One Man Book Club: Dignity

I attend a large, fairly well-off parish. The kind with families who will gladly give of their abundant gifts to support the community. It’s a blessing to be here. I’m surrounded by examples of sacrificial giving.

But there’s a thing about our liturgy that has always kind of made me stop and look around a bit. There are several forms of the Penitential Rite that can be used at the beginning of Mass. The best known is The Confiteor. “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”

It’s a humbling prayer. Most of us don’t feel like sinners most days. Or ever. Much less apply the term to ourselves out loud. Which is why we probably should. With the exception of Lent, we don’t pray the Confiteor at Mass. We typically use the “Lord have mercy” form of the rite. Which is easy to say without thinking about what the words mean. I know I often do.

It would help if I was a little less judgey. A little more humble. Like, I definitely want mercy on Judgement Day. But that’s gonna require me admitting my sins.

My news feed has been filled the last four days with “Rest In Power” wishes from former students to their classmates. By my count there were four deaths from the weekend through Tuesday. They are all heartbreaking, all of the kids under 30. Yeah, I know, not “kids” anymore. But for the group of teachers I worked with for 11 years, in the building I’m going to return to this year, they’ll always be “our kids”. One Facebook post in particular took my breath away. A former student eulogized her friend, then went on to call on her friends to recall all of their classmates/peers who have died too soon.

There were 43 pictures attached to the post.


Street violence, drugs, suicide, cancer.

I pray for about a dozen of them by name in my Rosary every day, and add “and also for those whose names are known only to You”. Because I knew there were so many more. I’m just not sure I ever knew exactly how many more.

That post was floating around in my head while I read Chris Arnade’s book Dignity. I’ve been meaning to read it since it came out last summer. I finally picked it up this week and devoured it in a matter of days. It was worth the wait.

Folks who didn’t read the book dismissed it out of hand as fetishizing the white working poor, as some type of apologetic guide to “how we got Trump”. Those critics missed the boat. Arnade spoke largely with people of color during his travels, and does address the dangers of “racial identity” late in the book. Regardless, he clearly cares deeply about the people he met and about their circumstances.

The former Wall Street trader quit his job and walked to a part of New York City his co-workers told him to never go. He looked around, met people, listened, talked, snapped photos, offered help in terms of cash for a meal or a ride. And he learned.

I know that intersection. 165th & Columbia Ave, Hammond. Ten blocks from school.

Then he jumped his car and sought out the forgotten and left behind across the country: Portsmouth,OH; Gary, IN; Bakersfield, CA; Cairo, IL; Milwaukee’s North Side; Central Cleveland; the East Side of Buffalo; Selma, AL.

And everything he thought he knew was challenged.

“Like most in the front row, I am used to thinking we have all the answers. On Wall Street there were few problems we couldn’t solve with enough smarts, energy, audacity, or money. We even managed to push death into the distance; with enough research and enough resources – eating right, doing the right things, going to the correct medical specialist – the inevitable could be delayed, and mortality could feel distant.”

Memento Mori.

Writing as an atheist, Arnade continues:

“With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant, and confined to a few distant others. It’s not hard to feel that you have everything under control.

The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things that are just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that ‘we don’t and never will have this under control.’ It is far easier to see religion as not just useful but true.

This isn’t confined to those in poverty or on the streets; it’s true for almost everyone growing up in the back row. Their communities have been shattered, their sense of place and purpose ruptured, leaving them with no confidence in ‘worldly’ institutions and with a clearer sense of the importance, value, and necessity of faith in something beyond the material.”

“It’s easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved”. I know what he means. I think it every Sunday at Mass. The Church knows it too. That’s why we’re invited “to call to mind our sins” at the beginning of the liturgy.

So, Arnade’s terms: Front row? Back row? The author explains that the people in his office, in his neighborhood, they worked the system, played the “game of school”, got the grades to get into the right college, gathered the credentials to gain access to elite jobs. The Masters of the Universe, who used education as a way out and up. Thus, the classroom analogy: “In many ways, we were akin to the kids who sat in the front row, always eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew they were learning.”

Arnade recognizes that his pathway out of an oppressive hometown is not equally available to all: “The vast majority of minorities and the working poor were excluded from our club – by a lack of credentials and by a system rigged against them getting any.” Those are the kids in the back row, in the classroom, and in society: “They were the people who couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college. The students who didn’t take to education, because it wasn’t necessarily their thing or because they had far too many obligations – family, friends, problems large and small – to focus on studying. They want to graduate from high school and get a stable job allowing them to raise a family, often in the same community they were born into.”

And the front row kids have created a world that doesn’t value what the back row kids value, home and family and community, and where the jobs that supported that world are gone.

Driving through Hammond, and Griffith, and Merrillville, and yes, Valpo, that truth is hard to miss.

Arnade spends quite a bit of time examining his own attitudes, and how they changed during his travels. His first chapter is titled”If You Want To Understand the Country, Visit McDonald’s”. He has pointed out that in the back row towns, McDonald’s is more than convenient, cheap food. That place with the greasy burgers and salty fries that the front row kids shun? It’s a community center. Hell, it’s a community in the most basic sense of the word.

In those moments, barriers between groups start to break down. Humans are hard-wired to sort things, and that extends to ourselves and who we hang with. Arnade says he believed the right things, supported the right causes, voted for the right candidates, but not until he crossed the bridge to the South Bronx did he understand.

He stipulates he gave assistance for food to anyone who asked, and proceeds from his book support organizations that provide aid to people. Family Motto: Never underestimate the value of one person doing a kindness for one other person. It always matters.

But how much good will it do long term? A first step, for sure. But Gary had a brilliant, Harvard-educated mayor and nothing changed. They voted her out of office last year.

Maybe the big picture is too big for one person to fix. Arnade suggests the trick is to see individual people as humans first, to not judge them, to help them even in seemingly small insignificant ways. That seems obvious but in 2020 I don’t take anything for granted.

He says you’ve got to talk together first. To listen. To be open to another point of view, to a different set of values. Maybe skip over the part where we make assumptions about other people based on their hair and their clothes and their musical taste and their address.

“That techno-rock you guys listen to is gutless.”

Oh, and one last thing. In the summer when “Black Lives Matter” went mainstream, a lot of my teacher friends are starting to think about how this applies in the classroom. Some have been thinking about it and acting on it for a while now. But several of my connects who have been doing anti-racist work in schools for a long time have pointed out that upholding white, middle-class (“front row”) values as the standard is oppressive. Culturally responsive teaching requires that while we have high academic expectations for our students, if we aren’t letting our students live and be themselves, we are doing it wrong. This connected with me while reading Dignity too. In his chapter “Racism”, Arnade writes:

“The front row when it views the problems faced by minorities doesn’t bend, redefine, or adjust their definition of success. They rarely reevaluate their own values, their own worldview, their own priorities. They rarely look inward at the status quo they have constructed and its narrow and rigid definition of success. They rarely ask if maybe their narrow definition of success, narrow definition of value, is itself exclusionary.”

In a school setting, even teachers who were back row kids as students are by definition front row now. Which comes with advantages, and responsibility.

The last page and a half or so of the conclusion to Dignity is damning. Arnade points out that those in the front row have a “special obligation” to care about and act on the inequalities in our nation.

“We have an outsize voice, and many of us have the noble goal of using that voice to build a more inclusive society, to fix the ugly racism, sexism, and inequality. Yet we have created a status quo that is often inclusive in name only. We have created a system that still excludes far too many people, mostly minorities but certainly all of the poor.”

Arnade says this is not intentional but rather due to the way we measure success, in dollars and stuff.

“We have said that education is the way out of pain and the way to success, implying that those who don’t make it out are dumb, or lazy, or stupid. This has ensured that all those at the bottom, educationally and economically – black, white, gay, straight, men, and women – are guaranteed to feel excluded, rejected, and, most of all, humiliated.”

Almost everyone who will read Dignity is a front row kid. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Question is, now that we know, what are we gonna do about it? Call to mind our sins? Or mumble something about mercy on our way out the door to the beach?

One-Man Book Club: Powerful Teaching

I’m a veteran of the Mental Game of Summer. Those first two weeks of June after school lets out are mine. To sit in the sun with a cold drink, wipe the hard drive clean, reminisce, forget, curse, ponder, recover. The last two weeks of June are filled with all the possibilities of play you can imagine. Carefree. Just gonna sit in the backyard and read? Sure. Sleep 11 hours on back-to-back nights? Zzzz. Impromptu road trip? Let’s Go.

The Fourth of July, America’s great national celebration of independence, is the fulcrum. The day itself is joyful. But the night brings the first hint of the Sunday Night Blues, like a chill wind on an August evening.

When I wake up on July 5, next school year is practically here.

This year the anticipation (dread?) is rearing its ugly head early. Mostly due to rampant uncertainty over what the start of school will look like in the midst of a global pandemic.

The plans, or at least a multiple-choice question involving possible plans, will start trickling out of the next few days. Governors in Texas and Michigan have both announced that school will re-open for in-person instruction.


In my district this week the interim superintendent presented details of a community survey that shows parents overwhelmingly favor face-to-face instruction when school opens in 8 weeks. No decision about re-opening school has been announced yet. And even an announcement (from a different district) that students will return to the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean seven hours a day, five days a week.

I felt like I managed the transition to emergency distance learning pretty well in the spring. But if everything I do starting in August is going to have to be convertible, and accessible to both in-person and distance learners, that planning needs to start like yesterday. Most of the wise people I follow have recommended building the online course first, then pivoting to in-person as needed since that’s an easier transition than the opposite direction. (Lengthy twitter thread opened by John Stevens here). I’m down with that.

Regardless of the setting, my main goal for the new year is to intentionally build in retrieval practice as outlined in Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain. I’ve been slowly working my way through the text since February, and have been introducing some of the concepts all year. (Info and resources here, but you really sould read the book).

The authors have worked together to research and implement cognitive science, and now have teamed up to package their findings into Powerful Learning.

They refer to the four basic building blocks as “Power Tools”, and you might find that they sound famliar from your practice, even if you used a different name. I did, for sure.

  • Retrieval Practice: as the authors put it, “pulling information out of students’ heads rather than putting information in students’ heads”.
  • Spaced Practice: the opposite of cramming, spreading recall opportunities out over time.
  • Interleaving: mixing closely related topics so students have to differentiate between concepts.
  • Feedback-driven Metacognition: “providing students the opportunity to know what they know and know what they don’t know.”

So a 3-2-1 summary after a notes video, or a rousing game of “The Fast And The Curious” or a warm-up that spirals back to last week’s topic or a “Green Sheet” that students use to prepare for a test or a review package that jumbles the order of topics, all qualify.

Patrice Bain talks about asking her students to have a “pointless conversation”. That’s a little unnerving to kids who have grown used to churning out squiggles on a worksheet. But I built some “check-in/no-right-answer” questions into my emergency distance learning work this spring, and got some very thoughtful responses:

I’ve been trying to encourage my students to go beyond re-reading notes and memorizing algorithms for years, with varying levels of success. The Power Tools give me a framework for helping my students become “fluent” in the math skills we’ve learned.

Fortunately, Agarwal and Bain anticipate that teachers will need student (and parent, and admin) buy-in to make the Power Tools really pay off in class. So they wrote an entire chapter titled “Spark Conversations With Students About The Science Of Learning”. It includes six steps to starting that discussion:

  • Empower Students By Sparking A Conversation
  • Empower Students By Modeling Power Tools
  • Empower Students By Fostering An Understanding Of Why Power Tools Work
  • Empower Students To Harness Power Tools Inside The Classroom
  • Empower Students To Harness Power Tools Inside The Classroom
  • Empower Students To Plan, Implement, And Reflect On Their Power Tools

These are tough conversations, and necessary conversations. Old habits (of study and of “doing school”) are hard to break. Asking students to intentionally think about and name what they know and what they don’t know is challenging. Breaking away from the “photomath” mindset pushes students out of their comfort zone. Teachers too, if I’m gonna be honest.

I recall a moment early this past school year when a student (who I knew was really really successful grade-wise in her algebra class) looked at me for help on a quadratic equation problem that showed up in a skills review in my geometry class. She literally said “I have no idea what to do with this”. I’ll admit that deep down inside I was a little judgey. Like, “what do you mean you don’t know how to solve a quadratic equation? It was only four months ago and it was literally one of the most important skills in the whole course!” Quickly I caught myself and remembered that a lot of things we learn one time evaporate over a summer. Otherwise, why were we reviewing skills? So we sat together and I nudged her to factor the quadratic first and things fell into place.

But this is where retrieval practice and “judgements of learning” come into play. From Day One, if we are constantly thinking about what we know and what we don’t know, reaching back intentionally to recall prior learning, giving students low-stakes opportunities to test themselves before an assessment, giving them actionable feedback, we give our students the tools to learn for the long term.

When we return to school the learning loss from an extended period away from an in-person setting is going to be only one of many challenges we’ll face. Regardless of what school looks like in August, the tools I read about in Powerful Teaching can help my students organize their knowledge, prioritize their time for study, and power through the most challenging school year any of us have ever faced.

This Needs A Name

I’m a math guy who reads a lot. Maybe too much. And I’m a long-time non-fiction guy. So I love a good story. Especially the true ones. They are powerful. And powerful stories change things.

Some time ago, in our never-ending quest to Do Something Different™ we made a day trip to the Gilmore Car Museum outside Kalamazoo, MI.

It was a day of history and hot rods. But there was more than just old cars. Several exhibits sought to help visitors see how the automobile influenced 20th century America. There was a Dust Bowl exhibit with the broken down skeleton of an old Ford that might have carried a family across the country 90 or so years ago. Prints of Dorothea Lange photos helped tell the story.

And around the corner: the Green Book.

Way before there was a movie. Way before I had a clue what it was. The museum owns a copy of the actual book, and the exhibit includes a video with first-person stories of people recalling incidents of racism and discrimination from their youth.

It was powerful. Even if you know that racism was (and is) pervasive in our country. Even if you had read about slavery and Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement and the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Rosa Parks and Dr. King and Fred Hampton and Malcolm X.

Looking at someone right in the eye (even on video) as they tell you how their humanity was stolen from them changes you. I know my youngest son understood it in a way far deeper than what he had learned in school. He had a similarly moving experience when he and members of the St. Paul Junior Choir sat on the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum and heard a recording of Ms. Parks’ own words describing the moment she made her stand.

There are a million things that need to be done. Like cops could stop killing innocent Black men and women. Driving While Black could stop being a thing. We could end the practice of throwing non-violent drug offenders in jail for a million years, especially as more and more states legalize weed. We could take a long hard look at how students of color are disciplined and suspended at disproportionate rates. We could examine whether we are offering students of color the same academic opportunities and post-secondary options as their White peers.

But Step One: we need to teach our kids what racism is and what it does. I wish I could say I planned all these adventures to help my son be anti-racist. But they just kind of happened. I’m glad they did. It probably helped him understand the concept far better than me preaching at him.

In recent days a couple of writers I follow online have dug deep into places of pain to share their stories. I’ll start with James Boyd of the Northwest Indiana Times.

“When I was in sixth grade, I remember standing outside of my middle school waiting for it to open and being accused of sagging my pants by one of the deans.

Back then, I was on the basketball team, and it was cool to wear shorts underneath your jeans. I’m sure anyone who has ever played a lot of basketball can relate. Because of this, my shorts were visible above the waistline of my pants. I wasn’t sagging. I’ve never sagged a day in my life.

But as I stood with a group of friends, ones who didn’t look like me, this dean — who also didn’t look like me — pulled me aside and reprimanded me in front of everyone. He tried labeling me a “thug.”

To this day, I hate that word.

I can’t recall exactly what happened in the moments afterward, but thankfully I have parents who stood up for their son’s character and integrity. Eventually, it blew over — or rather I moved on. But I NEVER forgot. That was probably one of the first times in my life that I had been stereotyped.

I was 12.”

In case you doubted that racism exists in school, and how it affects our kids.

And then Javonte Anderson of the Chicago Tribune. (Trigger warning: Anderson uses the n-word in his column as he processes his response to a series of unarmed Black people killed by police).

Seeing an officer kill another Black man is like watching my own funeral. Or my brother’s. Or my father’s.

It highlights the frailty of my existence. It conjures up thoughts of slavery, lynchings, fire hoses, Jim Crow and Rodney King. It opens up emotional scars. It forces me to question my worth. It makes me realize that the complexion of my skin denies me the chance of making even one misstep.

It’s why my hands trembled on the steering wheel the last time a white police officer pulled me over. For him, it was a routine traffic stop. For me, it was life or death.

It makes me feel more like a n****r and less like a man.


The Chicago Bears’ Akiem Hicks laid himself bare on a conference call with reporters last week too.

Among my online PLN there are many people who have faced the same types of racism their entire lives. Their recommendation to white people who want to become anti-racist but aren’t sure where to start is not to come to them asking for guidance or a “to-do” list, but to do their own reading.

It’s the same thing we ask our students to do – to own their own learning.

And in this case, to learn from men and women who have shared their humiliation and anger from their personal encounters with our national sin.

One of the critical starting points is – checking who I’m connected to online. Many of these powerful narratives would not have come into my timeline if I wasn’t already following Boyd and Anderson. Or Carron Phillips or José Luis Vilson or Kelly Hurst or Jemele Hill or Chevin Stone. If I’m going to learn, I need to make sure I’m listening to the right people.

One last thing. I’m Catholic. I believe in heaven. And I believe in hell. Racism is a mortal sin. The destination of my soul is on the line. Period. I like to believe that my co-religionists believe that too, and act accordingly. God knows our bishops have not always done the right thing in the last few decades in terms of protecting children. But at this moment several are stepping up to shepherd their flock regarding racism in America. My bishop is one of them. Then here’s Joseph Cardinal Tobin of Newark, NJ.

The necessity of naming the evil of racism humiliates us, since so many events in our lifetime, let alone the history of our nation, have compelled us to shamefully recognize the national sin
that obliges African Americans to endure unique and relentless humiliation, indignity, and unequal opportunity. Our tolerance of racism as well as collective deafness to the cry of those so grievously offended and the conscious and unconscionable promotion of divisions in this nation has encouraged the heinous evil of racism to propagate.

Cardinal Tobin could not have made it more clear. Nothing will change until we can name it. And then admit it. And then work to right it. And if we need help comprehending the evils of racism – listening to how the pain leaps off the page and the video screen will give us the guidance to call it out.

Shouting Into The Darkness

Mrs. Dull has some time to read these days. That happens when your entire division of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-national company is eliminated in an economic downturn.

About a week earlier I had pre-ordered the latest Jennifer Fulwiler book Your Blue Flame as a gift for her. (Excellent timing, right?)

We’re very large fans of the atheist-turned-Catholic-mom-of-six-turned-SiriusXM-talk-show-host-turned-stand-up-comic around here. And yes, she’s aware there is an Urban Dictionary definition of the title of her book.

So she is absolutely relatable.

So here we are on the first morning of summer break, sitting in the sun on the back porch with coffee and a book. And Cath runs across the latest laugh-out-loud Fulwiler anecdote, when she and her publisher were planning out the promo tour for her first book.

I’ll cede the floor for a summary from Jen’s blog:

But the real excitement came when I mapped the data. I took all the zip codes and input them into a program that plots them on a map, then Joe and I pored over the data.

We were surprised that nobody from Connecticut or Massachusetts was interested in me coming to that area, but we were delighted to find that my blog seems to have a small cult following in Luxembourg! The map showed a heavy concentration of responses near the Belgian border — so much so that Joe and I decided that we should ask Ignatius if they’d send me out there as part of the book tour.

I had a note that said Book tour – Luxembourg? all set for my next call with the marketing team…and then I happened to notice that the Google Drive spreadsheet I was using had automatically shortened zip codes that begin with zero to make them four-digit numbers.

When I called Joe to give him the update, I was laughing so hard I could barely stammer out the words as I visualized myself sitting in an empty bookstore in Luxembourg, noticing that everyone around me speaks French and German, wondering where on earth all the Conversion Diary readers are.

7 Quick Takes, 3/7/2014

Fulwiler (always self-effacing) says she has a friend who only needs to think of hearing, “I’m huge in Luxembourg” to give herself a laugh and bring herself out of a funk.

In my pre-teaching lifetime I used to be a sportscaster. I was fortunate enough to fall in with a station group that was happy to let me fill in as a newsman during the week to pay the bills while I prattled on about Indiana’s favorite pastime on Friday and Saturday nights. Pretty much a dream job for a kid who used to scan the AM dial for distant stations, a hobby known as DXing. Dialing in 50,000 watt clear channel stations from New Orleans or New York or Denver was a thrill. But it gets better. Due to a phenomenon known as sunset skip, at certain times and under certain atmospheric conditions a radio signal can travel amazing distances. In high school I’d occasionally set my alarm clock to pull in KFI from Los Angeles. Hobbyists will send letters along with a tape recording of the signal to a station, asking for a confirmation of the reception (known as a QSL). Which is why one day an engineer at WIMS radio called me to his office in the basement of our studios, popped in a cassette tape, let me listen for a minute and asked, “is this you?”

Turns out, yes. He showed me the envelope with a return address from Sweden. Or Norway, I forget which. Either way, I was floored. Someone on the other side of the world heard me!

(It’s a little Inside Baseball, but regional stations such as WIMS sometimes have limits placed on their signal to prevent interference with stations in other cities. At sunset, the WIMS antenna pattern was changed to broadcast almost straight north. The red outline on the map below represents the extent of the coverage.

“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea…”

So we covered the city, and then I guess the crews of the ore boats coming to and from the steel mills that ring the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and that’s about it for potential audience. Most of our signal was wasted on the open waters of my Great Lake.)

Back to that reception report though. We were pumping 5000 watts of power straight north, up the length of Lake Michigan, over the Arctic Circle, and to the other side of the planet. Turns out the nighttime signal booms into Scandanavia. I’m big in Sweden. Or Norway. Either way, cool, right?

All the time I was honing my craft and calling the latest touchdown run or buzzer-beating trey, I loved that families and fans were listening but I secretly hoped some Chicago radio program director or pro team front office official would stumble across my play-by-play while on their way to their Harbor Country vacation cottage or a Notre Dame game and offer me a job in the bigs.

It never happened. Most days, no one was listening.

At least it felt like that sometimes. Screaming into the vast darkness across the lake, across the frozen north.

But you never know who’s out there, somewhere, pulling in the signal.

After Cath filled me in on the Fulwiler-Luxembourg adventure, I related my “big in Norway” tale. She looked at me and said,”It’s kinda like teaching then. You never know the kind of reach you have.”

That is a wise woman. We should sit in the sun and read together more often.

As a post-script: on an assignment late during emergency remote teaching, one of my students confided to me that she was considering becoming a math teacher as a career. She had found a great deal of joy and fulfillment by helping her classmates understand material in my class, and felt it was something she could see herself doing as an adult.

I felt kind of honored by that (not just because what kind of kid wants to be a math teacher when they grow up? It’s like wanting to be a dentist, right?). This is a student who excelled at learning, not just at “the game of school”. She had teachers whose classes she dreaded. I feel like she would “get” teaching, and especially “get” teaching kids who don’t like school very much.

I hope so. I mean, that’s always been my thing. I’ve only ever had one official student teacher in my career, so I don’t really have a “teaching tree”. I have a few former students who are working on teaching degrees right now. I’ve had some kids who did cadet teaching in our district elementary schools. But this is the first time I’ve had a current student express interest in high school teaching of any subject, let alone math.

I’m looking forward to getting that QSL sometime off in the future. Even if I don’t, I’ll know it’s out there. Maybe she’ll drop a note on my FB (or whatever social media platform we all use a trajillion years from now).

Teaching is kind of like that sometimes – like the voices of thousands of radio hosts whose voices go seemingly unheard.

But somebody is listening. Even if it’s around the curve of the earth right now.

Flipping Me Off

In school, when it comes to kids and teachers and expectations, the arms race always escalates. As soon as teachers set a rule to “make” kids do a thing, kids will find a work-around to not do that thing.

I’ve been aware of the concept of the flipped classroom for almost a decade, since I read an article in THE Journal about a pair of science teachers in Colorado who wanted to open up classtime for their students to do hands-on activities. A year after I arrived at my current school the flipped instruction model took my department by storm.

Recognizing that my Algebra II students needed more time & support in class I flipped my class at the start of second semester three years ago and never looked back. Students definitely appreciated the help in class, from me or from their friends.


I noticed an issue almost right from the jump. Some students were not watching the videos and taking notes. They were moving the scroll bar until they found an example, copied it down, and moved on to the next example until they finished the notes.

It’s not a problem local to my class. I’ve heard the same from my colleagues in the building and even from my PLN (one of my online teacher connects calls it “the power of the pause”).

There’s no learning happening. It’s like ditching every class and getting the notes from a friend. You got the notes but missed out on the learning. And that’s not good.

So: how to fix that?

A few years ago I’d have got all indignant and made a speech. I’m a little more grown up these days, a little more cognizant that I can’t make my students do anything.

So instead I decided to ask them what do they need from me to help them learn. I put together a Google Form back in the fall, gathering 114 responses.

And here’s what they told me:

Roughly 40% my students admitted to pausing the video to copy examples, rather than watching and listening to the notes.
We were already doing the 3-2-1 summary, so I was happy that they’d be willing to continue that. But the Google Form answer? Hmmm…
At the time I was locked out of my Youtube channel and couldn’t upload video with captions. Instead they just got the mp4 embedded in Canvas. That has since been rectified.

So we made some changes. I didn’t move to the Google Form (yet). Started by implementing some retrieval practice tools (courtesy of Pooja Agarwal & Patrice Bain and their book Powerful Teaching), and to encourage compliance I bribed them with points on the notes summary and the in-class work “check for understanding” page.

I felt like maybe we were on to something.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and we closed schools and embarked on two months of emergency remote teaching. Working off advice from a former colleague, I started using GForms as my shell (easier start-up than EdPuzzle), now I could ask questions whose answers came directly from the notes, insert questions where they worked out an exercise and either inserted an answer to the form (had to be the exact answer – if not, they can’t submit the form, and they would email me which started a math convo) or took a snap of their work and uploaded it.

This version of The Flip was perfect for emergency online teaching. How will it look in a regular face-to-face classroom? Hmmm…

Some of my math department colleagues are wondering if the flip is the best way going forward – a couple of them strategically “unflipped” portions of a module or two this year. Myself, I want to find a way to get the basics to my students before we meet, saving classtime for practice and productive conversations and partnerships.

And to be honest, I’m never going back to assigning “homework” – regardless of district our students have unequal access to support at home, and with the popularity of Mathway and Photomath I have to assume that any procedural math that isn’t done in front of me was done by an app and not by a student. Which is doubly unfair.

I’m exploring some ways to build a “blended” classroom rather than a strict “flipped” classroom. As always I’ll have way more usable tools than I have time for in one class period. So similar to the way I approached extended e-learning, I’ll have to pick one and roll with it. That sounds like work for the summer.

I’m hopeful that I might be able to glean some ideas from Michele Eaton‘s new book The Perfect Blend. Her experiences with online/blended learning in Indianapolis should be informing all of our plans for hybrid or 100% online formats when school resumes in August.

The Director of Virtual and Blended Learning for Wayne Twp. Schools in Indianapolis sharing her knowlege.

I’m thankful my students were honest with me when I asked them about the flip and how it could be improved. I think they were thankful that I asked them in good faith how our class could be better, instead of lighting them up for “cheating” on notes. And I think implementing some of the tactics I gleaned from professional reading paid off this past school year and will continue to in the future.

Did the reading on my own, consulted with friends and experts when I had questions. Kind of like a mini-flipped learning model. Hmmm…

This is my contribution to the #MTBoS2020 blogging initiative started by Jennifer Fairbanks. That makes 4 out of the 5 months so far (I’m on a roll now). But take a look at the #MTBoS2020 tag for some great thinking about teaching and math from my online PLN.

Now What?

(Ed. note: if this isn’t the longest piece I’ve written in this space, it’s close. If you’ve got some time, make some coffee and settle in. Otherwise, bookmark it for later.)

All the best teachers I know are reflective practitioners. In fact, all the teachers I know are reflective practitioners. Some are a little more organized about it, some are a little more public about it, but even if it’s just a “Wow, that lesson sucked! I wish I would have (x)…” all of us are constantly thinking about how things went, what we learned, how we can be better next time.

Just some #INeLearn teachers, keepin’ it real. And thinking about things.

From the POV of spring of 2020, many of us are pondering what chunks of emergency remote teaching we can take with us back into the face-to-face classroom, whenever that might be.

In my building, the question was given to us a mandatory exercise. Our administrators received responses from 95% of the staff within a day. Which, “mandatory” or not, is pretty high.

So clearly folks had been thinking things.

The three questions:

  1. State your name, and then in reflecting on this extended period of e-learning, what have you learned and what would you use going forward to augment your teaching in a traditional setting?
  2. What was the greatest challenge you faced during this e-learning experience?
  • Technology Issues
  • Student Completion of work
  • Lack of Communication with Students/Parents/Guardians
  • Other

3. In what areas do you feel you made the most growth as a teacher during this e-learning setting?

Fortunately I had been giving these questions some thought myself, and our department chair tipped us off to the survey, so my response to “what have you learned?” wasn’t completely off-the-cuff:

I think like all of us I was initially pretty stressed about navigating the quick turnaround from the announcement date to the start of e-learning, and I spent some time pondering some options. I quickly got in touch with a former colleague and fellow presenter to get her feedback and decided on using Google Forms for my shell. That allowed me to ask wellness/mindset/check-in questions, embed my notes video, link to tools such as Flipgrid, Quizizz, Desmos activities, or my own custom activities on a google doc. In addition, students can upload files of their work thru the form. And since the responses are sent to a spreadsheet, I was able to quickly and easily grade/check student work or find & grade late work. That somewhat duplicated my “formative-assessment-by-walking-around-and-looking-at-student-work” that I use in face-to-face class. I also experimented a couple of times with setting an answer to require an exact value so if students did not enter the correct value they would get auto-feedback from me and the form could not be submitted until the answer was correct. This led to many students contacting me in office hours for assistance so we were able to talk a little math. Many of my online connects use GForms as their warm-up to ask check-in questions and have a place to collect student responses. I could see this as a tool I could use in a face-to-face class. One of my biggest takeaways was to trust my background, the skills I’ve developed as a lesson designer and the tools I’ve learned to use to create activities for my students that complied with district guidelines on time-on-task, content, and technology. I did some reflecting throughout the extended e-learning period, but I didn’t make major changes. I wanted to settle on a format that (in an imperfect world, at a challenging time) was a good fit for my students’ needs and my needs. Going forward, I have the same question that many of my fellow teachers have, which is how to create opportunities for students to collaborate. It’s how so many of us conduct face-to-face learning, and it doesn’t translate easily to an online environment. Many of the smartest teachers I know among my online PLN have been struggling with the same question. Since we will likely be on some type of hybrid or possibly 100% online when school resumes in August it’s a topic I’ll spend some time on. Coincidentally enough the #INeLearn twitter chat this week is moderated by Michele Eaton (Director of Virtual & Blended Learning for MSD of Wayne Twp. in Indy) and I imagine the topic of feedback & collaboration online may come up. 

So, about that #INeLearn topic. It lived up to the hype. Powerhouse chat every week, with some really brilliant contributors.

It was the nightcap of back-to-back Indiana teacher chats – the Wednesday night #INEdChat also took on the topic of reflection on the extended e-learning process.

There’s a common thread in the tweets I pulled out of the chat, aside from legit reflections on grading practices, lesson design, what worked & what didn’t, making connections with students during distance learning, and self-care tips (guac recipe, anyone?).

Virtually everyone on the chat recognized that regardless of what “school” looks like in August (we all have our predictions, some more pessimistic than others, and many districts have been busy planning for as many contingencies as they can imagine), we have some work to do regarding the inequities of extended distance learning. As Ken Shelton and many other have pointed out, those inequities have always been present in a face-to-face environment, but they were exacerbated and laid bare by two months of emergency remote teaching. Our most marginalized students are hiding in plain sight.

Nutrition, technology & connectivity, physical & mental well-being, all things that are provided seamlessly by experts in face-to-face settings, all required new methods and super-human efforts when we only see our kids from behind a screen (if at all).

It’s a monumental challenge and one that even the sharpest minds won’t be able to solve in a 30-minute twitter chat.

Like I mentioned in the chat, it’s the thing that keeps me up at night these days. But the thing that makes me optimistic about August and beyond is:

Clearly, folks have been thinking things.

Moms, man…

My Chicago people know Lin Brehmer, the cerebral, literate WXRT host known in equal parts for his love of the Chicago Cubs and his long-running audio essay series Lin’s Bin.

Listening to him host middays from his home is like having a really smart, really good friend with excellent taste in food and the greatest record collection in the history of electricity. And of course he peppers his discourse with his patented wry observations on life.

Today he was relating a conversation he had this week with a friend about Mothers’ Day plans. According to Lin, she told him all she wants to do is get in her car and drive to a park or something and just be out of the house for a while.

(For context, Chicago has been under a pretty strict lockdown. To the point where the mayor has become a meme.) Everybody wants out. For any reason or no reason at all.

Brehmer closed the segment by reminding his listeners that all this woman wanted for Mothers’ Day was to get out of the house so she could have some time to herself. (Emphasis in original).

The job of mothering has always been perplexing and exhausting and thankless, as evidenced by the above anecdote from a few Mothers’ Days ago. But the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has redoubled the degree of difficulty.

Everyone has seen the viral declarations from moms who have tapped out on emergency remote learning for their kids. For Work From Home parents of elementary-aged kids, it was never sustainable. For working parents trying to guide their kids through a full-day schedule mimicking the in-person daily schedule, five days a week, distance learning has always had an expiration date.

And the movement is gaining strength. It’s probably showed up in your Facebook feed, from moms in your neighborhood or your town, maybe to your surprise.

Even some teacher-moms have brought the e-learning year to an early conclusion.

My youngest is a sophomore and motivated to have whatever level of success in school keeps him eligible for sports, so he’s mostly self-sufficient. When he needs help he comes to see me. We check his work to make sure it gets turned in. Done and done.

But if I had to carve out time after office hours and planning and grading and entering feedback to sit with him for six classes a day, or put my own work off until after his classes were done I’d be seriously considering tapping out too.

This might be one of the most under-appreciated pieces of the puzzle as districts plan to re-open schools in August. If parents are back to work but schools re-open on a partial or fully online schedule, a lot of parents (moms primarily) are going to have some decisions to make. Some literal lose-lose decisions.

I don’t know what the right or wrong thing to do is regarding opening schools in 12 weeks. Well actually, I do, the right thing is the option that keeps the most people alive. But I do know that whatever we do is going to have to have the interests of families in mind. Or it won’t work.

And I also know that if you are celebrating Mothers’ Day this weekend, tread lightly. Give grace. Give love. She could use the break.

And maybe a trip to Greenbush and Weko Beach. Or whatever is the equivalent in her world. Because she earned it, way before the world had heard of Emergency Online Teaching.

What Is Normal?

It’s America’s Favorite Parlor Game: “what is the world gonna look like on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic?”

Followed closely by: “When can we go back to normal?”

The real question is probably: “What will normal look like?”

A couple weeks ago a handful of my teacher friends started to mentally do the math and have serious wonderings about whether schools could open on time for in-person instruction in August.

Indiana State Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Jennifer McCormick laid out some of the possibilities in a media conference last week. Illinois governor JB Pritzker mentioned that school districts should begin planning to open up online in the fall.

I mean, you can’t not plan. The work involved to open online is gonna take all summer. After dropping online learning in teachers’ (and students’) laps with literally a weekend’s notice this spring, we have to show up ready to go with real online classes in August, if it comes to that.

The San Diego County Schools leadership have put together a lengthy document that is being benchmarked by the Clark County School District in Las Vegas.

Of note:

  • SDCOE feels that student enrollment will decline as some parents seek established distance-learning programs which will be seen as “safer and more stable”, while other families hurt by the economic downturn will be priced out of the housing market and forced to leave the county. (Editor’s note: that’s a real concern in my district too – in a town that is widely considered affluent, our marginalized students and families sometimes are hiding in plain sight.)
  • Officials also outlined plans for accommodating 50% of the normal enrollment on a campus down to 20% of normal. They discussed how to make work assignments or accommodations for employees in high-risk groups. And the plan also included an outline to support mental health of students and families.
  • The plan also recommended the board “(c)ollaborate with employee associations when developing plans that impact the work of their members.”

When I shared this plan with some of my Indiana teacher connects that last bullet point was a piece of the planning that stood out to me. One teacher mentioned that she and her spouse are both in education, with three children in different grades. Any kind of staggered work schedule would drown them in child-care costs and probably result in one of them leaving the profession.

I’m sure the district-level and state-level administrators here are working through the possibilities and the appropriate pathways to protect students and staff. As I’ve said throughout my career, “hey, you guys tell me what to teach and who to teach and where, and I’ll handle the rest”. This new school year is gonna stretch the spirit of that motto for sure.

Meanwhile, talking through it with my junior-to-be son, who’s hoping against hope his football team will have an opprtunity to earn their way back to the state champiosnhip game, we pondered what an online start to the school year might look like.

I mentioned that I was concerned about starting a school year with six classes of kids I never met and don’t know, and oh yeah BTW we’re gonna teach exclusively online for maybe nine weeks, maybe longer.

He shook his head and said, “Nope”.

That is a very perceptive 16-year-old. He knows you don’t just sit down and start doing work for someone you don’t even know. For my son, middle school and freshman year was not a great experience. Things turned around this year mostly because every one of his teachers is either a) one he’s had before, b) one of his football or wrestling coaches, c) another sport coach, or d) me. The relationships made all the difference. I shared this with one of my online connects and he pointed out that it would really be critical if we looped kids into the conversation about what all-online school from the jump might look like.

My district sought out feedback from teachers, parents, and students after a few weeks of Emergency Remote Teaching, and acted on that feedback, so it wouldn’t be a big stretch to at least reach out to students for their input: “What would teachers need to do to build relationships with students if the school year begins online?”

Tomorrow my school is doing a socially-distanced student pick-up for graduation materials (the graduation ceremony is obviously canceled, and when and if we do offer some type of in-person celebration many of the students may not be able to return), and we’ve organized a teacher cheer line to greet the kids as they snake through our parking lot. I selected a time near the end of the schedule as I’ve got a lot of end-of-alphabet seniors I taught as juniors last year that I’d like to say “so long” to.

I’ve got a few I would have sought out after the ceremony for a smile and a fist bump. This year it’s just “deuces” from six feet away. That’s not normal.

And one more thing: I think The Shutdown is making everyone a bit nostalgic. Things we used to do, not even thinking twice about. I read somewhere that a side effect of quarantine is that we aren’t getting new experiences so our brains are sifting through and fronting old memories. (That would probably explain a series of really bizarre dreams as of late). Shoot, I was talking with Mrs. Dull about how my kindergarten teacher Ms. Stanek wan’t gonna let us go on to first grade unable to tie our shoes – we practiced with a construction paper cut-out of a shoe with yarn laces until we got it right (the things you remember a million years later, right?)

So I get a notification on my phone last night:

That was cool. I mean, it’s nice to be remembered. Especially by a brilliant member of the Air Force who has been around the world twice and left me in the dust math-wise long ago. But the comments: “GOAT”. “I hated math yet his class was my favorite to go to!”

It’s been a while since those guys & ladies were my students. They are adults now, out there doing awesome things. And every time I think of them and those classes, I smile.

I could live with that as normal. It’s a good reminder of the relationships I’ve been able to develop together with students. I’m not sure how I’m gonna make that translate to teaching and learning from behind a screen, but it’s one more not-normal thing we’ll all adjust to before school starts back up.

Like Neil Peart wrote long ago: “He knows changes aren’t permanent/But change is.

Get To The Point

There’s pretty much two types of students right now, as #QuaranTeaching enters its fifth week in my district:

  1. The kids who miss school and their friends so much they pedal down to the school on an unseasonably warm early April day to hang out together and make TikToks in the parking lot. They’d go back tomorrow if the state re-opened the schools.
  2. The kids who wake up every day and think, “I don’t have to see like 100 different ignorant people today, so I’m good”. They knock out their online work in a couple of hours and go back to living their best life.

I’d imagine there are two types of teachers right now too, and I’m one of them.

After some initial apprehension, I’ve found my groove with distance teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to write a book or present on best practices for online teaching, although somebody should. I suspect we will all face a steep learning curve over the summer.

And days like today that involve hours of grading students’ digital submissions are exhausting in a way that I don’t remember paper grading being. It’s a test of endurance some days. But what I think I have done is find a way to meet my district’s requirements for time-on-task and content, while keeping my students interested and engaged with activities that echo our face-to-face classroom philosophy.

I’m asking them to do more, and do less, at the same time. With a mandate to keep activities to a 30-minute time limit, I’m not gonna give them 20 or 25 practice problems, digital or otherwise. Instead, I’m asking them to dig deeper, to explain their process, and to apply what they’ve learned. It’s no different than my approach in the classroom, with the exception of working from behind our screens.

It’s been a minute since I taught geometry. When I got my schedule over the summer, I eagerly anticipated the day in the spring when I could roll out the Spiky Door Project, a production of the great Kate Nowak. It was huge hit when I last assigned it, at another school in another district. A worldwide pandemic meant I would have to make some adjustments to what the project looked like, but it definitely checked all the boxes for a quality e-learning activity.

I rolled it out in stages, first asking students to design the net of their pyramid, draw and label it on paper, and to calculate the surface area. I made this an assignment when we covered surface area in the first half of the module, and let my students know we’d be calculating volume of the pyramid later on, and submitting a formal set of drawings and calculations as a quiz grade.

I embedded a video in Canvas to help them get started, so they could get a visual on my expectations and see what a well-organized presentation of the math work should look like. And the vast majority of my students were able to do some quality work here.

Today I got to see the fruits of my students’ labors. I’ve got 120 or so students across five sections, so as you’d imagine some crushed it like a belt-high fastball and some struggled mightily.

Probably the most common mistake was using the slant height of the face instead of calculating the pyramid height when determining the volume. That’s the kind of thing that, had we done this in-person, in-class, I’d have been able to catch with students individually. Many students took advantage of email or virtual (video) office hours to get help and ask questions, which was nice. I didn’t just drop this on them out of the clear blue sky. We’ve been working on applying what they’ve learned all year long. We talk about “working backwards” – hey, if the volume needs to be between 750 and 2000 cubic centimeters, and you’ve got a base area of, say, 196 square centimeters, what does the height need to be? And can you design the net intentionally to make that happen?

That’s a skill that comes easier to some students than others, for sure. My kids that are photomath-reliant tend to struggle with that kind of question. (Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about teaching geometry – when you have to write your own equation it’s much tougher to app your way through a class with little to no actual learning taking place).

I took a page from Nowak’s book, and set up a spreadsheet programmed to calculate the surface area and volume of their pyramid when I entered the side length and slant height. That saved a ton of time on what was already a long day of grading – at least I didn’t have to re-do the math on 120 projects. I used the same spreadsheet to record and total their points for each part of the rubric so everything I needed to assess their understanding was all in one place.

All told I was pleased with how this project was adaptable to emergency remote teaching. Broken up into chunks and with appropriate support, it was accessible to all my students. It was authentic enough for me to take a quiz grade on it, which in a very grade-driven environment is enough to motivate many of my students to make an effort.

The part of the project I made optional was the piece that gave the project its name – recognizing that not all my students would have materials on hand to create the 3D model of the pyramid they designed, I did not require it. Some did build a model anyway, which was cool. Maybe they’ll spike their own door at home.

This is my contribution to the #MTBoS2020 blogging initiative started by Jennifer Fairbanks. That makes 3 out of the 4 months so far (Solid C, right?). But take a look at the #MTBoS2020 tag for some great thinking about teaching and math from my online PLN.

Better Together

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You’ve heard the saying “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with“. That if you want to get better, hang with people who are better than you. There are folks who feel that limiting the circle to five sells the effect short. That the network effect extends to friends of friends.

I’m feeling it today, for sure – the benefits of being connected. Some years ago I stumbled across the #connectedtl Twitter chat (RIP), which I immediately dubbed “my West Coast teacher brain”.

That group was one of many that informed and improved my teaching. Definitely raised my average. And continues to push it upward to this day.

As my online connects pivot to teaching online full-time due to COVID-19-related school closings, and share their best stuff, I’ve got an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, and a recognition that I’ve got to keep things simple for both myself and for my students. How to marry the two? With some design guidance from Chevin Stone I settled on using Google Forms as my shell, allowing me to continue to use a blended learning format and seamlessly link to tools students can use to display their understanding.

So far, so good. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get better.

Julie Reulbach is a blogger & presenter & Desmos Fellow, and brilliant. Also: a proponent of being who you are, and being cool with that.

Today she hosted a super-timely webinar on creating assessments inside Desmos Activity Builder. (The organizers promised to post an archived version later this week). I’m good enough at AB, but I could be better. So this webinar was right up my alley. Me and about 200 of my closest friends. Of course I scrolled the list of participants in the Zoom meeting, looking for familiar faces, but one of my local connects found me first. We kept a side chat going during the webinar, and the next thing you know we had agreed to collaborate on a Desmos assessment for geometry.

My department chair convened a virtual meeting with all of us this week to touch base and trade ideas and resources. One of the takeaways was that traditional methods of assessment are not going to work during an extended period of e-learning. Not that that should come as any big surprise.

Our district Director of Secondary Curriculum is our former DC, so he’s a math guy and a Desmos guy. His guidance to us was that we needed to create assessments that allowed our students to explain or describe the process, to display their thinking, rather than just “show their work” which likely comes from Photomath or Mathway.

Conveniently, that’s the direction I’ve been trying to move for years. And conveniently, it’s what Desmos does best. And you put two teachers together, trying to learn and improve, well, there’s strength in numbers. Today was a good day to be a connected teacher.

Because we are, always, better together.