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.

Image result for in space no one can hear you scream
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.

 

Advertisements

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…

Image result for explosion gif

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(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.

Linear Review Three Ways

 message GIF
(Source)

I’ve learned a few things about high school kids the last 14 years. One of those things is: they are not shy about telling you they need help. Might be verbal. Might be non-verbal. But the message is sent. So the question I have for myself is: You got the message. What did you do with this information, Mr. Teacher Man?

 

  • They need support.
  • They need a chance to collaborate and help each other.
  • They need to be able to think their way through a problem.
  • They need to see each other’s work
  • And they need reps. Lots and lots of self-checking reps.

We’ve got a quiz coming up on linear stuff. It’s all warmed-over Algebra I from their freshman year, but that was two years ago and for a lot of them at the beginning of the year it’s about as clear as mud. That’s a bad way to fly when we’re trying to rebuild a foundation for the rest of Algebra II.

I need a plan. Like Gerry Faust recruiting future Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Tim Brown out of Texas:

Faust Recruits Tim Brown
The Golden Dream, by Gerry Faust and Steve Love

All the bases covered. And then some. Rapid fire.

I’m all-in for the gamified review favored by many members of my PLN. I like to have fun in class too. But my students in years past have also asked for a way to get more practice. Maybe even… a worksheet.

(Which, BTW, aren’t always as evil as they are made out to be. Depends on the worksheet. And the teacher, probably).

So I lined up a parade of varied review styles and methods for them this week:

We started with version 4.0 of my CCSD Enrollment activity on Desmos, because children must play. It had its ups and downs:

Next up is a review method promoted by Julie Reulbach known as One Sheets – all collaborative and student-centered. Plus it makes an excellent “as-needed” support on the quiz itself. The cleanup hitter is my very first MyMathLab assignment. The students can work on this online assignment over two days outside of class, getting multiple attempts at a problem, and able to access hints and help. That one’s targeted at my “give me a worksheet, please, Mr. Dull” people.

Differentiation, you guys. For real.

But not because it’s a buzzword (which it is), or because it’s a sub-domain on my evaluation rubrics (which it is). It’s a response to my students’ needs.

That’s a message I hear loud and clear.

Image result for i got you
(Source)

Can You Help A Digital Native Out?

1:1 is here. I’ve been waiting awhile to get this party started.

Image result for teachers dancing gif

Oh, the possibilities: Students creating content! Diving deep into math! Self-directed learning! Even on a Sub Day!

Happy Happy! Joy Joy!

No, that’s not what it was like at all. In reality, well, it takes students a minute to get on board with something new. I had to take a sub day on short notice on Friday, but I had fortunately planned far enough ahead that my materials were already set up in Canvas for all my PLTW classes and my Algebra II students. All they had to do was sit back, absorb some instructions and/or notes, and commence to churning out pure awesomeness. The worked out examples we do in class are embedded right inside the slides:

What I ended up with was Substitution Mass Confusion (clouds inside your head).

*Greets students on Tuesday morning*

Me: “So, how’d Friday go?”

Students: “The assignment was easy. We could do that. But we couldn’t do the notes.”

Image result for ugh gif

We ended up going back over everything on Tuesday. OK, they need some guidance on this. Digital Natives or no, they need someone to teach ’em what they don’t know how.


Image result for desmos
Image via Desmos.com

Which is how I came to be teaching them Desmos on a Tuesday morning. I had embedded a quickie Desmos activity into their practice set Friday. Problem is, I’m not sure in retrospect they know how to graph a function in Desmos. Actually, after I looked at the dashboard, I know they didn’t know how to graph a function in Desmos.

“So how many of you had a teacher who used Desmos with you last year? Wait. None?!?!? You never? Really? Well guess what: This is your lucky day, kiddies.”

Angel choirs sing, rainbows arch across the sky, unicorns prance, chocolate abounds.

So step One: How to enter a function into Desmos:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 1
Borrowed a word problem from an old textbook. Instead of making a vague, mostly useless graph by hand, we turn that part over to Mr. Desmos.
Desmos Tutorial Screen 2
That’s great, but what are we supposed to do with that vertical-looking line?

OK, so that doesn’t look like much of anything that tells us anything about this flight. But wait. You guys, does negative time or negative distance make sense in this problem? No, they tell me. Great. Let’s get rid of those portions of the coordinate plane:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 3
Light dawns. This was a low-key truly beautiful moment.

Now let’s start rubbing some brain cells together:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 4

That took us to the end of class but definitely lit a fire. I sent them home with instructions to finish the activity. Many tore into it during their study hall, because when I went back to check the dashboard on my prep the thing was lit up like a Christmas tree.

From what I’ve been able to gather from observing other 1:1 initiatives from a distance, this is a huge step. In this order: Got the teachers trained up, got some in-house tech coaches in place, now we give the students the guidance they need and we are ready to rock.

Image result for blues brother dancing gif

“Uh, excuse me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the action on this keyboard.”

Hacker-Proof

I don't care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do.

So, Teacher Hacks.

Lifehack Definition
Via Merriam-Webster

I don’t have many. My big one? Like literally a Family Motto?

Automate what can be automated.

  • That’s my coffeemaker, for sure. Spend the extra 10 bucks and get one that’s programmable. We went Hamilton Beach Brew Station about 10 years ago. I wake up every damn day with the glorious aroma of Chock Full O’ Nuts wafting up the stairs. Let’s see, 5 minutes of work per morning, times 180 school days… That’s 15 hours I claw back every school year by setting the Source Of All Life And Awareness And Human Functionality And Everything the night before.

Hamilton Beach Fount Of Life.jpg

  • I’m not as good at clawing back time after school. For real, grading will be the death of me. Alice Keeler, co-author of Ditch That Homework, has a thought:

As of late I’ve been having my Principles of Engineering students post a video showing their work and explaining their thinking to Flipgrid.

They divvy up the problems, taking one or two apiece, then they can check the rest of their work by watching their classmates’ posts.

  • I’m starting to see that Desmos can be an awesome formative tool now that we are 1:1. I can plan a quick bellringer or stick a Desmos Activity into a classwork assignment.

Desmos Match My Line Screenshot

Then all their thinking shows up on the dashboard, all in one place.

  • Lord knows we could all use a little extra cash. Extra Duty opportunities abound. The trick is not to run yourself ragged or cheat your family out of their time, just to get a staple. Eventually in my house we settled on a guideline: anything that happened during the school day (pull-out remediation, staff coverage on short-sub days) or immediately after school was OK, since I was in the building at that time anyway. Anything that would keep me there for hours on end or require weekends was out.

Mrs. Dull did make an exception for a couple of years as an assistant on the boys tennis team, which is a short season.


As for a Wish List? What could I make better:

  • I’m super-intrigued by the Parent Contact Form w/auto-email that Matt Miller and Alice Keeler designed in their book Ditch That Homework. If there’s anything in Teacherville that could stand to be lifehacked, it’s parent contact. One of my favorite colleagues from my early days of teaching told me how she committed to making 10 calls a day, every day, so that once every 3 weeks she had a parent contact with every student. She said it was her best year of teaching. She also said it was almost impossible to sustain. I tried it once. I couldn’t keep up.
  • Our student records system has a pass-back feature with Canvas, meaning I can grade in my LMS and the scores automatically get sent to my gradebook. Like the old rule about paper: Only Handle It Once, right? I feel like that might save me some time.

 

As we get comfortable with 1:1, the temptation is to use a tech tool for everything. But as many of my PLN have pointed out, it’s worth asking the question: “Is it better on paper?”

  • I’m a long time “Attendance/GBWA on seating chart” guy. I slip the seating chart into a page protector, walk around with a Vis-a-vis, mark my attendance or scores, and away we go. I also slip a copy of the full-detail version of my class roster in the sleeve back-to-back with my seating chart. At a previous school, we knew that some of our students didn’t know their address or contact phone number without having their phones handy to look up the info. If we ever had to evacuate the building, the roster meant that I had all my students’ contact info ready for them.
  • I need a better plan for grading quizzes/giving feedback, the way a starving man needs a cheeseburger. I’m open to suggestions. I got nothing.

P. S.: Even still, in teaching and in life, some things can’t be hacked.

And yes, I read Mommy Blogs. Especially Catholic ones. Don’t @ me. Unless you do it as an IFTTT.


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.

 

Day One

Image result for stress gif
Source

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

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

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

20229290_10212166008398319_4445602401590405251_n
Under Construction. That space on the left will be the new music wing. Photo cred: me

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

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

Nope.

Walk in Friday morning to this. Surprise!

20664417_10212358230803759_5260378923819305887_n
Clean slate. At least I’m gonna have some bumpin’ speakers. Photo cred: me

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

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

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

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

Image result for teamwork makes the dream work meme


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

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

What if there was a better way?

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

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

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

Here’s the plan:

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

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


 

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

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

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

Let’s Go.

Image result for let's go gif
Source

 

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

(Part I here)

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


 

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

homework-issues-ditchhw
Via Alice Keeler

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

Image result for nope gif
Source

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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


 

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

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

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

Image result for dancing gif
Source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

Image result for willson contreras gif

I’m sold.

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

“It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.

As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.

Just like the rest of life, right?

So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

Amy Welborn, “Homeschooling… Again?!“, 8/7/17

Spending some time today pondering: How would I answer a parent (or a student) asking that same question: “Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

School starts in a week, and I’m having long thoughts about grading and homework and how class time is spent and everything. I can do better. I know my grading/points system was out of whack last school year. Many times I knew a student’s letter grade didn’t really reflect his ability to do math.

I have to fix that.

I know there’s a premium on time when classes are 50 minutes long. I want kids thinking and arguing and defending their positions and solving problems and working together and practicing skills and having a chance to ask questions and get feedback on their efforts.

And I’m pretty sure that unless I invent a way to elongate time that I can’t do all those things in one class period.

 tv doctor who david tennant tardis GIF
Source

 

 

Along comes the Dynamic Duo: Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. The question has been around for a while: is homework worth the time and aggravation? Does it encourage learning? Does it increase the educational divide between students of different socio-economic classes? There is much research that at least suggests there is a better way. These two well-known teacher/presenters aim to provide the why and the how for doing things different.

35834279
Image via Goodreads.

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for years. I read his first book, Ditch That Textbook, around this time last year. I’ve seen videos of Alice pitching her homework theories. To be honest, the Halo Effect is strong around these two. I’m predisposed to read their stuff, punch my fist in the air and shout “Yes”! So I’m intentionally adopting the posture of a skeptic as I read #DitchHW. Playing the Devil’s Advocate. I’m trying hard to punch holes in their argument. I’ve got a tendency to take a new idea and run with it. I want to make sure this one has staying power. To justify putting my teaching money where my mouth is.

But they’re making their case well.

Why Ditch Homework-
Alice Keeler: “But what did they get in return for their investment?”

I don’t know about you, but when I don’t see the value in something I’m asked to do…. I don’t want to do it. That just sounds like the set-up for a power struggle. Even if the research leaned towards homework as a great educational tool, the kids who refuse to do the homework won’t do the learning. And that’s a problem.

Here’s what I saw in my classroom. Pick a year – could be 2003, 2008, 2012, or last May:

  • About 35% of my students legitimately do the homework on their own
  • Another 30-40% copy the work from the students in the first group
  • The rest don’t do homework at all
  • Even when I point out they are getting points just for effort, enough points in a quarter to equal a quiz score
  • They’ll copy homework blatantly in class from a seatmate
  • They’ll snap their homework and text/snapchat it to friends
  • They will see similar problems a week later on a review sheet and look at me like they’ve never seen that type of problem before

Learning has not occurred, people.

On the other hand, the best days for my students are days when there is collaborative work, with students having chances to help each other and to get help and feedback from me.

That sounds like something I’d like to have happen more often.


 

These two really know how to get my attention, that’s for sure:

Reclaiming my time.

So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.

Image result for you're gonna need a bigger boat gif

Miller and Keeler go on to suggest ways for teachers to build relationships with students and parents so that we get buy-in from our two most important stakeholders, offer tips to provide timely and useful feedback, and they examine the brain science of the change-over that will help students own their own learning.

So the Why is in place. We’ll look at the how, and process my takeaways, in Part Two.

 

From The Ground Up

What do kids really want their school to be like?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

London Calling
Cover image via theclash.com.

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock Family Tree
The Family Tree of Rock. Via The Odyssey.