We Belong

You don’t belong.

Sports teams use it as motivation. (“Nobody believed in us!”)

It’s been fodder for a million Hollywood movies, from Karate Kid (“Love your car, Mrs. LaRusso!”) to Kung Fu Panda.

If you’ve been around the teaching game for a while, you’ve been told: our kids crave connections. They need relationships. No learning can happen until you connect with your kids. They need to know they belong.

I can relate.


Image result for Da Region 219 nwi tattoos
Image via nwi.com (source)

Up here in the Region, we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. To the point where we fight over which parts of this area qualify to carry the title “Region”.

We’re not Chicago, even though we border the City of Chicago, in the County of Cook, in the State of Illinois.

And we’re definitely not “Indiana“. Best way to prove you’re not “Region” is to wear a “Colts” anything.

So, we don’t belong.

(We wear that like a badge of honor, by the way.)

Indiana Summer of eLearning

For the last 6 years the Indiana Department of Education has put on a series of conferences during June and July known as the “Summer of e-Learning“. My former district, the largest district in Northwest Indiana, and the 11th largest in the state, started thinking it should be able to host one of the 22 conferences last year.

The state had a plan. I’ll paraphrase: You guys are a pretty big district (13,860 students in 2016). Host a conference just for your district. Get your feet wet. Find your keynoters and presenters. Get a facility. Then check back with us. Let us know.

So they did.

After 370 attendees, nationally-recognized speakers, presenters from within the SCH and beyond descended upon Hammond the Monday after school let out, well, what could the IDOE say?

Fast-forward to the Summer of 2017: We’re in the Big Leagues. (And yeah, I know… “we”? I work in a different district now. Teaching in Hammond is the family business. Old habits are hard to break. Sue me.)

Buddy Berry & Christine Pinto keynoted. Almost 600 teachers and administrators registered.

Everybody got something they can use RIGHTNOW.

Alisha Foor and her team put on a whale of a show. Crushed it behind the scenes during 12 months of planning, and knocked it out of the park during two days of awesome learning and sharing experiences.

Yeah. We belong.


When I taught in Vegas, my Midwestern-ness stuck out like, well, a flashing neon sign. (“Mr. Dull, why do you wear a sweatshirt and shorts?”) When I taught in the HMD, maybe I was “from there”, but I lived out with the cows and the corn. Now in an exurban district, where everybody’s “from here”, even though I live in the city, I’m still kind of an outsider. I found that out when people here weren’t heartbroken over the Stracks bankruptcy. (Seriously, like I had a tear in my eye when I lined up for lunch today and saw a big tray of Stracks chicken on the table.)

So maybe I don’t belong either.


I’ve been stalking hanging out online with a group of math teachers that call themselves the MTBoS (Math-Twitter-Blog-o-sphere). I steal all their best teaching ideas, follow them on twitter and at their blogs, and just in general fanboy a tiny bit too much.

But what can I say, they changed my outlook and strategy on teaching, and probably saved my career.

(No really, that was my presentation title at South Shore e-Learn).

But really, they’ve got superior firepower from the neck up. Way out of my league. I can use their stuff, but I could never make their stuff.

I don’t belong.

But this morning, with a donut balanced on my travel mug/water bottle, and my laptop, well, on my lap, settling for in for the keynote, I open twitter and see this in my mentions:

Shah MTBoS Tweet

(I had posted this in a twitter chat I occasionally hang out in, in response to a question. The #MTBoS hashtag gave it a signal boost).

And, squee.

Here’s the blog page, with about a million other presos linked there. But for reals, for about 20 seconds there, Sam Shah made me feel like a million bucks. Like…

I belonged.


If you’ve never seen Christine Pinto, she looks like she’s about 12. Weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. She doesn’t have a commanding stage presence. But she is a lowkey powerhouse. If you listen… oh boy. You’ll learn. One of her main points in her preso is:

And guys, that’s the takeaway from today. We belong. Our kids belong. And it’s our job to give them an opportunity to prove it. In Hammond, they walk their talk. Two of the most powerful sessions I attended were led by students. Buddy Berry’s freshman daughter knocked ’em dead with “A Techy Teens Tools For Teachers”.

But my last session of the conference… oh man:

A 3rd-grader taught about 30 of us how to use Animoto to make book trailers. Had a Google Classroom and a slide deck and everything. Yeah.

She belongs.

I belong.

All of us, on a Tuesday and Wednesday of summer break, when we should have all been laying on a beach somewhere, instead, the Island Of Misfit Toys, we’re all inside an urban high school, learning, together, getting better, for our kids. Kids we won’t see, probably, for like 8 more weeks. Doesn’t matter.

We belong.

Timing Is Everything

Memorial Day. In addition to its rightful place as a day in memory of our honored dead in wars throughout our country’s history, it marks the unofficial start of summer.

My youngest, who as recently as last year would have rather have stabbed himself in the eyeballs with raw spaghetti noodles than go to the beach, decided that on one of the busiest beach days of the year he wants to go to the beach.

Crazy. Got to be way too crowded, right?

Plus, we got a late start to the day. You know what that means….

  • Outlet Mall: A Zoo.
  • Redamak’s: A Zoo.
  • Stray Dog: A Zoo.
  • The actual Zoo: A  Zoo.

But what’s this?

Whitaker To The River
You guys, where’s everybody going?

We first noticed the exodus near Mt. Baldy in Michigan City. By the time we crossed the border it was a convoy. Literally hundreds of cars, virtually every one of them bearing Illinois plates, all heading west at once. That blue line on the map? That’s a two-mile backup through the heart of New Buffalo, Michigan.

I get it. With the onset of construction season, North Shore and Northwest Suburban people were probably looking at a three-hour drive home. If you’re gonna spend a miserable holiday in a car, best to get out on the road in the morning, and maybe get home in time for dinner, right?

On the positive: Maybe they’ll be room for us a little bit farther north in Bridgman?

Yep. While I expected a line of cars snaking back up Lake Street, instead I found a half-empty parking lot. Aww, yeah.

And what a glorious, uncrowded Memorial Day at the beach it was. So fantastic that I left my phone in my backpack, played soccer with my youngest, sat with the fam for ice cream at the pavilion snack bar, and soaked up the sun. No photos.

Well, OK. Here’s one from Sunday night:

Weko Sunset (1)
Sunset. Weko Beach, Bridgman, MI. Memorial Day Weekend. Photo cred: me.

That’s good timing, my Illinois people. And great call on the beach, kid. You couldn’t have picked a better day.


When you’ve been teaching for a while, and are a middle-aged goof, it helps to have a rich fantasy life. Takes the edge off a mundane existence. So you occasionally imagine yourself as the hero in a national security thriller, racing against time…

Image via imdb.com.

So, just as a reminder, I got hired at my current school in part to help relaunch Project Lead The Way, a national pre-engineering program that had plateaued a bit in Valparaiso. There is a bit of a maze involved in rostering your students with the national PLTW, a process that is handled well above me on the food chain. But it needs to be done so the students can take the PLTW End of Course assessment for my class.

(I know. Another test, amongst a sea of tests during Testing Season. This one carries some per student dollars with it. In my first year here, I’m not gonna mess with Free Money. You feel me?)

In the midst of my move, my kids got rostered, but I couldn’t log in to see my classes. Thus, I couldn’t print their login info for the final. My login still took me to my old school, which as you can imagine, had no rostered classes for me.

Minor Panic

So now I’m emailing back and forth with my IT guy and the PLTW help desk (starting on Thursday, 6 days & a holiday weekend before my scheduled final exam window), trying to get the situation resolved. By Tuesday, my inner cool is heating up considerably.


On Wednesday, the actual day of the final tho, strangely cool. My fellow PLTW teacher said, “hey, do you have something else you can give them as a final?” Why yes. Yes I do. I’ve got a million One-Day Design Challenges. Those hit enough of the Big Ideas of the course to stand as a final in a pinch. Plus: it’s a Making Thing. I can live with that. Got my copies made, got an assignment made in Canvas. I would still have to go explain how I cost our district money, but… I’m good either way. Let the chips fall.

Now it’s three minutes before the bell for my scheduled Final Exam period: ah, what the hell. Let’s check my PLTW one more time.

And (whoomp) there it is.

**Angel Choirs Singing**

Now you should see me move. Confirm roster. Print EoC login tickets. Get students logged in to the testing site. Zing-zing. You got 80 minutes. Go…

Broadcast News from Anton Tokman on Vimeo.

Aaaaand… we’re in. Just under the wire.

If I don’t stand there punching the air at my desk, no one knows how epic that just was. And none of it happens without about a million people (who are really good at what they do) doing what they do. So you count on them. Because you can.

And a little patience doesn’t hurt. Because panic is at best counter-productive. And at worst: contagious.

If all this falls into place five minutes later, none of it matters. Everybody’s effort is pretty much a waste of breath and pixels. But these guys and ladies got the job done. On time.

Just like I knew they would.

Nice job, you guys. And: Happy Summer.

Piece By Piece

Image via giphy.

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

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

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

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

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

Desmos piecewise staff picks

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

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

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

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

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

Docs here:

Alg II (3) Conics Performance Assessment

Alg II (3) Functions one-pager

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

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

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

Next thing you know…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

Then Friday, the Big Finish:

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

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

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

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

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

Piece by piece.

Hockey Sticks

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

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

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

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

Image result for math student meme

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

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

Yep. Rattle-rattle-thunder-clatter…

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

We go Back to Basics:

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

Odds of a Perfect NCAA Bracket, Graphed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Pressure, Kid

End of First Semester is here, along with the three-day MLK Weekend. But from the way things feel around school, you’d think it was June and not January.

That’s a school full of German kids (via Deutsche Welle) but apparently the feeling is pretty universal. School’s Out…

Everybody needs a break. It’s my first year in this building so I don’t have first-hand knowledge if this year is an outlier, or if this is just the culture. But I have my suspicions.


What I do know is this: That thing about students blowing off steam during Finals Week is real. Back in the day at IU, it was some acquaintances of ours, art students, who used their oversized art portfolios to uh, borrow, some cafeteria trays which we then used to go sledding down the hills in front of our dorm.

Here in the 21st century it probably takes some other forms. Like my engineering students who were playing “Water Pong” with a bunch of Red Solo Cups left over from one group’s entry in the Ballandia project.

Remember, if you are a teacher and your students ask you to play this game, your answer is always: “Uh, no. No thanks.” Image via WikiHow.

Students have been working on their Ballandia worlds (kind of a Rube Goldberg/roller coaster set up, inside a virtual 2x2x2 foot cube) since before Christmas Break. For some, the plan came together easily and they methodically built their design, staying on course to finish by the due date.

Just Keep Swimming. And yeah, there in the center, that’s an anemone for the Big Finish.

For others: a complete tear-down and re-build, 96 hours before ship.

This group’s theme was “Cardboard”. I think they should have gone with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But I think that name’s taken.

The tension was palpable leading up to Preso Day. Thursday before the due date I had, no lie, 50 kids in my classroom putting finishing touches on their projects. About 95% of the groups poured heart and soul into the effort. And then during presentations… heartbreak. So many found out their design (which worked 9 times out of 10) would fail (that 1 time out of 10) at the worst possible moment. With three trials, most were able to get at least one satisfying run out of their world, (and get the points they craved), but emotions were close to the surface.

And afterwards, those emotions spilled out: Light. It. Up.

The detritus from four classes of projects filled three rolling trash bins. A couple of kids wanted to take theirs home to start a bonfire.


So, three-day weekend, end of semester… Benchmark? Or Celebration?

Or something else…

“Kahoot being more intense than the Olympics”

So, this tweet from a student (not one of mine). Yikes…

I mean (aside from the construction-related issues) most of this stuff happened at every school I’ve ever taught in. Or attended. But “mental breakdowns over finals” sounds like a thing that maybe should concern us a little bit.


So, Mr. Urban Teacher: What’s it like over there?

Here’s a place to start. My school offers a Varsity Academic Letter.

The criteria for achieving the Varsity Academic Letter, the student must: maintain a 3.500 grade point average for two consecutive semesters and be enrolled in VHS for two consecutive semesters.

If the student has a semester under a 3.500 grade point average, the student will have to have two more consecutive semesters to earn a second chevron.

Varsity Academic Awards will be passed out in the fall and the spring.

Students have the opportunity to earn one Varsity Academic Letter, six chevrons and six certificates before they graduate from Valparaiso High School.

This fall we awarded 498 students that letter. That’s like 25% of our entire student population. Yeah, no pressure, kid. Just be perfect.
Image result for frazzled student


During the interview process last spring, I was asked: “Are you the best teacher in your building?” Coincidentally, just that day I had done a peer observation on one of the best, most innovative, most committed teachers in our entire district. Earlier that week I chance to bounce ideas off a 25-year veteran of the HMD, National Board Certified, who is now an instructional coach. My answer in the interview: “Nope”. Which I think raised some eyebrows, until I related my interactions with two of my teaching mentors.

That school, which not so long ago was under threat of turnaround status under the state’s version of No Child Left Behind, just won state honors as a top Title 1 school. That happens because of strong leadership and a faculty willing to dig deep, and do whatever is necessary to improve student outcomes.

At my new school, we want to improve too. Where do you go when you are already an A-rated, Four-Star school? We want to consider ourselves Top Ten in the state, by any metric. So there is a constant push to be better. Nobody wants to let up, because you know the rest of the department is just killin’ it on the daily. Everybody’s good. Real good. So, you know, no pressure, kid.

The ironic part is: among the changes being implemented next year are a couple of things that are very familiar to me, things we had been doing at my former school for a while. A 9th-grade Support class. Looping 9th and 10th grade students with a team of teachers. And something new I’ve been waiting for years to be part of – a 1:1 initiative, where every student will have a device, in every class.

So, what’s it like over there? This is what it’s like: A Challenge. A New Challenge. But: A Challenge.

But that’s not news, to anyone who’s ever taught (or been a student), in a city or in a well-off suburb or anywhere. The challenge is the same, regardless of location, or socio-economic status of our kids. It’s just challenging in a different way.

No pressure, Kid. Just be perfect.


Each One Teach One

Image result for rust never sleeps
Image via http://www.1001fonts.com/rust-never-sleeps-font.html

Year One of the EPIC PLTW Reboot continues at my school. My Intro to Engineering Design kids are designing and documenting and creating, learning Autodesk Inventor and the value of planning the work and working the plan. All told, we’ve got 4 sections of IED, somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 students. Which is good. One of the foundational things we talked about in the interview was keeping the pipeline full – making sure we had a steady flow of kids into Principles of Engineering and beyond.

But my POE right now?

Two students.

Under ordinary circumstances, we’d dissolve that class and try again next year when we can fill out a roster. But I think it’s important that we offer it this year, both from a visibility standpoint and because Rust Never Sleeps.

We didn’t offer POE at my old school last year, and the year before we dissolved the class after one term because it had dwindled to an enrollment of just 5.  I get it. I really do. POE is more “mathy” than IED, and that scares a lot of people away. (Unlike IED, which gets treated like “just another elective” sometimes). But that also means I haven’t taught the second semester of the course for three years.

So here we are, halfway through the year (almost). Ready to start the machine control/mobile robotics unit in POE. Should be an easy sell. No student goes, “gee, when am I ever gonna use this?” about programming. Instant engagement, right?

And I’m terrified.

PLTW offers robust training before a teacher can be assigned to teach a course  – an intense, two-week session where we do all the projects the students do in a year, in 10 days.

Yeah, I built a robot and programmed it to platoon with my fellow teachers’ bots. Teamed up to build a marble sorter and custom designed some pieces for it in Inventor. But: its been a while.


Took C++ back in the day at UNLV. But: it’s been a while.

I’m about to get exposed again.

Except, I’ve been hanging out with a risk-taking group of teachers online who are more than wiling to admit they don’t know every damn thing, and are happy to learn. From anyone. Especially if it means learning along with their students. That spirit rubs off on the rest of the PLN.

I tried to size up where I stood the other day. We were close to finishing up a unit, getting ready to do the unit project which involves virtual bridge design. So I’m mentally looking ahead. Just as an icebreaker, I asked my students “what’s your background in programming?”

One guy, quietly confident, says, “I’ve been programming for 10 years.”

That’s almost as long as I’ve been teaching. Holy crap.

Well then. Learning is a two-way street. Guess I’m gonna learn right along side these guys, huh?

Ain’t too proud. Let’s go.

Observe Me

That’s how you become great. A bit on the NSFW side, but the basic theory holds. As John Shedd mused: A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.

So this week I received an email from a new colleague.

Took me about three seconds to reply in the affirmative. Before I could change my mind.

I’m down. Anything for the team. And seriously, anybody that intentional about getting better at teaching is my brother.

Truthfully: for a second, I wasn’t sure. I’m new here. My fellow teachers are really, really good. I have nothing to hide, but still. What if he comes in here and I’m actually terrible? What if my kids pick today to regress to middle-school?

But several members of my online PLN are all-in for the #ObserveMe movement credited to Robert Kaplinsky. There’s a whole lot of aweseome, risk-taking teachers putting, uh, themselves out there.  So yeah, come take a look. Tell me what you see, good and bad.

Maybe that’s a bit selfish on my part. I mean, I want to know what my colleagues think of my work. And I want to share all the awesomeness of the #MTBoS and the “Classroom Chef” mentality with all my fellow teachers. But it does take two – someone willing to invite, and someone willing to accept. That happened this week….. aaaaaand they’re off.

The plan for the day? A Desmos activity. On phones. First time on the small screen. So, kiddies: let’s find out together. (As an aside, we are headed towards a BYOD 1:1 environment so we are encouraged to begin piloting this school year. The carts in the math department are spoken for, so taking a page from one of my favorite risk-taking teachers, I scouted out a Desmos activity that I thought would work well on the small screen, logged in as a student to test it out, saw what I needed to see, and decided to let it ride.)

Yeah, so they got to scroll down to see the text entry box. Other than that…

As for the activity: Awesome formative – I knew what they knew (and didn’t know) right away. Although I’m not sure how much of that had to do with math knowledge and how much was related to navigating the slides, especially on ther phones.

The “Wait And See” mode that students love: off. Instead of waiting for me to write stuff down, then copying it, the students, working in pairs, had to think through the questions and come up with answers. Win!

Still a little off task. Not as much of a win!

(I think students are way more tempted to play around on their own phones than on school-issued devices. Also, it’s easier for me to see who’s playing around on a bigger screen.)

Interest definitely waned at the end. But that’s on me. The end of the activity is a word problem, which is like hand-delivering a kryptonite sandwich to class. So would I do it again? Yeah, if it’s the only way to get them doing Desmos activities, phones are better than nothing. But in a perfect world?

Next time: get the cart.

And: Oh yeah. Observe Me.



Leaner, Meaner, Greener

My POE class is studying energy sources and distribution these days, along with doing some circuit calculations.  The energy distribution lesson calls for a field trip to a local power utility facility, which sounds cool, and I’m told the NIPSCO tour is all kinds of awesome, but what if we did something slightly different? And maybe cooler?

Back on New Teacher World Tour Day our bus made a stop at the Porter County Career and Technical Center, where principal Jon Groth gifted us a stress ball and told us about the building’s Alternative Energy Program.

The success of the program, from its humble roots born out of state budget cuts due to the Great Recession, to its all-students, hands-on design and implementation, to the profit it generates for the PCCTC thru NIPSCO’s Feed-In Tariff program, has been pretty well documented.  But these guys in my class are better than just showing up, walking through, and hearing a story. I challenged them: Find out everything there is to know about this program. Before we go over there. I don’t want Mr. Groth to be able to tell you anything you don’t already know.

That way, I figured, they can use their limited field trip time asking good questions.

So I split the activity into three parts: 1) research (Doc here: pcctcvisitprep), 2) the trip itself, 3) documenting their learning (appended on to the shared research doc).

Oh, as part of my thank-you email, I also shared the doc with Mr. Groth, who took time out the day after the visit to make some comments and add to the students’ learning. That’s a teacher, right there.



For me (and maybe for my students), the biggest takeaway was something that Jon Groth told us early on during the visit: “We’re not experts.”

What kind of person admits that to visitors? The kind of person who is proud of the curiosity of his students and teachers. Who has seen them ask, over and over, “What if?” And who has seen them pursue those answers and put the solutions into practice.

GIF via https://giphy.com/gifs/flex-marlon-mack-mackattack-3o7abxcAaU5wrF4cdq

Once the ball started rolling, these guys want to keep pushing the process forward. If they don’t know an answer, they’ll find it out. If they don’t know the result of a slight change, they’ll test the change and document the results. If you notice in that photo of the solar array above (I don’t have to point this out to my OCD people), the panels in the last row are tilted at a steeper angle than those in the front. The students are testing different angles to determine which angle will result in the most power.

The most recent addition to the array is a vertically oriented cylindrical windmill. It is totally uncharted territory. The classes consulted with the students at the Alternative Energy program at Valparaiso University. The PCCTC students asked the VU guys if the design was good, if they had “done it right”. Know what the VU guys said? – “We don’t know. Try it and find out. Then let us know”

Don’t need to tell these guys twice. That’s practically the PCCTC motto. It’s the classroom culture I’ve been trying to build for a long time now.

And: It’s Project Lead The Way in a nutshell.




Linear Review: “Children Must Play” Edition

Image result for teacher at the board meme

So: Quiz Review.

I promise my students at the start of each year that I will never drop a quiz on them without scheduling a review day. Now, if they happen to be absent on that review day, that’s on them, not me, but still. I’m not here to play “gotcha”, right?

I also learned way early in my career that me standing at the board and working out problems while they watch me like I’m a trained seal is the worst kind of review.

Seriously, “Sit and Get” didn’t work the first time. Why should I think anything has changed because there’s a quiz tomorrow? So for a while now I’ve been on a quest for quality review activities. (Looking at you, Speed Dating.)

But the reality is, anything can get stale if you let it. Even really good, student centered activities. It helps to have a deep bench. Mix it up. Keep ’em on their toes.

Between the MTBoS and the Classroom Chef/Ditch That Textbook crew I stalk follow online, there are virtually limitless ideas out there. Beautiful thing is, creativity breeds creativity. Reading about my fellow teachers taking chances and putting themselves out there inspires me.

So come time to do linear review with my Algebra II classes, I planned a double-barreled approach: A Desmos Activty based on my Clark County School District enrollment trend project (trend line, writing equations, making predictions), and (inspired by Rafe Esquith, who wrote in his book “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” that as test prep he’d have his students predict the common mistakes that generated the distractors on the California state tests), a Make Your Own Kahoot.

I assigned the Desmos Activity as a do-at-home, which was probably a mistake. Other teachers I follow have had great success using AB this way, but the mistake I made was not priming the pump with an in-class Activity. Not too many of my students logged on to try it out after-hours.

Live and learn. I did do a little crowdsourcing for the slides, and got some good feedback.

That’s a good first step.

Still, I took some time the next day to debrief and walk through (OK, more of a 10k-pace run) through the activity screens, pointing out how the students that attempted the activity had the chance to apply what they had learned about slope to a (semi-) interesting problem.

Next up: a chance to dig in to the common mistakes that derail my students. Time for “Make your Own Kahoot!”

It was a two-day review of linear equations for an Algebra II class, which sounds excessive. But I think it was worth it. Day one, I challenged them in pairs to write their own Kahoot!-style multiple-choice question. With good distractors. No ridiculous, obviously wrong answers, but instead answers generated by common student mistakes, just like the testing companies do.

Photo credit: me. Brainpower credit: my kids.
How many ways can you mess up slope? Let’s see…

Then I collected the questions and answers and went home and made the Kahoot quiz.

Next day, we played their quiz.

Good folks have their issues with Kahoot.

Which is fine. I wouldn’t do it every day, or every week, for that matter. But damn, do the kids love it. You should have been in the class where one kid picked “harambae” as his screen name.  (Get it? Haram-BAE”). Rich.

Doc here: diy-kahoot-ch-2-review-directions.

Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun?

Oh, hell yeah.