One-Man Book Club: Teach Like A Pirate

“Are we ready to start full speed?” Dave Burgess keynoting Day One of the South Shore e-Learning conference in Hammond, IN, June 6, 2018.

Yeah, I know. 2012 was a long time ago. Doing a One-Man Book Club post on Teach Like A Pirate is like live-tweeting an episode of The Office I’m watching on Netflix. But it’s what I’m reading right now and the thoughts are spilling out of my head onto my screen, and for many of my colleagues at the South Shore e-Learning Conference it was their first exposure to this loud, crazy SoCal guy. I wanted to watch the show through their prism, and the experience stirred up some memories.

Dave Burgess keynoted a conference I presented at last week. Leading up to the two-day event I went to the library and got his book. Even though I’d seen him outline his TLAP philosophy with Matt Miller on the 2016 Virtual Summit, I was pretty psyched to get the In-Person experience. I still wanted to read the words in black and white.

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Image via Goodreads.

(Burgess runs at like 7000 rpm. My laid-back Vegas kids used to tell me I talked too fast. If they were in a room trying to listen to the Teach Like A Pirate keynote their heads would have exploded. Having read the book was like having built-in subtitles for the presentation. 10/10 would recommend.)


 

I just finished my 15th year of teaching. I was a pretty by-the-book guy at the beginning. Things have changed since those early years, thanks in part to a lot of reading, a lot of connecting, a lot of trial-and-error. And error. And error. Let’s just say I’ve been trying to get better for a while. Reading Teach Like A Pirate, my mind snapped. I recalled a long-ago online conversation I had with Matt Vaudrey, co-author of Classroom Chef.

If you’ve read the book or seen the TLAP preso, you know what started my reverie. The Six Words.

TLAP 2

“It’s Easy For You. You’re Creative.”

TLAP 3

I remember struggling with classes that weren’t buying what I was selling. I remember spending prep time and after-school time searching for activities and lessons that would get my students’ attention. I remember being amazed at what my fellow math teachers were rolling out to their students. Everything I found online was brilliant and clever and creative. I remember thinking, “there’s no way I could come up with stuff like that on my own.” I remember falling flat on my face many a time.

But I remember having success just often enough to keep trying. Which is good, because as one of my favorite UNLV professors used to say, teaching is like being a performer. And you have to nail 900 shows a year.

All these years down the line I should point out, she never told us how tough the audience would be for those 900 shows. Or that they’d be able to tune us out with a tiny little computer they’d all carry in their pockets.

As Burgess says: “Would your kids be there if they didn’t have to be? Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets to?” I felt like I had to work harder than anyone else because before I could teach my kids anything, I needed to make them want to show up for my class. I used to tell them, “someday I’ll be that old, bitter teacher who hands out a worksheet then goes to read the paper with my feet up on my desk. But today ain’t gonna be that day.”


 

 

 

I’m not a pirate. Not a good one, anyway. But I’m down with Lesson Design. Which, it turns out, once you get past the bandanna and earring, and the grilling analogies, is what “Teaching Like A Pirate” is all about. Intentional lesson design, every time.

I’ve got a certificate on my classroom wall from ETS. It’s a Certificate of Excellence for my score on the Math Praxis exam. Me and a couple of my UNLV classmates studied hard for that test. The semester of student teaching we met three times a week after school at a coffeeshop/bookstore near where we all taught in Vegas to work through problems from the study guide. But the State of Nevada also requires a passing score on the Pedagogy test for licensing. Ugh. That one is not as easy. My idea of lesson planning as a pre-service teacher was limited to:

  1. Check the section in the textbook
  2. Select example problems
  3. Select guided practice problems
  4. Select homework problems
  5. Rinse, repeat

That’s all. And on the Praxis or in the classroom, it wasn’t good enough.

I eventually stumbled across Dan Meyer and the greater MTBoS and started to get an idea of teaching with the end in mind. It’s a concept that Bill Hanlon of the Southern Nevada RPDP introduced to us. It was a unit design tactic he called BAM, but it applied equally to lesson design. Later on I was exposed to Desmos, and then Hyperdocs. All tools for designing lessons from the ground up, thinking deeply about what questions to ask, what I wanted my students to ponder, what tools and resources they would need.

I’ve claimed as a class motto for years, “You want better answers? Ask better questions.” Turns out I have common ground with Burgess there too.

TLAP 4

Then Burgess goes on to include a section with literally hundreds of questions a teacher can ask when planning a lesson, questions that can spark creativity and create hooks to student engagement. Pretty much everyone I know can take two or three or six of these questions and create something incredible in their classroom. Without a single trip to Goodwill.


 

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It turns out that once you get past the pirate persona there is a seriously good teacher who is passionate about not just punching a clock, but in creating learning experiences for his students. And Teach Like A Pirate makes clear that there is no secret sauce, except for a willingness to take chances, to accept failure as part of learning, and to recognize that nothing great comes easy.

TLAP 1

I don’t know about greatness. I’m still trying, still learning. I doubt I’ll ever have a “guest speaker”. But we sing and dance a lot in my classes, get up and move around. Use visual hooks. Stick crazy memes and GIFs in my slide deck. Try new things. Shift on the fly when it’s called for.

Maybe I’m not such a bad pirate after all.

Leyahs Card

 

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My Summer Vacation

Fight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Via Tenor

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

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

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


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Source

Specifically, I have several questions:

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

 

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

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

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

Because my summer vacation is here.

Buying The Groceries

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

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

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

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

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I’m a Stuck-In-The-80s loser. Sue me.

 

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

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


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

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

Maybe with a Desmos activity?

Yeah, let’s do that.

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

My 2nd hour wasn’t having it:

 

 

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


 

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

Desmos Trig 1

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

 

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

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

Desmos Trig 3

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

Desmos Trig 4

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

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

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

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Hey, I recognize that guy…

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


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

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

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

Bobby Flay
Image via Food Network

Every Damn Day

Detrained

That tweet up at the top is from a former Illinois Teacher of The Year, presenter, and all-around good guy who has an active six-year run streak. The image below is my running log for this year. He ran almost as far today as I have all year.

I’ve got six marathons under my belt, 9 half marathons, which I guess would have qualified me as a semi-serious runner at some point. The kind of guy who was up at 4:00 am on school days to train. Not no more tho.

To say my fitness and nutrition have taken a nosedive would be an understatement. Too much of the good things in life. Looking at you, Greenbush and Home Run Inn.

It’s so easy to fall out of a good habit. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. There is a season for everything, and moderation is a key in life. Plus I’m older, and slower. Circle of life, and all. But standing on the scale these days, the Steve-O-Meter is heading in the wrong direction. Maybe just a salad tonight…


Speaking of seasons, this is the Season Of Checking Things Off The List. Not big things, just tedious, day-by-day things. Things that have deadlines.

  • Submitting evidence for my teacher evaluation ( I actually provide links to this blog for some of the domains, so that part is relatively easy)
  • Gathing proof of residence and shot records and such  for my youngest son’s enrollment in high school
  • Some documentation I haven’t needed in a while for my 1099 work so I can file taxes
  • Submitting proposals to present at two Summer of e-Learning conferences this summer

Trying to do those things all at once = bad times.

 

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Via giphy

 

It’s got to be a daily commitment. In truth, I should go to school on myself. Every quarter I make two copies of my gradebook printout, one for my records, and one that is part of the required paperwork to turn in at end-of-year checkout. It beats trying to remotely print a million pages on a day everyone is trying to get their stuff done and get out.

I wonder if there are other things that I could be doing “as I go”?

(Narrator voice: Yes, there are.)


Everyone has their “tell” for stress. I’m reading Relentless Pursuit again, if you are curious about how things have been going in my little world as of late. In the book, part of the evaluation process for the freshly-minted teachers in Watts is summed up in a Teach For America document: Teaching As Leadership Framework (One Pager)

It outlines the day-to-day actions, and long-term planning that TFA research has indicated leads to “meaningful impact on a student’s academic trajectory”. Nothing in there is proprietary. I think most teachers in examining their own district’s evaluation tool would recognize most of the same tactics. So, even though I’m not a TFA teacher, I’ve had that printout behind my desk for years.


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Bad habits don’t develop overnight, and good habits need reps to take hold as well. We tell our students that on the daily, right? So maybe the thing to do is to make one positive action toward rebuilding those good habits daily. I’ve committed to getting out to run three times over spring break. And I planned out my entire 4th quarter before I left teh building on the Friday before Spring Break. (Doc here: Term Planning Grid). That’s a good start.

So it’s Holy Week and Dyngus Day and then most of a quarter left to go, including all our snow make-up days. Only days off for the rest of the year are Election Day and Memorial Day.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I gotta train like it. Lace up the Supernovas and get out there. Every Damn Day.

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College of Arts and Sciences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So I called an audible.

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

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

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

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.

 

The Doldrums

Current status:

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

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

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Image via The Goog.

 

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

Wise people have suggested a makeover of the school calendar:

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

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

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


 

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

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

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Stock photo via Pexels.

 

 

 

Snow Day

Then…

And now..

E-Learning Day email

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

And I’m off to a flying start, natch:

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

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


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Image via Divine Office

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Now, where is that online book again?

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Via gifimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hello, 2018!

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

Hello, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not that cool.

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

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


spring break party GIF
Image via Giphy

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

I responded:

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

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Image via Tenor

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

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

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

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

Divide and Conquer, baby. Divide and conquer.

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

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

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

Image via Women In Product

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

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

Melancholy Christmas

 

If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.

 

1, 2, Trend

Second quarter is underway. Quadratics are here, in all their parabolic glory. In Algebra I, the quadratic unit was pretty much the culmination of the year. In Algebra II, it’s the end of a quickie nine-week refresher course.

And based on what I see and hear when we start talking “axis of symmetry” and “zeroes of a function”, I have to assume Algebra 1 never happened.  Agent J, do your thing:

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“I don’t get this. Any of it.”

I’ve had to reteach foundational skills in every chapter thus far this year. We literally start at Level Zero with everything.

My kids are good kids, just… math is not a priority to (most of) them. That’s cool. Let’s build in some support then. We can’t just plow thru the sections, throw a day of review at them and give a quiz, then move on. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Multi-day review is now the new normal. One, Two, Three days… whatever it takes.

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GIF Via tenor.com

This time around we started with a set of review problems, split between standard form, vertex form, and intercept form. Students group up, bounce ideas off each other, peer-tutor and correct, all while I circulate and help my students who are most in need of a push to get started. Worked-out answer key is on Canvas so students can check their work, even outside of classtime.

Then the next day: Two Truths And A Lie. Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. Sarah Carter and Jon Orr are amongst those who wrote about it. And after this day, I can see why:

 

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Massive amounts of thinking and collaborating and getting up and moving around and proving. Awesome. Here’s the document I put together for the students to use (pdf):  Two Truths And A Lie Template.

Day Three it’s Marbleslides. Happens to be a Friday, which is perfect. Because Children Must Play™️.

Yeah, there were kids actually cheering in my class today when they collected gold stars. Thanks, Desmos.

By the way, Marbleslides is designed for a 2:1 environment. Matt Vaudrey is among many who are very large proponents of pairing students up on one device for purposes of fostering student conversation and collaboration. I made sure to include “talk it over with your partner, make a plan, draw a ramp with your finger, before you start randomly changing numbers” in my directions on every screen. I think it helped.

Then a performance assessment (Graphing Quadratics Three Ways Miniposter Project) for graphing parabolas next week. They are making a Green Sheet for notes. I sent home a reminder through Canvas including a photo of the skills they should be able to display:

Green Sheet 5.1 - 5.2

Maybe there’s a better name than “review”. “Practice” maybe? Or “extension”? Right now I feel like I’m gonna just call it “teaching” and leave it at that. Because we can’t just leave them there….

I know I’m falling off the pace, a luxury I won’t have next year when we de-track Algebra II. But for now, it’s doing what we have to do for the kids to get what they need to get.

So trendy. That’s a bandwagon I’ll gladly jump onboard.