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.

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  • 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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One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Homework (Part II)

(Part I here)

“As you will find… there is often a number of solutions to any given problem.”


 

Alice Keeler and Matt Miller propose an alternate solution to the problem of homework. In their book Ditch That Homework, they lay out their reasons for making a change:

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Via Alice Keeler

I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?

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Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:

“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”

My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.


 

I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.

The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.

Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.


 

So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.

One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.

As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.

In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.

I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.


 

Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by Matt Vaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.


 

I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.

Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.

The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.

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The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.

Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book.  Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.

If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.

In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”

Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.

Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?

DOK Infographic
Alice Keeler calls DOK a “Bloom’s Taxonomy for critical thinking.”

The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.

My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.

If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.

In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.

Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.

My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.

This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?


 

So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).

I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.

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I’m sold.

From The Ground Up

What do kids really want their school to be like?

Does that match up with what we offer our kids at school?

Speak Up 2016 Ultimate School Slide
From the “Play Like A Girl” presentation by Dr. Julie Evans. Almost 100,000 Indiana students, parents, teachers, and administrators responded to the “Speak Up” survey.

Dr. Buddy Berry, Superintendent of Eminence Schools in Kentucky, has some thoughts. He calls it the School on F. I. R. E. model. It includes a significant amount of student input:

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From the Eminence Schools “School on F. I. R. E. Framework

His daughter has some ideas too, and presented them to us at the SouthShore e-Learning conference in Hammond.

 

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, obviously. She’s self-taught on a lot of web tools, mostly because her dad gives her the freedom to find and use the tools that help her learn, and express her learning.

That graphic from the Speak Up survey up there? The one that shows what tools kids want in their dream classroom versus what adults think is needed for kids to learn? Brooke and her dad don’t just give that lip service. They live it. On fire, man.

So: What if we could blow the whole thing up and start over? What would that look like?

We can’t rebuild institutional school, but we can change what we do and how we do it within the existing framework. That’s how I’m approaching the coming school year.

My school is going 1:1. We have a unique opportunity to rebuild how we “do school”, what lesson design looks like, how students interact with us, with each other, and with the math.


 

Close your eyes. What do you see and hear when I say “punk rock band”?

The Young Ones
OK, so strictly speaking, not “a band”. Young Ones image via the BBC. RIP Rik.

I don’t imagine too many teachers or administrators will be mistaken for punk rockers. But like Dewey Finn’s kids in School of Rock, we can steal a little bit of the ethos. I’m currently reading Route 19 Revisited by Marcus Gray.  It’s the 500-page backstory of how the Clash made their seminal double-album London Calling.

London Calling
Cover image via theclash.com.

They lived punk. They looked punk. But the sound drew on a variety of influences, including early R&B, blues, rockabilly, reggae, pop, and jazz. And while the stereotypical punk rock song is raw and unsophisticated (“volume, velocity, and aggression”, as Gray puts it), the Clash took its time to craft its masterpiece.

March A Long Way For Glory
Image from Marcus Gray’s “Route 19 Revisited”.

As Gray writes: “The original version of the lyric came first. But the final version of the lyric came last.” The educational equivalent is: “It’s OK to teach 20 years. Just don’t teach the same year 20 times.


 

So: Now’s the shot. A chance to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and build something awesome. This tool and that one, and remake my Algebra II classes. My kids are gonna walk in every single day with a laptop. That device can either be a paperweight, a distraction, or an awesome tool for learning. My option.

The seeds were planted at the School City of Hammond’s inaugural e-Learning Day last June:

“My top takeaway from the day: the different sessions I attended (and facilitated), the tools I got hands-on with, all existed as part of a framework. In reflecting at the end of the day, I realized I had curated my own little Lesson Design seminar. Whether using Docs & Forms for formative assessment, or creating a hyperdoc for a unit review, or creating an activity in Activity Builder, this was all about identifying a learning objective, and then laying out a path for students to follow, and letting them do the work. And the learning. I’m seeing that Google Classroom, Activity Builder, and hyperdocs can be a powerful combination for my classes.”

I’ve been building my toolkit for years. Tweaking and adjusting. Borrowing from Vaudrey and Nowak and Nowak some more and Carter and Meyer (of course).

There’s more though. Jonathan Claydon has some cool stuff he’s doing to leverage tech in his class, and his students are climbing way up the DOK ladder.

Chevin Stone modeled hyperdocs for all of us at Gavit. Just the thing to put all the student learning tools in one place. There are a literal ton of resources online, and a book.

At South Shore e-Learn Katie Bradford shared some cool tools for use of video in lesson design. I see this as an opportunity to go 2:1, pairing students up to annotate a quick video on the skill of the day.

 

I’m already down with Desmos Activity Builder. Now’s a shot to build in some activities where the ROI was way too low for checking out a cart and getting everybody logged in. On-demand tech means Card sort, Polygraphs, and Marbleslides will all debut this year.

The wildcard is MyMathLab. Several of our teachers who have on-demand access to carts have been using this Pearson tool on the daily to create practice exercises and assessments. It’s actually an expectation within the district. I picture it as a way to create extensions and additional practice as a way to differentiate for students. Gonna need some tutorial there though.

So much in my head right now. Image via Giphy.

So that’s a lot of tools to sort through. It’s gotta be done though. The shift to 1:1 can be done well, or done poorly. It’s too great an opportunity to fumble away.

It can’t be just, OK, kiddies, open your computer, here’s the lesson, pencil/paper just like its always been. The laptops will be an afterthought. Forgotten. Left in lockers.

Or worse, I use them as a $300 worksheet.

And it will be an opportunity gone by the wayside. Instead, I’ve got an chance to build on what’s come before, give it my own personal touch through several rounds of revision, and who knows, maybe turn out a masterpiece.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to march a long way for glory….”

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The Family Tree of Rock. Via The Odyssey.

 

Dreams

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Worry Dreams and Day Drinking. Teachers in Summer… (Photo via Tom Rademacher’s “It Won’t Be Easy“)

A couple of the smart people I follow online are in Italy this week, writing/posting about their experiences. And they are stirring up memories for me of chaperoning my youngest son’s church choir trip to Rome last Christmas.

The Umbrian Valley is breathtakingly gorgeous. Views like that stay seared in your brain.

Meanwhile the great Rod Dreher is traveling with his son, who happens to be the same age as my youngest. Italy. So beautiful.

Simple pleasures on the table of a hotel balcony. Via Rod Dreher‘s blog at The American Conservative.

But Dreher tells of meeting an international student who is studying in Siena:

After lunch, we met a foreign student studying at the university here. We told him what a privilege it must be to live in Italy. Yes, he said, it’s a beautiful place, but not the kind of place he would stay once he finishes his degree. Why not? I asked. Because everyday life here is hard. The bureaucracy will grind you down. It takes forever to get things done. Italians find it hard to embrace innovation, and don’t ever want to change, even when change is necessary.

“But that’s attractive to some of us Americans,” I said. “We live in a country where it seems like everything is constantly changing. That stability looks comforting to us.”

“Maybe so,” he said. “I’ve never been to America. I’m telling you, though, that Italy looks different when you live here. As a tourist, you only see the most beautiful parts.”

I’m basically a dark person. I look for that stuff – the Not-Beautiful parts. Rome has roughly the same population as Chicago. Most of the same problems too. I saw the homeless people living in the walkway from the parking garage to the Vatican. The panhandlers on the streets of the city. The multi-faceted security system at the front door of our pensione, which fronted a neighborhood side street. And the tent cities off the side of the highway leading from our neighborhood to the airport.

Right now, hidden from view behind the wine and the pizza and the mountains and the beauty and the people, there are bank bailouts and super-high unemployment and below-replacement-level birth rate.

(Here too, BTW).

But you hold on to the beautiful memories, and keep in mind the troubles, even when it’s time to go back to work. They are the stuff dreams are made of. Like Pete’s dad said, having dreams is what makes life tolerable.

And for teachers, summer is one long Dream World. You have no idea how hard I’ve been sleeping in on weekends these days. But in the immortal words of Midnight Oil, your Dreamworld is just about to end.


 

It’s time to play America’s favorite game show, “Who Said It?”

The line is: “July 4th is my least favorite holiday.”

  • A) Roe Conn
  • B) Mrs. Dull
  • C) King George III
  • D) All Of The Above

The answer, of course, is “D”. But most recently Mrs. Dull uttered those words. Because when the municipal fireworks show Grand Finale has dissipated and the cookout is over and the fire on the beach is put out, it means summer is over. (But but but but… there’s still 5 weeks left, right? Yeah, but from a parent standpoint that’s just 5 weeks of budgets getting busted while mom and dad get clothes and shoes and Clorox wipes and notebooks and pencils ready for back to school).

And for teachers, well, so much for Netflix and naps…. there’s work to do.

I bumped into one of my fellow math teachers after Mass today. I played it cool when we talked summer and planning and textbooks and curriculum maps, but in truth I can already feel the low-grade anxiety setting in.

My to-do list from back in April/May? Yep. Still there, waiting for me to finish catching my breath and doing dad things in the first half of summer break. We got that big bike ride in, yeah, and are tearing a wide swath through the local library, and I almost convinced him to try to learn Kashmir on his violin, but it’s not like I have bright shiny new unit plans all set to go. I really only need to tweak last year’s plans in Canvas, but…

Time to start thinking about August.

There should be a plan tho, shouldn’t there? Yeah. I think I’m more likely to get stuff done if I plan it on paper, on purpose. Maybe make an actual schedule, like a daily planner, day by day, hour by hour. Plan intentionally.

One of my college buddies (and Saturday night radio show co-host) was my model here. Jack made a weekly grid on graph paper, using a pencil, a ruler,  and some highlighters. He blocked out the time for his classes, studying, meals, sleep, social/entertainment time, tacked it up on the corkboard above his dorm-room desk… and stuck to it.

He’s a better man than I am.

The 21st Century version:

That’s cool and all, but definitely for printing out. Can we get Googlely with it? I think so. (Courtesy Richard Byrne).

So that’s my plan. Make a calendar, share it with my youngest. Block out time for reading, for biking, for his summer violin practice, meals, play time, sleep. Share it with him so he has editing rights. Then, let’s get some summer stuff done so when August 10 rolls around we don’t look at each other and say “awww, man, where’d our summer go?”

As my running friends like to say when wrapping up marathon training and beginning a taper, “The hay is in the barn. Now all that’s left to do is run your race.” Because the dreams are so much more pleasant when you’ve taken care of business.

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

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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.

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.”

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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.

One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Textbook – The Takeaway

(Retroactively VHS Math Department Book Clubbing my way through “Ditch That Textbook”. Intro here. Part 1 here.)

It’s the time of summer when a low-grade anxiety starts to settle in. Bit more serious than “awareness”, not quite a “panic”. But: The New School Year Is Coming. There’s always a ton to do, and the Rational Me reminds myself that everything that needs to get done always gets done. But right now I feel like Adam Richman staring at a 6-pound burger with a timer set to 60:00.

When your eyes are bigger than your stomach. Image via http://www.gstatic.com/tv/thumb/tvbanners/192792/p192792_b_v8_bf.jpg

 

Right now I’m processing Matt Miller‘s “Ditch That Textbook“. There’s a lot in there, people. Don’t believe me? Stop by the #ditchbook chat at 9 pm Central Time some Thursday sometime. And watch the awesomeness overtop the dam. Best thing about that chat is real teachers who have really made the leap share out how this works in their classrooms. I end up blown away any week I spend time lurking there.

Now having read the book, I’m reflecting on my main takeaways. My Top 3 (really 3.5) are Chapters 28, 29, and 30, with a nod to Ch. 32. “Jump In And Try”, “Don’t Use It All”, “Make It”. I think these three chapter titles pretty well sum up my journey as a teacher the last 7 years or so. And I’m definitely down with “Make It Visual”.

When I first started trying to Find A Better Way, I wasn’t on Twitter. I barely knew what Twitter was. I had found a handful of really useful teacher blogs, and I was sold on Will Richardson‘s book “Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools For Classrooms“. Having learned just enough to become dangerous, I jumped in to give it a try. I started a wiki for my students. I used Dan Meyer’s “What Can You Do With This” (#WCYDWT) concept, starting with The Slow Forty, and eventually made his Three-Act Math a regular feature of my classes. I used Standards-Based Grading for a couple of years, and learned that selling students on the chance to learn, re-take, and improve their grade (rather than just copying homework, failing a quiz, and hoping for the best) was a challenge. I dumped out of that one after a couple of years, but kept the concept of a list of “alternate assignments” that my students could use any time to make up missing work or to improve a low test grade. Meyer and another brilliant math blogger, Kate Nowak,  shared out so many of the classroom activities that they created, that I stared to feel like I could make my own openers and activities as well. Like the time we tried Mythbusters: Kobe Jumps Over A Speeding Car.

Not sure we did any actual math in that one, although we did some research on height of the car, Kobe’s vertical leap, tried to estimate the speed of the car, tried to graph the speed vs. time of the car and height vs. time of Kobe, and used a little common sense. As in, “would the Lakers really let their superstar stand in front of a speeding car?”

It was ugly and messy, and kinda cool. And made me (and my students) hungry for more.


So, if I were in charge of running a department book club on “Ditch That Textbook”, my next-to-last session would be a huge brain dump on the Conclusion chapter, featuring Five Questions based on the DITCH acronym. (The last session would be a department-wide brainstorm/make/share day. But that’s another post, for another day.)

So, the Five Questions:

How is your instruction different than that in other classrooms? How is it the same? In what areas would you like to see change?

I think in my classroom, we’ve turned “I Do, We Do, You Do” on its head, following the lead of Kate Nowak, and others.

In keeping with the “Make It” ethos of Ditch That Textbook, I stared creating my own discovery-based openers that we used to introduce a concept. Then after the students had teased it out, we could go on to formal notes to fill in the holes, and some skills practice. How is my class the same? Well, despite all this, we still do quite a bit of whole-class instruction, and problem sets from the book or worksheets. I think that’s the thing – as excited as I am about infusing tech and building in opportunities for discovery, I still need to give my students opportunities to practice the skills. Hell, Derrick Rose was taking 1000 jumpers a day the summer before he won the MVP. I’m looking to strike the right balance.

 

What grabs your attention outside of education? What do you think grabs your students’ attention? How can you incorporate those things into your classroom? What are some ways you’ve seen other teachers innovate?

That last question could be a whole ‘nother post too. But anyway: One thing that has been on my mind for a while is advanced metrics in baseball. These are the stats that go past the standard BA, RBI, ERA, W-L to tell the real story of player performance. If you’ve seen Moneyball, you know what I’m talking about. I wish there was a branch of sabermetrics that applied to economics. Something that would cut through the unemployment rate/DJIA/”jobs created” fog to tell us what’s really going on. Because once the curtain is pulled back, whether it be Wins Above Replacement, or real unemployment rate, it’s hard to look at things the same way again.

A couple summers ago I read Big Data Baseball, which told the tale of the small-market Pittsburgh Pirates, a once-proud franchise on a 20-year streak of futility. The mindtrust, which included front-office staff, the manager, his coaches, and the scouts, all agreed on a new way of maximizing success by identifying player traits which translated directly to wins, then finding otherwise overlooked players who had those traits. As an example, they signed a mostly mediocre (by traditional metrics) catcher who was outstanding at catching borderline pitches in such a way that the home plate umpire saw them as strikes. More (unhittable) strikes equals more outs, equals less opportunities for opponents to score runs, equals more wins. See?  The team also went all-in on examining opposing hitters’ tendencies, and began to shift their defensive players out of their usual places on the field, to places where opponents were more likely to hit the ball. Brilliant. Using data to set players up for success. Now if there was only a way to translate that philosophy to the classroom…

Three infielders on the right side of second base. Because that’s where this particular batter tends to hit. Image via http://www.piratesprospects.com

For my students, right now (and this will change probably by the time school starts), OMG is Pokemon Go! huge. A gold mine, really. Take familiar characters, a hunt, real-life locations, and put it all in their phone, and Boom! Instant sensation.

How are other teachers around me innovating? I don’t think anybody is hunting cartoon monsters, but some of the real good ones I know have their students thinking about solving real-life problems:

I guarantee you Chevin will have a kick-ass Flint lesson put together by the time school starts. My #elearnschk12 people already know that, though. She’s got a gift for seeking out new tools, recognizing how she can use them, and then getting those tools into her students’ hands. And then watching the magic happen.

It’s not exactly finding Pikachu, but the lessons I saw in Ms. Stone’s class, built around hyperdocs, had her students engaged and learning right from the jump. I’ve spent a bit of time this summer thinking about lesson design, and Google Classroom, and hyperdocs, and how they will all fit together for my kids this year.

 

How has technology improved your life? How can that translate to the classroom? What’s a classroom practice or procedure that could be rejuvenated with an infusion of tech?

My biggest benefits from using tech in my life are connecting, and organizing. That group of math bloggers that I started to follow and borrow from back all those years ago? Almost all those guys and ladies tweet now, and almost all still share. When it was my turn to put together a presentation to help the teachers in my building learn Google Drive, I turned to Matt Miller and Matt Vaudrey for help via twitter. And they came through.

In addition, the portability and sharability of information via GAFE (Google Apps For Education) tools has made planning and sharing my work quite a bit easier. I can create a doc at school, open the same doc at home, or from anywhere via my phone. Shoot, I made a doc of recipes and household instructions for my family while I was on vacation this summer, and updated it from my phone while looking out over the Las Vegas Strip from my hotel room. Cool, huh? And the Google calendar (mostly) keeps me from forgetting appointments.

So now combine the goodness of the Goog with the need to quickly distribute materials to students, to get them to the same web site or video at more or less the same time, or to seamlessly get absent students and their missing work together. That sounds like a job for Google Classroom to me. Or as Miller would call it in Chapter 23, “A Place For Your Stuff”.

 

What types of products do you and/or your students consume a lot? How can the role of consumer be flipped to creator? How do you or your students demonstrate original ideas?

The obvious answer here is videos. Teachers are always looking for videos to help explain or illustrate a concept. Youtube is overflowing with math help videos. When my students aren’t curating a playlist of their favorite rap videos they are searching for the fight that happened after school or in the cafeteria. So maybe my students are already “creating” content, just not in a school-appropriate way.

Could they create videos to explain how to use a math concept? You bet! Here’s an example from a class at Hammond High School, done Common Craft-style:

Among the alternate assignments I offered my students this past year was to make a video of themselves explaining the math we did to somebody else. Like such:

 

What’s an area of teaching that’s become bland or lost its luster? How could your students use technology, objects, conversation, etc. to re-engage in that area?

As Matt says, it doesn’t always have to be about the technology. Many of the teachers I follow get great results (and increased engagement) by getting students talking to each other, talking about math, making guesses, arguing about each other’s answers. Three-Act Math is great for this. And a good supply of whiteboards (personal and desk-sized for group work) can bring a class to life.


One of the most valuable chapters in Ditch That Textbook is Chapter 34, “Establish Your Philosophy”. In it he asks “what kind of teacher do you want to be?” It’s worth the time to examine yourself and answer that question.

What kind of teacher do you want to be?

Many of my first class of PLTW students stayed with me for two years, through IED & POE. We got to know each other pretty well. They knew I was interested in finding answers to questions that troubled me, and had no problem admitting when I didn’t know something. As a result, they felt pretty comfortable experimenting with new approaches to problem-solving in those classes. They did some really cool stuff, things they probably would not have done if they were just following a set of steps in an assignment.

Those kids still send me funny engineering/learning-related stuff on Facebook.

Other students tag me in updates on their post-high school successes, or when they recall a silly moment in class. Or when they use something they learned from me a few years down the line.

(No, really. It happens).

I want to be that teacher. Guess I should keep Ditching That Textbook…

Playing Catch-Up

The thought has been bouncing around my head all summer. A prayer. Or a toast, if you will. To all my teacher colleagues who will be starting new jobs in five weeks or so. First-year or veteran.

“May you always be the teacher your interviewer thinks you are.”

Students are a little less likely to give unconditional love than puppies are. Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/45/df/4b/45df4b01c55b4c8774b5abedc25eeb1e.jpg

We obviously present our best front at the interview. Our real self, but our best self. Ideally, when school starts, with 30 happy smiling faces sitting in front of us, that real self connects. Theory matches practice.

My own thought is: Culture Matters, In the classroom and in the building.

I’m making a move this year. Starting at a new school, in the town where I live. I already have a couple dozen parents in my circle of people asking me to watch out for their kids. Kids who may or not be among the 180 of mine, out of 2100 or so in the building. No pressure, right kid? I’ll do my best.

But I’m also balancing letting my personality (teaching and otherwise) show. I’m an introvert in real life, so of course I pick a profession where I put on 900 performances a year. Fridays especially are a little wacky. And that won’t change. But my most trusted advisor gave me good guidance this summer: Take a minute. Don’t come in with both barrels blazing. Lay low. Learn the culture first.

“Try and keep up, OK?”


One of my favorite moments in the interview came when an assistant superintendent asked me, “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” Meaning: Are you getting kids hands-on opportunities to learn, or just lecturing and handing out worksheets? I was able to show him how the concepts I’ve learned from my online PLN have influenced my teaching. How my lessons have evolved through a better understanding of desired student outcomes, and the addition of some pretty cool tech. I’m pretty much #MTBoS all-in.

A big Interview Pay-off Moment came when I mentioned using Desmos, the fantastic online graphing calculator. My new department chair’s ears perked up. I took that as a good sign. All of a sudden, I started to feel like my teaching style would be a good fit for the culture of the building. It’s a Four-Star school that excels at serving a college-bound population of motivated students. But more and more the administration is seeking ways to serve the kids who don’t fit in that narrow band of kids who play the game of school well.

Early in the summer, I had a twitter convo with my new department chair, regarding the text for my class and available supplemental materials. Teachers have got plenty of leeway to use whatever materials and activities they see fit, if it serves teaching and learning. And that includes pulling sections from other course texts offered by the same publisher. I told him that’s great, because I’m all about ditching the textbook.

The phrasing was partly intentional, but definitely struck a chord. He replied that the department had read Matt Miller‘s book Ditch That Textbook as a group last year.

Hashtag: No Coincidences

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for a while, I’m fully bought-in to the concepts. Even implemented a few into my work. In a lot of places, that would make me a unicorn. Maybe even at my new school a few years ago, I would have been an outlier. But guess what? Now it’s SOP.

Welcome to The Show.

Thing is, I haven’t read the book yet. I’m already behind my new colleagues. That will never do.

Cool thing though: that personalized learning thing that we keep saying we want to offer our students? It goes for teachers too. Learn what you want, when you want, from anybody, any time. Hell, twitter is one giant on-demand personalized PD for me. So guess what. I’m about to join my department’s book club, from a distance.

Asymmetrical learning, people. Asymmetrical learning. I bought the book, started to tear in as soon as I opened the Amazon envelope on Sunday. I emailed my department chair to see if he had a google doc or written reflection questions from the department book chat that he could share to help me frame my thinking as I work my way through.

Call it my One-Man Book Club. Gonna do some thinking out loud in this space as well. Just what the doctor ordered to get me caught up.

And hey, if you want to join in…..

No time like now to get better.

 

 

 

The “e” is for Epic

I’m not gonna lie to you. I love having summers off. As a practical matter, I get to be Activities Director for my very own (Membership: 2) Boys Club of Northwest Indiana. But the opportunity to recharge is awesome. Yes, I plan for the upcoming year. Yes, I reflect on what didn’t work, what did, and what I’d like to change for the upcoming school year. And yes, I attend conferences and/or trainings.

But even for teachers whose summers are packed, that first week off is sacrosanct. Just 7 days to exhale, shake off the weight of 900 performances, and maybe watch a sunset somewhere.

13403091_10209263980494769_9018513402481010939_o
“And this concludes our broadcast day…” Photo credit: Mrs. Dull.

So how did 370 teachers and administrators end up in a high school auditorium at 8:00 in the blessed am on the Monday of the first full week of summer break?

The School City of Hammond offered its first eLearning Day on June 6th. To me, it’s been a long time coming. As one of our assistant superintendents pointed out, in the SCH we’ve got the numbers, but more importantly, we’ve got the talent. The bulk of the presentations came from among the 1000 men and women who teach in the city of Hammond. And oh my goodness. Superior Firepower from the neck up, people.

iron-man
Also, cool tools. Image via source.superherostuff.com.

Seriously, anyone still mocking urban teachers is gonna have to fight me. You give me any 100 teachers and 3 administrators from that room, let’s start a school, and sit back and watch the magic happen. I’d put this group up against anybody.

Real teachers, sharing real things that really work. Also, sponsors picked up the tab for everything. Whole day was freebie. What’s not to like?

Kristin Ziemke opened the conference with a keynote presentation that set the tone for the day. I was able to reference her talk a couple of times in my own presentation. Her journey from self-proclaimed “Digital Disaster” to a teacher who uses tech as a tool for her elementary school students to show their learning in a variety of ways had teachers ready to open school back up, like, tomorrow.

I found myself nodding as she spoke of “Mini Lessons I Didn’t Know I Needed To Teach” (been there), and stated that “When we invite kids to make something, that is the best representation of what they know and can do today.”

And on a day devoted to tech learning, a guardrail:

In other words, don’t feel like you have to use a million new things. Figure out your go-to tools, then get them in your kids’ hands as often as possible and let them play around. Awesomeness ensues.

I presented on the Desmos Activity Builder, a tool for math teachers to build custom lessons using the power of the Desmos online calculator. Slides are here if you are interested.

I also attended sessions by Chevin Stone on creating formative assessments using GAFE tools, and Katie Bradford on creating and using hyperdocs, which is my main personal learning goal for the summer. Both ladies know their stuff. On a day filled with options, I chose well.

My top takeaway from the day: the different sessions I attended (and facilitated), the tools I got hands-on with, all existed as part of a framework. In reflecting at the end of the day, I realized I had curated my own little Lesson Design seminar. Whether using Docs & Forms for formative assessment, or creating a hyperdoc for a unit review, or creating an activity in Activity Builder, this was all about identifying a learning objective, and then laying out a path for students to follow, and letting them do the work. And the learning. I’m seeing that Google Classroom, Activity Builder, and hyperdocs can be a powerful combination for my classes. I definitely have a picture in mind for organizing my plans in the fall. It’s a fuzzy picture right now, floating around a bit unformed in my head. But it’s there.

That alone was worth 8 hours of my time on a fabulous June day.

But the bigger takeaway? You know that line about where the needs of the world and your passion meet? That was The School City of Hammond’s inaugural eLearning Day.

Thanks, SCH people. Let’s do this again next year. Even if you have to grandfather me in. And invite the rest of the state, shall we?

Transitions

Ten years ago I sat in a room with with five other teachers as we prepared to launch our Freshman Academy. It was my fourth year of teaching so I knew how to start a school year, but I also knew enough to be nervous on the day before kids arrived. But this was a completely different kind of nervous.

We had no idea what we were doing. We all had our content area down, but for the “Transitions” class itself there was no curriculum. We had big plans for how we were going to ease the transition for our 8th graders to make the move to our side of the building and enter high school.  We knew they needed support. Our principal at the time recognized that freshmen could benefit from the same sort of team approach that had been successful at the middle school level. But as far as day-to-day plans? We were literally making it up as we went along. Planning a week at a time in our lunchtime team meetings. And two days later, I’d walk down the hallway to see one of our English teachers and ask, “What are we doing today?”

Her response?

giphy
LOL IDK. Image via giphy.com.

It’s kinda funny in retrospect, but, damn. That’s a bad way to fly. But, we’re pros, we figured it out. Most of those kids did OK. I see many of them on Facebook. They have jobs and families and lives and everything.  The next year we used a canned freshman curriculum and it turns out that we had a pretty good handle on the kind of support we should be giving 9th graders – study skills, homework help sessions, financial literacy, motivation, a consistent team of teachers. It all worked out.

That incarnation of the Freshman Academy is history, although the concept still exists as a way to provide support for our most at-risk students. Despite the changes, the nature of a 6-12 building has built-in advantages. The transition from 8th grade to high school is eased a bit because newly minted freshmen don’t have to go far to track down their favorite teachers from years gone by. My Tech Team lead Chevin Stone paints a beautiful picture here. Au revoir but not adieu….

You know what 15 year-olds (and 16-year-olds, and 17-year-olds, and…) are really bad at? The transition from lunch to hallway to class. I get that the cafeteria noise level is roughly equivalent to a jet taking off at O’Hare. High school hallways are loud just in general. But why does it take 5 minutes to get settled in to a class and get started?

It’s kind of like:

I’m making a transition too. Friday was my last day. I spent an afternoon packing 13 years of teacher stuff, some of which had traveled 1800 miles in the deal, loaded up my car, and said my goodbyes. It was hard, man. You know what Nelson Algren said about Chicago, right?

“Once you’ve become a part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.”

It’s like that with me and Gavit.

Gavit Aftershow
“You may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real” Photo credit: me.

I’m terrible at tearful goodbyes, but we all got plenty of practice this week.

I wasn’t looking to make a move. I’ve said for years the School City of Hammond is pretty much the family business. But an opportunity kind of fell in my lap, the kind it’s worth picking up the phone and asking the question. I’m going to a new district, to help with a relaunch of Project Lead The Way. Math too. Going to teach where I live. Literally could ride my bike to work in less time than it took to drive to my old job. Different clientele, both kids and adults. Four Star school. Green leafy suburb.

I’m an urban teacher, but as I said in the interview, “this is how I teach, doesn’t matter if it’s Hammond or here or on the moon.” I wish I could tell you that “how I teach” carried with it great results. That all my algebra 1 repeat students suddenly fell in love with math and school and passed the ECA and my class and my world was filled rainbows and unicorns.

Nope.

Well, maybe except for the rainbow part:

"You are a wonderful human being and this world could use a few more of you."
“You are a wonderful human being and this world could use a few more of you.”

It’s awful dusty in here all of a sudden. I told those guys pretty much daily that I love them. They were killing me, but I loved them. Not sure how many of them believed it. But: it’s true.

Got a nice sendoff from my teacher friends as well. It was a little like having a funeral while still alive to appreciate everyone. I’m leaving behind an incredible group of smart, tough, hard-working, fun-loving teachers, administrators, and staff. Our students are lucky to have them. When they talk, I listen. One thing I noticed though: Nobody told me “good luck”. They all said it was a perfect fit for me, they’d miss me, but that I was ready for what’s next.

And as tough as I am on myself, you know what? They’re right.

Challenge Accepted.