two, it’s time to Rise Up.

What We Learned

14 years, in the books.

As the years go on, the last day of school is always a bit anti-climactic. It is melancholy, for sure. But that’s true everywhere. You might have seen this one floating around a few years ago from up in The Mitten:

Gonna miss my kids, and those moments of awesomeness when a lesson all comes together or they discover something cool and get excited about math. I’m not gonna miss setting my alarm and programming the coffeemaker for the next 10 weeks or so. But the “woohoo” of turning in my keys and walking out the door is gone. Compared to the first few years, it is less an “event” and more a “point in time”.

Either way, it is a moment ripe with opportunities for reflection. Especially now that I’ve just finished my first year at a new school.


 

After school, waiting for my ride, I bumped into my department chair, who is leaving the classroom to go into administration. We had an opportunity for small talk, and he hit the bullseye with the first question:

“So, how did it go here during Year One?”

My stock answer to every who has asked that question since August is: Smooth.

But Nick is a good guy, and deserves more than a stock answer.

“It was good. Pretty much what I expected. Getting used to everything new. Building out a course in Canvas ate up a lot of time, but that will pay off next year and beyond”.

Then: “the department is a powerhouse, man”.

He said: “Yeah, we push each other pretty hard.”

And I said: “Yeah, I felt that. In a good way.”

I ate lunch every day with a group of four other math teachers. I heard them collaborate and troubleshoot on the fly between bites of brown-bag sandwiches. I heard a 25-year veteran asking for help from her subject area teaching partner. I saw a young teacher ask to come in and observe his colleagues in the department. I heard teachers gently push a colleague who could do better.

Everybody’s got everybody’s back. But nobody lets anybody else slack off, either.


So, Mr. Reflective Teacher, what did you learn this year?

  1. City or suburbs, kids are pretty much kids.
  2. They got kids that hate math in the green leafy suburbs too.
  3. If math class is just about math, those kids will hate it intensely.
  4. So, children must play.
  5. Living where you teach and seeing your kids outside of school is cool.
  6. Changing the culture is not a one-day process.
  7. The kids that don’t want to change will fight you for 180 days if they have to.
  8. I’m still more stubborn than they are.
  9. There’s only 30 hours in a day.
  10. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
  11. Having a planning partner is a gift.
  12. Having an hour a week to plan with your team is like finding a little gold nugget.
  13. Having a Lunch Bunch to ask questions/bounce ideas off/talk elections with is imperative to mental health.
  14. Having a copier that staples automatically saved me probably 24 full hours of my life over the course of the year.
  15. Having six classes in four classrooms on two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes meant I got my steps in for sure every day.
  16. I got fat anyway.
  17. We’re going 1:1 next year.
  18. I’m thinking of a million ways my kids can use Web tools to knock down walls, or at least to look at and think about math in a different way.
  19. Like this guy.
  20. I’m also trying to find a way to use MyMathLab to support my students who need extra practice.
  21. I know that makes their laptop a $300 worksheet, at least for that night. Sue me.
  22. Give kids a chance to do incredible things and they will. Or at least they’ll try.
  23. Give kids a chance to jump thru the right hoops and put the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter that will keeps their parents off their back or get them in the right school, and they’ll do that too.
  24. I can retire in 10 years.
  25. I don’t want to.
  26. I won’t be able to, anyway.
  27. Teachers report back to school in 63 days.
  28. I’ll be ready.
  29. But first, sunsets.
  30. This is really, really, really true:
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Image via takepart.com.

Probably.

Mail Call

Live look-in to my class these days:

Apollo’s shoulders sagging as he shakes his head at Rocky’s tenacity is one of the greatest moments in sports cinema.


 

I made my students a promise after Spring Break. Knowing that with three-fourths of the year behind us and the toughest math of the year ahead of us, many students check out mentally, I told them:

“When I start to mail it in, you can start to mail it in. But if I’m here, you’re here.”

Translated: Finish strong. Practically a class motto. But it’s not easy. We’ve got roughly two weeks till finals. Nothing I’ve seen as far as student apathy the last month or so is new to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna keep trying to find ways to make sure learning occurs at the end of the year. Sometimes that means recognizing that my students feel like they’ve been in a 15-round heavyweight bout, and adjusting accordingly.

That Desmos piecewise project seemed like an excellent solution. I definitely plan to incorporate it (and more, cut from the same cloth) next year.  But still, I had only about 60% participation. This on a project I provided class time for, and worked hard to shepherd my students through. I had hoped to scoop up some of the students who are intimidated by a standard-issue pencil & paper quiz, and entice some of my more artistically talented but math-resistant students to stick a toe in the water. And I think there was some of that.

I can live with it. But like The Little Flower, I want it all.

Time now to help get these guys ready for finals.

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GIF via Odyssey (link).

 

Like a racer taking advantage of a tailwind, I’ve been looking for a little boost where I can find it here in the homestretch. I’m going to help chaperone prom, and attend graduation. My students like seeing their teachers there, and I like seeing them happy. I submitted a proposal to present at the South Shore eLearning conference in Hammond in June. And I’m already making a mental  list of things to tackle over the summer to hit the ground running in August.

Sometime soon that should become a real list, or at least a digital one.

So I’ve got my marching orders for the next two weeks, and for the summer. I’ll hand it off to the great Phil Georgeff for the stretch call…

Here they come, spinning out of the turn….

Piece By Piece

Image via giphy.

Last time we talked math in this space, I was trying to figure out a way to squeeze way too much content into the last five weeks of school, while still giving my students a chance to practice the skills and giving me a chance to assess their understanding, all while keeping a tiny sliver of their available brain cells focused on math stuff. Because it’s another fantastically gorgeous early May in The Region.

It's May In The Region
“Road Conditions: Wet”.  No kidding…

This week, I needed a performance assessment idea for Conic Sections. I also need to overlay final exam prep with new material in the finite time remaining before June 2.

And, I want to play with Desmos. Or rather, I want my students to play with Desmos.

Put all those ingredients in a blender, hit “Smoothie”, and you’ve got Piecewise Function Art!

Desmos piecewise staff picks

See everything up there labeled “Conics Project”? This project plan of mine is not a new idea, obviously.  I first came across it when Amy Gruen posted about her pencil/paper project back in the day. My co-teacher and I modified it for our Algebra II course that included several students with IEPs.

And then it sat in my back pocket for years until I changed schools and was assigned to Algebra II again this year.

The #MTBoS Search Engine tells me there are some awesome teachers getting cool stuff from their kids regarding this type of project. Check out Lisa Winer and Jessie Hester, to name two.

So I used their work as a starting point, customized it for my students, made up a packet with some sample art, my expectations for the project and the points scale, annnnnd away we go….

I insisted they did the pencil/paper planning first. I want them to make some fun & cool pics, yeah, but first and foremost I want them to get good at moving between representations of functions, and to get some reps on writing and graphing conics. I gave them two days to roll it around and plan at home, maybe sketch a quick picture or two. Then I planned for a pencil/paper Work Day in class Thursday, with the expectation (slightly unrealistic, it turns out) that they walk into class the next day with a list of equations. Then input equations to Desmos on Friday, with the project submitted via Canvas by the end of class.

Docs here:

Alg II (3) Conics Performance Assessment

Alg II (3) Functions one-pager


The initial reaction was… lukewarm: “Ugh”. “I’m taking the L.” “I can’t do this.”

Come on now. Don’t give up before you even try.

Most of them didn’t pick up a pencil before classtime Thursday, putting them in a hole to start. Fortunately I built in support, posting a Desmos Activity (via Stefan Fritz) to our page for them to play with, so they could see how to fine-tune an equation, and to restrict the domain. But the best progress was made in class on Thursday, when I convened some small groups, answered questions, walked through a couple of quick examples of drawing a graph and working backwards to its function rule, and also showing them how to translate a graph.

Next thing you know…

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Guys, for real. In my least interested class, I had 26 kids engaged, helping each other out, graphing, writing, struggling through the rough spots, cheering for each other and squealing with delight at themselves.

If they aren’t at home right now high-fiving themselves, they should be.

Then Friday, the Big Finish:


OK, in reality, my students needed a lot of support to bring this project in for a landing. A lot of them made a pencil/paper design that was way too ambitious to finish even with two days to work in class. Many were asking questions Friday that they should have brought to me on Wednesday or Thursday. Most got down to business in class on Friday, because it was the due date. But almost no one was remotely close to being done.

There’s two ways to handle that: 1) “Too bad, so sad, I told you guys to get started on Tuesday and you didn’t so now you’re out of time and out of luck. F.”

Or: 2) “Look, I can see you guys are making progress. How many of you are happy with your picture as it is right now? Not many, right? But you’re making good progress and probably could turn in something really fantastic with a little more time? Cool. The due date in Canvas is today, but with a time of midnight. Go home, finish it up, turn it in before you go to bed and we’ll call it good.”

In his autobiography “My American Journey“, General Colin Powell stated often one of his life’s guiding principles: “Never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. Good advice from a great man. I’m in, all the way. Why crush my students’ spirit just when they are hitting their groove with Desmos and putting together the equations for a whole big mess of functions? Math is happening here, people. I’d rather ride that wave, let them finish and give me something they can be proud of.

So, midnight it is. And we all get better, together, at teaching and learning.

Piece by piece.

10 Pounds of Math In A 5 Pound Sack

School Countdown
You can pay for an actual working countdown clock for your site at countingdownto.com.

Real talk? If you ain’t counting, you lying. Yeah, I know. We’re not supposed to be counting.

But we are supposed to be planning. And adjusting when plans go sideways.

Which is how this happened at our Algebra II (Track 3) Late Start Wednesday Meeting:

Here's The Math

Related image
Low-Grade Panic sets in amongst our ragtag band of Alg II teachers. Image via What A Day For A Daydream.

29 days.

1 day for the final exam, preceded by 5 days of review. That leaves 23 instructional days. For 21 sections across 4 chapters which will account for 32 final exam questions.

Yikes. Something’s got to give.

I’ve got a thought about how to fire up a spaceship on 12 amps. So do my math department colleagues.

But you know who else has a thought? My students. And they might be willing to go along with some changes if they have proposed those changes.

So I asked them.

Here’s what they told me:

  • Skip bellringers
  • Skip the Friday Self-Assessment
  • Shorten up the notes
  • Do the practice assignment (“homework”) in class
  • Quick-hitter quizzes over a couple of day’s worth of skills
  • Rinse, repeat

Good Lord. Why don’t you just tell me to teach the class while standing on my head in a corner? Because that would be an easier change to make.

One of my students heard her classmates making these suggestions about cutting back on notes and not taking “homework” home and said under her breath “Oh God, that’s stressing me out”. Guess what, my dear: it’s stressing me out too. Wayyyy too traditional a classroom for my tastes. And for my students’ needs.

Or is it?

If they are telling me what they need right now, and what has worked well for them in previous years with teachers in my building, it’s worth a listen. Using a solid, ancient negotiating tactic, I came to the table with a mental list of concessions I was willing to make. Then I can can lay it on the table at make-or-break time, like it’s something that it absolutely kills me to give up. I love giving my students a chance to engage deeply with math thru Estimation 180, Which One Doesn’t Belong, 101qs, and Would You Rather?, but right now I’ll make the trade for the time and hope that over the last 7 months we built a culture of curiosity and problem-solving in my class that carries over to “traditional” tasks.

Plus, it’s nice to have a little leverage as the temperatures (inside and outside the classroom) warm up. “Hey you guys, you told me if I did x, you would do y. Time to hold up your end of the bargain.”

Now, it’s time to go try to land a 747 on a two-lane road. In a crosswind.

Wish me luck.

Quiz Review: Easy as 1, 2, 3

Dyngus Day
Smigus-Dyngus.

A three-day Easter weekend (Dyngus Day included) is coming up. And of course, before we leave out, we’re due for a quiz. Because I can’t very well send my students away for three days and expect them to come back sharp for assessment, right? Let’s set them up for success, not failure.

And that means Quiz Review. I’ve been trying to keep things fresh all year, rotating in some of my “go-to” activities: Speed Dating, Trashketball, Grudgeball, Four In A Row, Jeopardy, Kahoot.

Gotta mix things up, well, because even the good stuff gets stale after awhile.

I had promised my Little Cherubs™ a game for review on the day before the quiz. Really, really. Pinky-swear.

Yeah, and then life intruded. I spent every minute from 3:30 after my monthly Mentor-Mentee meeting until after (a very late) dinner taking care of Dad Job Description Issues, including my oldest son’s first car accident, my youngest’s middle school talent show, and whipping up a yummy, healthy (not really), budget-friendly meal. So I’m gonna start working on the materials for a game review at 10:30 at night and, yeah, no.

California English
You see, you gotta speak the lingo. Image via whisper.sh.

So I could just give my students a big old Kuta review packet, do some examples, say we reviewed, and then go home and feel shame and remorse for not coming up with something cool. And something with actual educational value. Or:

Provide some structure, teach some study skills applicable across the curriculum, and get some review done, all in a 50 minute class.

Easy as 1, 2, 3.


dcbd381680c07cc8a46a6d7ae62e1b1f_-123-free-clip-art-1-2-3-clipart_6621-3238
Image via img.clipartfest.com

So yeah, I gave them that big old packet. But: instead of “OK kiddies, start working on these problems, I’ll be around to help” (barf), It’s: “Don’t start yet. Look at the section headings, glance at the problem, and rate yourself on that skill. Use this scale”:

1 = I got this. I am confident I can do this problem correctly every time.

2= I need some support. I can probably do this type of problem, but I’ll have to look at my notes, go online for help, or ask a classmate or teacher if I’m on the right track.

3 = I got no clue. I don’t even know where to start. Help me!

Now I set a 5 minute timer and have them try to do as many of the 1’s as they can. (Prove to yourself that you got this).

Knock out the Number 1s (1)

Now reset the timer to 5:00, and have them start on the 2’s. Maybe they find out some of the 2’s are actually 1’s. Or 3’s. But they get in some reps, and get some practice at locating help.

Two minutes to play in the period
Two Minutes To Play In The Period
All about the teamwork (1)
Teamwork make the dream work.

Now: Everybody has done probably 5-8 problems, they’re feeling pretty good. And we’ve only used, max, 15 minutes of classtime.

Now we kick it up a notch: “Everybody stand up. Look at your 3’s. Go find somebody in the classroom who has that type of problem marked as a 1 or 2. Sit together and work out a problem together. Go make a friend.”

Number 3 meets Number 1
Number 3, meet Number 1. I’m gonna let you two kids talk.

We self-assess, we practice, we identify areas that need a little brush-up, and areas that need major attention before the quiz. We get out of our seats, we peer tutor. And we create an understanding that the quiz preparation will continue outside of class.

Not bad for 50 minutes of class. Not bad at all.

It’s the lowest-tech, least gamified review that I do. And: It’s worked in grades 9 through 12, for Algebra 1 Frequent Fliers and for semi-serious Algebra II students.

It’s a keeper.

Neymar goal saved by Ochoa-b

You Suck

Soaking Up The Sun At Sox Park
Only at Sox Park does a Brooklyn Dodgers hat almost start a fight.

Took my oldest son to a White Sox game this weekend, to celebrate his 21st birthday. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and great seats for him to watch his favorite team. I’m a Cubs guy, but I like baseball just in general. And I love my son. So we go to Sox games together. With seats on the third-base side I knew we were sitting in the sun for a day game at Comiskey, so I broke out my Brooklyn Dodgers hat to keep the sun off my head. Can’t be heading back to school on Monday with a sunburned dome, right? A few innings in, walking back from the restroom to my seat, I hear a voice from behind me: “Look at that guy wearing the queer Cubbie blue hat. And the queer Dodger blue hat.”

Really? That’s the best you can do? “Queer?” I mean, aside from being an unacceptable slur, it’s just… lazy.


 

My students. They are passionate, but not always about math. At my previous school their NBA discussions sounded like the barbershop boxing scene (NSFW, obvi) from “Coming To America”.

“Awww, LaBron sucks.” “No, Kobe sucks.”

These are 2 of the top probably 10 best players in the history of the NBA. Which means they are 2 of probably 10 of the best at the game in the history of man walking upright and drawing breath.

But yeah, the guy that’s not your guy “sucks”. OK.

This frustrates me to no end. Make an argument, and back it up. Or: Shut Up. Because you sound stupid.


 

The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years.

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, page eight

The Standards of Mathematical Practice. They are the linchpin of almost everything I’m trying to get done with my students in class. I try to create opportunities for them to persist in problem solving, to model with mathematics, to attend to precision, to reason abstractly and quantitatively, and to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. All sound like important skills, right?

We hit a couple of the SMPs every day with our bellringers. As an example, the Would You Rather task from last Thursday:

Would You Rather Brownies
Image via wouldyourathermath.com. That’s a website put together by John Stevens, co-author of The Classroom Chef.  

Is that a silly question? Sure. Any one could guess A or B. They’d have a 50-50 chance of being right. And that would be a very large waste of instructional time. But the real payoff comes when we get factions of class arguing against each other for their position (Math Fight!). That is an excellent use of our time.

To come up with an answer and justify it, they had to model the remaining portion of brownies (probably with a fraction), calculate what portion of the whole pan would each friend get in each scenario (more fraction operations), and convert to a decimal to compare amounts. A lot of work. A lot of persistence, actually. And right now we’re in that place where all they want is 1) to be told how to do the problem, 2) the homework, and 3) gimme my points. Right now, they want to dump out of the bellringers altogether. They feel it takes too much time away from the lesson presentation. I feel the skills they are building are just as important as the mechanics of working the skills practice, and will help them power through the practice work when they get stuck.

I am very stubborn. The bellringers stay. They are building a problem-solving toolkit that my students will need way after they’ve forgotten my name.

When are my kids gonna have to solve a log equation after high school? Hell, I don’t know. Probably never. But I guarantee you they’re gonna have to take a stand sometime and convince somebody of their position. Or at least not sound like a fool while they try.

Let’s give it a shot, shall we? I’ll help.

Hockey Sticks

Stickers
Yep, that’s frost on the inside of the windows.

When you drive an old car you get used to some rough sounds.

You also get very attuned to new, strange sounds. To the point where you almost don’t need an engine light to know when something’s not right.

So it is when you teach Algebra 1 frequent fliers, or in my current position, Track 3 Algebra II students with “Junioritis“. As my math coach in a previous district once told a room full of algebra teachers: “Your students have been going to school now for what, 11 or 12 years? Don’t fool yourself. They are not going to instantly start liking math all of a sudden just because you are their teacher this year.”

Image result for math student meme


So we started a chapter on exponentials and logs last week. We kicked the whole thing off with a day of graphing exponential functions by making a table of values. How did it go, you ask?

“I didn’t get to the back page because the front page made me cry.”

Yep. Rattle-rattle-thunder-clatter…

How do we fix this? (Hint: The answer is not “Call the Car-X Man.”)

We go Back to Basics:

Opened up class with the odds of a perfect NCAA bracket, graphs included. Because, the first day of the tournament (mid-day games, yo) dominates my students’ attention like little else.

Odds of a Perfect NCAA Bracket, Graphed

Then on to the bellringer – a Would You Rather on the evergreen task: would you rather have (insert giant sum of money) for a month’s work, or would you rather get one penny the first day, two pennies the second day, four cents on the third day, and so forth, with the daily pay rate doubling each day.

Several students lowered their shoulder and did the grunt work, either on calculator or on paper. And the answer became crystal clear. They actually “justified their answer with math”. Serious “light bulb” moments. (“Woah!……..”)

Then we walk through graphing an exponential with a fractional base, from the previous day’s assignment. Once I reminded (and showed) them that a negative exponent means write the reciprocal to the positive power, things fell into place. And hey, wait a minute. The shape of that graph looks very familiar. Like, we’ve seen it before. Maybe, today even…

I Feel Like I've Seen This Graph Before
Mind. Blown.

They still freeze up any time they are asked to graph a function from an x-y table, but I think they left class that day having a little clearer view of the *concept* of an exponential function. For just one day, I’ll take it. Let’s just say I’m guardedly optimistic. We’ll do some review at the end of the week, and a partner quiz on the day before Spring Break.

Not willing to rest on my laurels, next we pave the way for Inverse Functions. With a Desmos Activity borrowed from Jonathan Schoolcraft and tricked out with some Iron Giant themes.

Inverse Function AB Screengrab
Desmos Activity Builder, grab a bat. You’re up.

Moral of the story: it’s my job to stay in tune with my students’ level of understanding, and back them up when it’s needed. Visuals, a chance to play with numbers, and a chance to manipulate graphs definitely helps.

Or I could sit in a corner and mutter H – E – Double – Hockey Sticks. Those are the options.

Existential Crisis

 

Image result for i hate grading meme

After almost 14 years of teaching, I have come to an unpleasant realization:

I hate grading.

As I often tell my kids, “Hate is a very strong word.”

And, as they often tell me, “I know. That’s why I used it.”

But as I plowed through a pile of Algebra II quizzes (operations with rational expressions, if you must know) this past weekend, some things came into sharp focus.

  • 243 minutes a week x  36 weeks = 8748 minutes each class spends with me during a school year.
  • 8748 x 3 = 26244 minutes I will spend teaching math this year.
  • Roughly four hours to grade a set of quizzes. Times probably 20 quizzes in a year. That’s 80 hours x 60 minutes = another 4800 minutes. Throw in plan time and copies and whatnot….

And we probably learned as much math as we would have if we just closed the books and played rock-paper-scissors all year.

I feel like we’re all putting on an ethereal dance of illusion. A Potemkin village of teaching. I hate it, they  hate it, no learning is going on and it is the source of untold amounts of stress and literally three extra weeks of work a year.

There’s a better way, out there somewhere, right?

Right?

I mean, I know there are teachers and classes out there doing incredible things: Desmos stuff and partner quizzes and quiz corrections and standards-based grading and project-based learning and the #MTBoS dumps awesomeness into my brain on the daily. I want it. I want it all. Check that: I want it all, wedged at a 45-degree angle into a (capital-T) traditional school that is about to go 1:1 where students would step over a dead body to get the right grade on a piece of paper.

Seriously cold-blooded (as Gus would say).


 

Something’s gotta change. I’m not sure what tho. I was a psych minor long ago. I know we as humans only change to move towards pleasure or away from pain. A grade of any kind doesn’t move my kids off the mark. In either direction. It’s gotta be something more.

Am I too old to go change the world? Probably. But to change things in my class? I got enough pain to move. Let’s go.

Hold my beer.