Desmos Art 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed
Via Tenor

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

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

 

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

showtime


 

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

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

 

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


 

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

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

 

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

Desmos Student Comment
Yeah….

My big takeaways:

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

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

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When The River Runs Dry

Donna And Buzz
Conceived Without Sin, Bud MacFarlane Jr., St. Jude Media.

“… he with blind faith, feeling nothing; she with visionary faith, feeling everything.”

For me it’s both. Sometimes in the same week.

I started Holy Week at my parish’s 24-Hour Prayer Vigil. I selected an intention card submitted by a parishioner who attends our Spanish-language Mass. The intentions were universal tho: Peace for the world, and prayers for the kids in the family, especially that they would find the faith.

I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. Meditating on the events of the Passion. It hit the depths of my soul. I was as emotionally engaged in prayer as I have been in a long time. Adoration has that effect on me in general, but this was unusually strong.

Later in the week I took my youngest son to Notre Dame for an afternoon. We’re not alums, or even subway alums, but when you grow up in Catholic schools with nuns for teachers and the most famous Catholic university on the planet an hour away, that “thing” for Our Lady’s university never really goes away. It was a popular choice for dads and kids during spring break I guess, since we were far from the only family wandering around campus, snapping photos of the Golden Dome and the Hesburgh Library.

 

What I really wanted to see for myself tho was Sacred Heart Basilica and the Grotto. We walked through the heavy wooden doors of the beautiful church, selected a pew, let the organ music settle over us, knelt, and began to pray together.

And I was dry. Couldn’t feel a thing. Same story at the Grotto. I’ve literally waited my entire life to kneel there and light a candle and pray an Ave, and… nothing.

Doesn’t mean the prayers aren’t useful. Don’t believe me, take the words of a saint instead:

“In you, today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his Father,” she wrote in 1974 to a priest suffering his own spiritual blackness.  “It does not matter what you feel, but what he feels in you . . . You and I must let him live in us and through us in the world.”

David Scott: “Mother Teresa’s Long Dark Night“, chapter 17 in The Love That Made Mother Teresa (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2013): 107-113

“Through us in the world.” Hmmm.

 


 

I feel that dryness with Twitter right now. I kind of live in three worlds there: I follow a lot of sports stuff, and a lot of political/news stuff in addition to all my teacher connects. There’s some overlap, of course. Some of it lifts me up right now. The Notre Dame women winning the NCAA basketball championship, for example.

Or an epic thread of priests and lay folks pondering the Easter Vigil. (Seriously, click through and read it. All of it. This nonsense I’m writing will still be here when you get back.)

But the Teacher Twitter stuff…. I’m scrolling right by lately. I glance, maybe. I go, “oh, yeah”, and then I move on. Or worse, I read it and go “ugh”. Truthfully, there’s a lot of stupidity out there in the Twitterverse. None of this is new by the way, just seems to be weighing on me with a little more force these days. People treat each other like crap. Political divisions are leading to derangement. Plus, unoriginal putdowns spread like dandelions. I enjoy a little snark as much as the next guy but everything is only so funny after the 100th time you read it. All of that led me to declare a one-day social media fast for myself on Good Friday. (That is a link to the past as well: tradition amongst my group growing up was all TV and radio was silenced from noon until 3 pm on Good Friday. Not a bad habit to revive, I think.)

I’m getting ready to present at a couple of Summer of E-Learning conferences in June. That has me focused. My two regular chats are always a learning experience. Those things energize me. But mild social media addiction aside, sometimes I feel like I could take or leave the rest of it.

Maybe it’s just the lull of Spring Break, getting mentally ready for the stretch run. (39 school days left, not that we’re counting or anything). Did my brain intentionally shut itself off to teacher stuff online, both to clear space for Holy Week observances, and to clear the mechanism for the fourth quarter? Maybe I’m supposed to be turning my attention outward, go “all-in” on my classes so that the world, my students in particular, can see what I’m really about.

I have the final quarter planned out. We’ve got some cool stuff coming up in Algebra II, for real. The last 9 weeks of the last required math course my students need to graduate can feel like a long march through a parched desert. I’m hoping for spring storms to hit and rush through a dry creek bed, turning everything green again.

 

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Me and Sam at The Narrows, Zion National Park, summer 2016. Splashing around in the Virgin River is a great payoff on a 107F afternoon.

 

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?

Image result for bob ross memes

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

So I called an audible.

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

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


 

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

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

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

BB Blog 2

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

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

BB Blog 1
Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

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

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

BB Hlog 3
Letting Desmos do the heavy lifting to free up brain power for thinking.

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

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

BB Blog 4.jpg
Not that I’m craving attention or anything, but yeah, I totally posted the brackets on the window of the arena that faces a heavily traveled hallway.

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

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

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

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

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

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.

 

So, How’s It Going?

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

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

sports_illustrated_43522_19841105-001-775
Sports Illustrated, November 5, 1984

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Image result for deuces gif
Dueces. (source)

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

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


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Image via Imgur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Faust: “Yeah, but also one of 7-4.”

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

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

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

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.


Image result for liturgy of the hours
Image via Divine Office

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

Now, where is that online book again?

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Via gifimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Riding The Wave

 

What kind of day is it out there today? I’ll let the great Barry Butler do his thing:

Third Coast Surf Shop, too:

Surf Mackinaw
Photo via Third Coast Surf Shop IG

 

It’s also the first day of Christmas Break that I had nothing scheduled in the morning, aside from making coffee and breakfast for Mrs. Dull. Seemed like a really good morning to make a list:

Make a List
Because if I don’t write stuff down, I’ll forget. Especially while on break.

The great Colin Powell used to say: “never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. I’d add: never step on your own enthusiasm. Christmas Break will fly by in a heartbeat. Untold number of 911’s will pop up to make some simple task that should take 5 minutes last an hour. So when I’m motivated to knock out some housework, schoolwork, and some #WednesdayMorningPD, I’m gonna take advantage. Because To Everything There Is A Season:


 

I’ve been a long-time fan of Matt Miller. Reading his blog, borrowing ideas, hitting him up for “how-to” help when preparing to make a short G-Suite presentation to some teaching colleagues, reading his books, the whole schmeer. The last two years he’s called in some favors with fellow teacher leaders and organized a virtual summit over Christmas Break. The 2016 edition was fruitful, and when I heard he was planning on a new set of conversations this year, I signed up for email notifications right away.

Then of course, life got in the way. The #DitchSummit opened on December 15, and my district was in session until 12/22. Which the mathematically inclined amongst you will note, was 72 hours until Christmas Day. We cleaned house and made cookies and entertained and shopped and went to Mass (twice!) and met with family and and and and and…

Here it is, December 27, and I’m just now sitting down to check in on the Summit. I know better than to try to binge-watch them all in one day. Plus that would just sidetrack me from my list. So I made a ranking, by topic, ordering the sessions. They are obviously all talented presenters and brilliant people, but somebody has to be first. And last, for that matter.

There are 3 or 4 presentations that I think will directly impact my teaching the second half of the year. I’m pretty psyched to hear from Don Wettrick and Jon Corippo and Pooja Agarwal, but since self-care is kind of a thing these days (for good reason), I opted for Kim Strobel first. I’m a little wary of the “motivational speaker” tag, but her topic, “The Science Of Happiness For Teachers And Students” hooked me in.

The short version is a riff on the flight attendant instructions to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. A burned-out, unhappy teacher is not going to create a very conducive learning environment for his students.

As a guy who broke the “highly effective” scale last year but only graded out as “effective” this year, much to the detriment of my ego, she definitely caught my attention when she talked about the cost of that incremental gain:

Which is at least partly why I took part of the morning to put together my #2018Playlist. And then let it play while folding clothes and doing dishes and whatnot. Which was of course the whole idea behind the playlist in the first place.

 

There’s more to do today. And every day. I’m just gonna ride the wave and keep getting done what needs to be done, interspersed with some opportunities to just sit and chill.

And maybe take a walk on a frozen beach if I’m lucky.

On Lockdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image via picturequotes.com

Changing The Culture

We’ve changed our in-school professional learning model from late-start Wednesdays to a quarterly Half-Day PD this year. The first afternoon session of the year took place a couple of weeks ago, with a triple focus:

  • The Canvas LMS as curriculum map and parent portal
  • Formative assessments driving instruction
  • Increased Depth of Knowledge, with an emphasis on integrating DOK 3 tasks.

Our department chair related her frustration about the fruits of a planning session with two of our teachers, putting together an in-depth activity as they try to amp up DOK: “We spent 3 hours making one problem!” These are three really good teachers, people.

You guys. Desmos. Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos.

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In professional development, no one can hear you scream.

I totally appreciate the effort, but, damn, let’s not kill ourselves trying to reinvent the wheel when there are approximately 3 billion awesome activities at teacher.desmos.com. I told my colleagues, “I don’t know how many of you guys are using Desmos activities, but it’s a machine for cranking out DOK 3 opportunities in your classroom.”

Plus: Classroom Chef & Ditch That Homework. We ordered a set of both books for everyone in the department and passed them out at our department meeting today. Except for me. I already own both books. I offered to read along with anybody who wants to do a mini-book club.

Who’s with me?

Trying not to be “that guy” but where we’re headed with being detracked, & being 1:1… it’s the elephant in the room.  We’ve got a ton of work to do. The other emphasis going forward is making sure our graduates are ready for the workforce or to handle entry-level college math. Our lower-track kids this year… aren’t. Sorry. We need to give our kids a chance to think deeply about math, to reason, to notice and wonder. We know the lower-track students have been sliding along, getting by with minimum effort and no real understanding of the math. That’s not a knock on their previous teachers. It’s what they’ve told us and what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Our guidance counselors have told us horror stories of kids trudging into the office complaining how hard Algebra II is this year.

Thing is, we owe them the chance to do this. If you don’t believe me, believe someone way smarter than me:

We’ve got the tools. We’re not the first math department to stare down this challenge. In a conversation with my former department chair, now an administrator, I said “we’re trying to change the culture of the classroom on the fly here. We can’t wait until our kids are “ready”. We need to move forward with what we know is the best way to teach, and be confident that our students will rise to the challenge.”

Because I don’t like the alternative. At all.

 

Everything Is A Nail

The old saying goes: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything is a nail.

My corollary:  when you are a teacher, every book is a teacher book.

Yeah, I love Matt Miller‘s and Alice Keeler‘s stuff. And John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. Rafe Esquith and Dave Levin and Frank McCourt and Mr. Rad. Lots of good Xs and Os stuff in all of them.

But I get my best thoughts on teaching from some very non-traditional sources.

 


 

One of the first times I drew a connection between a book I read and classroom life was in my very first education course at Calumet College of St. Joseph. Dr. Elaine Kisisel assigned us to read Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. I never remember the quote correctly, but 20 years later it’s still the first thing I recall from reading the book:

“So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

–Morrie Schwartz, Tuesdays With Morrie

Maybe it just stands out because I was making a career change, but that line spoke to me. I remember reading once that at one time a person’s last words were considered admissible in court because no one would willingly commit a mortal sin by lying with his last breath. Facing death, Morrie was handing down his life’s wisdom to his friend and former student. This moment felt really important to me.


Amir Abo-Shaeer started the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy and Team 1717. The D’Penguineers were one of the FIRST teams featured in Neal Bascomb’s book The New Cool. I’ve always thought it would make a great movie (“The Feel-Good Story Of The Year!”). The story begins with the reveal of the FIRST robotics competition game. The hype video shown at the event included an anecdote from the story of the Apollo program, pointing out that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon the average age of a NASA engineer was 26 – meaning that eight years earlier, when John Kennedy laid down his challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade, those men and women were in high school. Where my students sit.

Woah.

So, what incredible things will my kids be doing 10 years from now? I can’t wait to find out.


In a roundabout way, I owe my teaching career to baseball. That was my game coming up, both to play, and to obsess over. I was that guy who spent every summer day all day playing sandlot ball with my neighborhood buds, played Strat-O-Matic for hours on end (keeping reams of statistics along the way), memorized averages, collected baseball cards, all of it. More than most, I was drawn to the numbers that described the game. And when Bill James and sabermetrics came in vogue, yes, more please.

When it came time to pick a subject area to teach, I thought back how I loved that math helped make baseball come alive for me – gave me insight into the game. I wanted to be able to help students see math making their world real too. So, math it was.

After teaching a few years, Big Data Baseball hit me right where I live. The once-proud Pittsburgh Pirates had fallen on generational hard times. Led by down-on-his-luck manager Clint Hurdle the team was unable to compete with big-market teams and their near-unlimited ability to spend on talent. The team’s braintrust recognzed they couldn’t outspend their competition, but they could out-think them. Using advanced metrics and unorthodox stategy, the Bucs battled back to respectability. Two things happened. Hurdle, facing a firing and the likely end of his career in baseball, was willing to put his old-school methods aside and roll the dice with the plan proposed by his young quants in the front office. Second, the front-office number-crunchers brought everybody to the table… coaching staff, scouts, bean-counters all had their say. And they built a playoff club out of the ashes of a laughingstock.

I’m reminded of the comeback story that needs to be told at my former school. Struggling along with low state accountability grades, and facing state intervention, my principal convened a group of teachers, laid out the plain truth of the situation, and challenged them to come up with a plan to turn things around. Given the chance to design their own plan, rather than having something imposed on them from above, my colleagues in the middle school responded, and not only improved, but earned national recognition.

There’s probably a message there about student voice, too. No limit to what our kids will be willing to try when they are looped into the decision-making process. I could get better at that.


Grant Achatz is a rock star. Not the twitter kind. The real deal. His Chicago restaurant Alinea has earned its Michelin three-star rating. Achatz famously battled and beat cancer, as recounted in his memoir Life, On The Line. But before he was Chicago’s hottest chef, he was a kid like any other. He and his dad bought a beat-up Pontiac GTO which they rebuilt from the ground up, giving him an appreciation for how things work that most folks don’t have. Eventually he learned to make magic happen in a kitchen, learning from Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. He was diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2007, chillingly ironic for someone whose livelihood depends on his ability to taste. He rolled the dice with his treatment options, taking the path that was most likely to result in him staying in a kitchen versus the one that virtually guaranteed he’d stay alive longer. But in the meantime, he had a business to run. He had to teach his chefs how to taste what he tasted, how he tasted it. It’s a little like Picasso teaching someone how to copy his greatest works, and then create more.

Damn. Sometimes I just want my students to show their work like I do solving an equation. That Grant Achatz turns out to be a hell of a teacher in addition to a guy you wouldn’t mind having over for dinner.

As long as he cooks.


We just passed the 16th anniversary of 9/11. For my students it’s one more thing that happened before they were born. For people who remember that day, it’s hard to bat down the feelings that bubble up each year on the date, even as the attacks and the images and the aftermath recede into the distance. Many heroes were revealed that day, famously including Todd Beamer, a software salesman who was on board Flight 93 that was retaken by passengers and forced down in a Pennsylvania field before it could reach its target in Washington DC. He’s the guy who made “Let’s Roll” a rallying cry. The phrase also became the title of a memoir penned by his widow Lisa. With uncommon grace she recounts the story of their lives together and how she dealt with unimaginable heartache.

One anecdote of many that stays with me to this day was Todd Beamer’s Friday morning breakfast group. A handful of guys who met before work every Friday to talk and hang out. But it was more than that. These guys held each other accountable, making sure they did not prioritize the things of this world, jobs, money, status, above their families. Every business trip, every promotion, every accolade was put under the spotlight. Was more money in the paycheck or a title worth the time it would cost, the late nights, the missed birthdays and anniversaries? A professor of mine at IU used to call that “finding a worthy opponent”. Someone who will call BS on you, and not just tell you what you want to hear.

Secretly, if you gave me a chance to wave a magic wand and receive one thing, I think I’d take a group like that. As teachers we are pulled in a thousand different directions. Things we do in school, side gigs and hobbies, all eat into time with our families. My son had the memento mori discussion with our high school youth minister today. He was relating the conversation to me as we were walking back to our car after a middle school youth group event. I told him, yeah, I know what you mean. I’m gonna wake up someday soon ready to sign my retirement papers, and I’ll say “damn, wasn’t I just 50, like, the day before yesterday?”

Tempus Fugit. So read a good book today. Teacher book? Fine. Not a “teacher book”? I bet you learn something from it anyway that you can use in the classroom tomorrow.


mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.

 

My Favorite Lesson

My online PLN is blogging about Favorite Lessons this week. I have a handful of topics I really enjoy to teach, such as quadratics. I think this has to do with the subject matter being a challenge for my algebra students, and that there are so many ways to inject life into the subject. I also really like some of the class activities I’ve tried out, but those belong to someone else and have been written about by way better teachers than me. (This fantastic teacher‘s treatment of the In-N-Out 100×100, for instance. I’ve taught that one at two different schools, as well as to teachers at a conference session on building a PLN. It’s always a hit!)

So I want to write about a lesson that is my baby. Rewind to about 2010. The WCYDWT bug got me. Inspired by Dan Meyer, I was always looking for things in the world around me I could use as a hook for math. We had moved back to the Region from Las Vegas a few years earlier. The Clark County School District is the fifth-largest in the nation, with over 300,000 students, and had been growing rapidly for years.  When we lived there, 5000 people were moving into the Valley every month. The district was opening roughly a dozen new schools a year. Then: the crash. I was curious what effect the Great Recession would have on enrollment trends, and dug up a little data. I compiled a worksheet, printed it back-to-back with a grid, and the CCSD Enrollment activity was born.

It lived on paper and pencil for a few years. Then along came Desmos, smoothing over the struggle of a paper graph. Then Desmos Activity Builder. And…

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Desmos Activity Builder: CCSD Enrollment

They think. They write equations. They analyze data and make predictions. They examine each other’s work. and they think some more.

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(They also do some inappropriate teenager things, but what the hell). That’s a day, right there. In anybody’s class. We just spent a department meeting talking about needing to embed SMPs in our lessons and amp up DOK. It was all I could do to keep from leaping out of my seat and going “You guys! I got something I need to show you RIGHT NOW!”

Plus, just the fact that I’m on version 4.0 of this activity makes me feel like I’ve grown as a teacher, giving my students a chance to notice and wonder, appropriately using technology to amplify the learning target, and improving the questions and the way they are asked.

I think my students enjoy it almost as much as I do. Almost.


 

mtbos-sunfun-logoThis is my small contribution to a larger community of teachers who write, tweet, and share and call themselves the Math-Twitter-Blog-O-Sphere (#MTBoS). In an effort motivated at Twitter Math Camp this summer and boosted by Julie Reulbach, teachers are sharing around a single topic each week. Look for the collection every Sunday under the #SundayFunday or #MTBoS hashtags, or at I Speak Math. And don’t be bashful: there’s a google form there so you can jump in too.