One Man Book Club – It Won’t Be Easy

Bookshelf
These are just the books I’ve spent cash on. Include my Valpo Library selections and the shelf is five times as wide. I probably read too much.

“When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you are a teacher, every book is a ‘teacher book'”.

-Me

There are a lot of Teacher Books out there. I know, “a lot” is a precise technical term. But I teach, and I read, and I follow a lot of teachers on Twitter who read, and who post about what they are reading. So my sample is a little skewed, I admit. But as each summer begins I see a parade of posts featuring photos of stacks of books, captioned “my summer reading!” or some variation thereof.

Which is cool. A lot of us are trying to get better year by year, to meet the challenges of a career that will eat you alive if you are standing still. And there are a lot of excellent teachers out there willing to share what they know. If that advice comes from a trusted source (A woman I saw keynote a conference, a guy I interact with on Twitter), all the better. And, truth be told, a lot of us are searching for “that thing” that will turn everything around next year. Make us awesome.

A tweet rolled through my TL not long ago, boosted by Michelle Baldwin. It reminded me of a story I heard about Lance Armstrong. After retiring from competitive cycling, he entered the 2006 New York Marathon. Already the fittest endurance athlete on the planet, he figured he could conquer this challenge without specialized training. The story goes that 3-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar was part of a team pacing Armstrong and warned him to set a reasonable goal pace, that 26.2 miles would tax him in completely new ways. Armstrong took this under advisement, and went on to just do his thing. He finished in an impressive 2:59:36. And suffered a stress fracture in his leg.

Here’s a thread detailing the teacher-summer equivalent advice:

I can dig that. The Happy Medium is a glorious place. With that in mind, here’s my summer reading (so far):

 

 


 

Especially now that we are all connected, I am trying to be ever more aware of how much time I spend scrolling my timeline. When I see it becoming a giant time suck, I disconnect, close my laptop, put my phone somewhere across the room where I won’t be tempted to check it every 6 minutes, and grab a book.

I’ve been known to get lost in a book. In a good way. Mrs. Dull is always amazed (and not always in a good way) when I power thru 250 pages in a day.

You Just Got It Yesterday
See?

So upon multiple Twitter recommendations I’ve been reading “It Won’t Be Easy” by Tom Rademacher. And, true to form, it showed up on a Sunday during Mass, and by Sunday night I was on like page 105. Not because it was filled with trite motivational phrases, but because it was filled with what teaching is really like.

It Wont Be Easy Page
“You might suck at this”. But for real, this page is teaching in a nutshell.

“Mr. Rad”, as he’s known to his kids, is up front about his ups and downs. The time his students taunted him over his phone being stolen from his desk (“You’re not getting your phone back. Nobody cares about your $h!t!”) and the times his students dazzled him with the awesomeness that only high school students have.

He’s honest about the fact that he is occasionally an insufferable jerk and that he is not always really very good at this whole teaching thing, despite being named Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher Of The Year.

And Rademacher confesses some unpopular opinions:

  • We actually aren’t underpaid, comparatively.
  • Summers off are part of the deal, and it’s OK to admit that you dig that.
  • Even if you actually work during the summer.
  • Teachers knew how to play “The Game Of School” when they were students, too.
  • God help us all if his book ever becomes “assigned reading” in some college course.

And one opinion that is easy to nod your head to when you’re sitting in the sun with a cold drink, reading a teacher book… and really hard to actually do once you are standing in a room with 25 teenagers:

  • How we treat our students matters. A lot. If we would just shut up and listen, especially when they are telling us something we don’t know about, we just might learn something.

I cringed a lot reading “It Won’t Be Easy”. I said over and over to myself, “What an ass!”

About myself.

I think I’ve done every ignorant thing Rademacher rats himself out for. And those things were not any cooler when I dd them. I’m glad a Teacher Of The Year sucks at this job as bad as I do sometimes.

He tells of squelching his students’ voice in class, when he had claimed that his room was a safe space for them. Of treating his Black and White kids differently. Of calling students out in class in front of their peers. Of using his power over kids to get compliance. Of selectively enforcing rules. All the stuff I’ve done. That we’ve all done. Except…

Except Rademacher goes into great detail how he learned from every one of these situations. Usually because he caught himself being a jerk. Often because his students felt comfortable enough to call him out on it. And because his students were smart enough and brave enough to be able to school him on it.

And how he humbled himself enough to shut up and listen.

Oooooh, that part is hard.

Over time, I knew I got better at handling myself in challenging classroom situations. I know the PBIS Team at Gavit worked hard to create a climate where we all supported our students, where we didn’t seek to exert power over them but to get them to seek ownership over their own behavior in the building. Sometimes with awesome results.

I know I eventually reached the point where I silently checked myself before interacting with a student: “This thing I’m about to say, would I say the same thing if I was addressing a white student?” “Is this kid’s skin color affecting my perception of what actually happened?” “Would I treat a male student the same as the female student in front of me?” “What if somebody said these words I’m about to say to my kid?”

Is that good? It’s required in the places where I taught for the first 13 years of my career. Is it enough? No. Is it a good start? Yeah. Truth be told, I think every teacher in the School City of Hammond should read this book. Every teacher in the Valparaiso Community Schools, too.

I’m not perfect at it. Give me 20 more years and I still won’t be. I won’t grow out of my smart-assery before I retire. But I think I’ve made some strides. Rademacher’s book serves as a timely reminder that it’s important to keep working. It Won’t Be Easy. But as he says, our kids deserve it.

We Belong

You don’t belong.

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

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

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

I can relate.


 

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

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

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

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

So, we don’t belong.

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


Indiana Summer of eLearning

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

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

So they did.

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

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

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

Everybody got something they can use RIGHTNOW.

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

Yeah. We belong.


 

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

So maybe I don’t belong either.


 

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

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

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

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

I don’t belong.

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

Shah MTBoS Tweet

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

And, squee.

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

I belonged.


 

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

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

But my last session of the conference… oh man:

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

She belongs.

I belong.

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

We belong.

Everywhere I’m Not

Sam at Sunset
I know that look.

Mrs. Dull and my youngest caught a sunset at the beach while I was attending graduation last Friday. We shared a cup of coffee before I headed out for a weekend calling hoops on Saturday morning, and she told me a story.

My 13-year-old son is all SoCal‘d out these days – he grows out his hair when school is done, so he’s got a little surfer-boy flow under his beanie, eyes hidden behind shades.

Mrs. Dull noticed that the look kind of suits him, and mentioned that to him as they watched the sun dip under the horizon.

He smiled.

She told me, over strong beans, that she thought he would thrive out there. Vegas, specifically. That the vibe there suits his personality.

Yeah, I can see that. And, truthfully: The draw to the West is strong sometimes.

When we  lived there, all I wanted was to be back here. When we visited back there last summer, not gonna lie… I felt a little tug.

 

 


We plan to retire to a little beach town in Michigan, and we visit there often. When we sit on the beach at St. Joe, or share pizza and schooners with the windows open and the lake breeze blowing on our face at Silver Beach Pizza, it’s the only place I want to be, forever, watching a glorious sunset every night, or standing in awe as the waves of an angry lake pummel the lighthouse and pier.

But I imagine if we lived walking distance from the beach, there’d be nights I’d think “Oh great, another sunset. Whatevs. Do we have to go? Can’t we just stay inside and watch TV?” Like Dave Ramsey says, lobster gets to taste like soap if you eat it every day.

Rod Dreher writes of a lesson he learned on a trip to Europe as a high school student:

“The other big thing I learned on that trip was that life could be something else, something other than what I had been given. I met my Dutch pen pal Miriam in her town in the south of Holland. Valkenswaard was its name. I had dreamed of Valkenswaard as everything my own town was not. What I discovered was that kids in Valkenswaard dreamed of America as everything their town was not. It was, in truth, an unhappy surprise to discover that Valkenswaard was a real place and not a fantasy village. I laugh to think about it today, at 50, but back then, I needed to believe in Valkenswaard like I needed to believe in Carnaby Street and Dexys Midnight Runners and After The Fire and all of it. If only I could possess it, and be a part of it, I would finally belong.

Well, no. That’s not how it works. There are some places that are better than others, but the thing I learned was that you can’t escape from yourself. This is unfortunate. But there it is.”


When I started back to school for a teaching degree, one of my first professors introduced us to the concept of The Four Square Blocks: for kids who grow up in the city, that space is their world. For a variety of reasons, you just don’t cross the boundaries of your four square blocks.

Then I started teaching in a city. After that, in another, smaller city bordering Chicago. The parents moved their kids across the state line, hoping for… something better for their family. To the kids, living in Indiana (even just a few miles away from their old neighborhood) meant permanently tossing aside whatever street cred they had back home.

My Chicago kids spent a lot of energy putting up a front. The unspoken message was: you Indiana people think you’re hard, but you wouldn’t last a minute in my neighborhood.

Everybody wants to be somewhere else…

Meanwhile, at my new school this year, this was the number one most popular fashion accessory.

Image result for california hoodie
All the Cali Flag hoodies. Everywhere. (source)

Maybe it’s just a fashion trend. Maybe it’s a sign of longing to get out. Midwest kids will always be pulled to Endless Summer. The midwest brain drain is pretty well documented. My school sends kids to Notre Dame, and the Ivies, and to the top engineering schools in the country. What should we tell them? “No, you can’t go”? There’s a whole world out there, filled with challenging problems in need of answers. As the writer George Ade said: “A lot of smart young people have come out of Indiana. The smarter they are, the faster they come out.”

At the same time, the Golden State continues to see more people moving to other states than move in from other states – Cali natives are being drawn to far-off lands where taxes and housing prices and schools and everything must be so much better. Hell, we moved back here from Vegas (just before the housing bubble popped, Deo Gratia).

Everybody wants something better. Me, you, my kids. Everybody. And maybe it’s out there. Sometimes it’s worth it to pick up the phone and find out. (I did). To pack the U-Haul and roll the dice. (Did that too). The trick is, not to fall prey to the fantasy that streets are paved with gold. You can be just as miserable in Florida as you are in Indiana. Maybe more so.

Something better.

Hmmm….

16110580_746669032151782_7656934551322624000_n
Douglas Coughlin, Logical Negativist. (source)

Always listen to your bartender.

What We Learned

14 years, in the books.

As the years go on, the last day of school is always a bit anti-climactic. It is melancholy, for sure. But that’s true everywhere. You might have seen this one floating around a few years ago from up in The Mitten:

Gonna miss my kids, and those moments of awesomeness when a lesson all comes together or they discover something cool and get excited about math. I’m not gonna miss setting my alarm and programming the coffeemaker for the next 10 weeks or so. But the “woohoo” of turning in my keys and walking out the door is gone. Compared to the first few years, it is less an “event” and more a “point in time”.

Either way, it is a moment ripe with opportunities for reflection. Especially now that I’ve just finished my first year at a new school.


 

After school, waiting for my ride, I bumped into my department chair, who is leaving the classroom to go into administration. We had an opportunity for small talk, and he hit the bullseye with the first question:

“So, how did it go here during Year One?”

My stock answer to every who has asked that question since August is: Smooth.

But Nick is a good guy, and deserves more than a stock answer.

“It was good. Pretty much what I expected. Getting used to everything new. Building out a course in Canvas ate up a lot of time, but that will pay off next year and beyond”.

Then: “the department is a powerhouse, man”.

He said: “Yeah, we push each other pretty hard.”

And I said: “Yeah, I felt that. In a good way.”

I ate lunch every day with a group of four other math teachers. I heard them collaborate and troubleshoot on the fly between bites of brown-bag sandwiches. I heard a 25-year veteran asking for help from her subject area teaching partner. I saw a young teacher ask to come in and observe his colleagues in the department. I heard teachers gently push a colleague who could do better.

Everybody’s got everybody’s back. But nobody lets anybody else slack off, either.


So, Mr. Reflective Teacher, what did you learn this year?

  1. City or suburbs, kids are pretty much kids.
  2. They got kids that hate math in the green leafy suburbs too.
  3. If math class is just about math, those kids will hate it intensely.
  4. So, children must play.
  5. Living where you teach and seeing your kids outside of school is cool.
  6. Changing the culture is not a one-day process.
  7. The kids that don’t want to change will fight you for 180 days if they have to.
  8. I’m still more stubborn than they are.
  9. There’s only 30 hours in a day.
  10. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
  11. Having a planning partner is a gift.
  12. Having an hour a week to plan with your team is like finding a little gold nugget.
  13. Having a Lunch Bunch to ask questions/bounce ideas off/talk elections with is imperative to mental health.
  14. Having a copier that staples automatically saved me probably 24 full hours of my life over the course of the year.
  15. Having six classes in four classrooms on two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes meant I got my steps in for sure every day.
  16. I got fat anyway.
  17. We’re going 1:1 next year.
  18. I’m thinking of a million ways my kids can use Web tools to knock down walls, or at least to look at and think about math in a different way.
  19. Like this guy.
  20. I’m also trying to find a way to use MyMathLab to support my students who need extra practice.
  21. I know that makes their laptop a $300 worksheet, at least for that night. Sue me.
  22. Give kids a chance to do incredible things and they will. Or at least they’ll try.
  23. Give kids a chance to jump thru the right hoops and put the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter that will keeps their parents off their back or get them in the right school, and they’ll do that too.
  24. I can retire in 10 years.
  25. I don’t want to.
  26. I won’t be able to, anyway.
  27. Teachers report back to school in 63 days.
  28. I’ll be ready.
  29. But first, sunsets.
  30. This is really, really, really true:
teacher13-itokpjmqqzvn
Image via takepart.com.

Probably.

Timing Is Everything

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

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

Crazy. Got to be way too crowded, right?

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

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

But what’s this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

24Bauer
Image via imdb.com.

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

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

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

Minor Panic

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

Panic

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

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

And (whoomp) there it is.

myPLTWscreenshot
**Angel Choirs Singing**

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

Broadcast News from Anton Tokman on Vimeo.

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


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

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

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

Just like I knew they would.

Nice job, you guys. And: Happy Summer.

Understand What You Do

It’s graduation season. Throughout May and June, men and women, selected as speakers for their accomplishments and wisdom, will stand before a sea of faces, dropping knowledge and providing encouragement.

Most of their words will be forgotten within a few hours. I know my speaker said something about doing good at all possible opportunities, and beating Purdue in every possible sport. The rest of it?

Image via giphy

But just about all of them will riff on how “commencement” means “beginning”, even though it feels like we are celebrating an ending.


The world doesn’t need another blog post about how teaching isn’t just another job. It’s been done to death.

But the job does require a certain level of commitment. To the point where, if you’re not all in, go sell insurance.

I saw two guys commit to a life of service Saturday. Meaning, like, for decades. Til death do us part, “I-will-humble-myself-by-laying-face-down-on-the-floor”-level of commitment.

Prostration
Fr. Nate and Fr. Greg prostrate themselves during the Litany of the Saints at their Ordination Mass, May 20, 2017 at the Holy Angels Cathedral in Gary. Photo via Diocese of Gary.

The priesthood. It’s probably the last job or institution left on earth that, from Day One, you know you are in for life. Even a good portion of married folks stand at the altar on their wedding day thinking, “If this guy’s a dud, I’m out.” “She gets fat, it’s over.”

These guys had spent seven years in preparation for this day. If they haven’t backed out by now, they’re not gonna. And their commencement speaker? A bishop of the Catholic Church.

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Donald Hying, Bishop of the Diocese of Gary, IN. Photo via Deena Pidrak.

I think they will remember his words forever. Because I’m still thinking about them. When they received their marching orders, I couldn’t help but ponder how these ancient lines in the Rite of Ordination might frame what I do:

“Understand what you do. Imitate what you celebrate. And conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

(And I get it if you’re not down with the theological aspects here. In Catholic teaching, the priest is “alter Christus” – another Christ. Called to give their lives, if not literally then figuratively for their flock). At this moment of the Mass they are handed the paten and the chalice which will hold the Body and Blood of Christ. These tools are central to what they will do every day of the rest of their lives.

It is a life of service. What they do, what they celebrate, is for the eternal good of their flock. They are shepherds. And counselors. And teachers. It is the work of a lifetime: long hours, loneliness, doubts about effectiveness, everything that gives a career weight.

Now, I’m not out there saving souls, but we can draw a rough parallel to what we do as teachers. Especially those of us who believe we are helping our students form the skills they will need to navigate the world of the mid-21st century.

Dad Timeline
My dad, receiving his 25-Year watch at Inland Steel. He was 44 years old then. Our world, and our kids’ world, is a little bit different.

As one school year comes to an end, I immediately (informally, if not on paper) begin planning for August and beyond. Thinking about what worked, and what didn’t. How I lifted up my students, and how I crushed their spirit. The #lessonfails, and the moments that made me want to retire on the spot because it was never going to get any better than right then. And how to fix those ratios next year.

I’ll never forget my first-ever class, Algebra 1A, looking out at 41 faces (in a class with 39 desks), Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. This is a great time to remind myself what I signed up for.

“Understand what you do…”

Mail Call

Live look-in to my class these days:

Apollo’s shoulders sagging as he shakes his head at Rocky’s tenacity is one of the greatest moments in sports cinema.


 

I made my students a promise after Spring Break. Knowing that with three-fourths of the year behind us and the toughest math of the year ahead of us, many students check out mentally, I told them:

“When I start to mail it in, you can start to mail it in. But if I’m here, you’re here.”

Translated: Finish strong. Practically a class motto. But it’s not easy. We’ve got roughly two weeks till finals. Nothing I’ve seen as far as student apathy the last month or so is new to me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna keep trying to find ways to make sure learning occurs at the end of the year. Sometimes that means recognizing that my students feel like they’ve been in a 15-round heavyweight bout, and adjusting accordingly.

That Desmos piecewise project seemed like an excellent solution. I definitely plan to incorporate it (and more, cut from the same cloth) next year.  But still, I had only about 60% participation. This on a project I provided class time for, and worked hard to shepherd my students through. I had hoped to scoop up some of the students who are intimidated by a standard-issue pencil & paper quiz, and entice some of my more artistically talented but math-resistant students to stick a toe in the water. And I think there was some of that.

I can live with it. But like The Little Flower, I want it all.

Time now to help get these guys ready for finals.

Image result for final exams gif
GIF via Odyssey (link).

 

Like a racer taking advantage of a tailwind, I’ve been looking for a little boost where I can find it here in the homestretch. I’m going to help chaperone prom, and attend graduation. My students like seeing their teachers there, and I like seeing them happy. I submitted a proposal to present at the South Shore eLearning conference in Hammond in June. And I’m already making a mental  list of things to tackle over the summer to hit the ground running in August.

Sometime soon that should become a real list, or at least a digital one.

So I’ve got my marching orders for the next two weeks, and for the summer. I’ll hand it off to the great Phil Georgeff for the stretch call…

Here they come, spinning out of the turn….

Piece By Piece

Image via giphy.

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

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

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

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

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

Desmos piecewise staff picks

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

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

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

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

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

Docs here:

Alg II (3) Conics Performance Assessment

Alg II (3) Functions one-pager


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

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

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

Next thing you know…

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

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

Then Friday, the Big Finish:


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

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

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

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

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

Piece by piece.

20 for 20

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My youngest and I in Charity Village after the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Go OE.

Folks running a marathon to raise money for charity is kind of a cliche these days. Cool, yeah, but not that unusual. Roll back the clock 18 years though, and it was a bit of a novelty. In that environment the OE Runners were born. The group trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for Opportunity Enterprises, an organization that serves individuals with disabilities in the Northwest Indiana area.

In that first year, 1999, the team started with 72 runners who collectively raised $37,000 for OE. The runners in their orange moisture-wicking shirts became a fixture on the streets and trails around here, and took Chicago by storm, becoming an official charity partner. The team membership topped out at 511 runners and a reached a high-water mark fundraising of $286,000.

That is a lot of miles and a huge amount of money for any non-profit agency.

The Great Recession took a bite out of our fundraising totals in the mid-2000s, and then (although we didn’t know it at the time), the marathon organizers dealt OE Runners a death blow. With demand for entries far outstripping supply (capped at 45,000 runners), the marathon instituted a lottery system a few years ago, and bumped up the fundraising minimum for charity runners. For a lot of us, it was way out of our league. In my 6 years with OE Runners, I came close to the new minimum one time. Mrs. Dull is a professional fundraiser; I’m not.

Last year: 70 of us raised about $45,000. Net out the training costs, and it was barely worth it for the organization. Thus the decision was made to close down the team. OE sent us off with a bang though: a few Saturdays ago the organization put on a fun run & farewell breakfast for all the team members through the years, giving us an opportunity to share some stories and to look at photos and team shirts from past seasons.

And: a thank you from the CEO. Pretty cool.

She laid out the numbers for us: in 18 years, OE Runners raised $3.2 million. That amount funds services to 20 families for 20 years. Which is awesome.

Except.

There’s a lot more families and a lot more years. Take a look at the Opportunity Enterprises Annual Report. Those services don’t come cheap. The money the OE Runners raised is pretty much a drop in the bucket. Hard to replace, but a sliver of the total operating budget. Who’s gonna pick up the tab?


I’m thinking a lot about sustainable funding these days. Whether most folks recognize it or not, the gravy train has left the station. We’re just used to thinking, “Oh, Washington will pay for that” or “Indianapolis will pay for that”, when the reality is, anything we want over and above the minimum, we’re going to have to find a way to pay for ourselves.

Enter the School Referendum.

ValpoGary. East Chicago. Munster. Lake Central. Hebron. And more.

My district passed twin referenda 2 years ago, to pay for a renovation and expansion of the physical plant, and to pay for salaries. Not every district can, or is willing to, raise its own taxes to pay the bills at the school. There’s a serious throwdown on social media over the EC vote this week.

Folks in my Tribal Homeland are pretty wound up about a potential tax increase for school funding.

Opponents of the referendum are circulating a flyer with salaries and recent raises for the highest paid central office administrators. Nothing dirty, all public records. But it’s having the desired effect. Man, it’s hard to ask people in one of the poorest communities in the Region to raise taxes on themselves.

Image via nwitimes.com. Story link

And it’s more than just schools.

Indiana is looking at a bill coming due for long-overdue infrastructure improvements. They don’t call this place “The Crossroads of America” for nothing. I think at one time Indiana had more miles of Interstate per square mile of area than any other state in the union. The statehouse just passed a tax increase on gas and vehicle registration, which led to predictable cries from political opponents. Why not tap a 2 billion dollar rainy-day fund, they say? Because that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of what needs done. Literally 10% of the total bill. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. With a business cycle that seems primed to turn down again.

I’m a conservative. I don’t want my taxes to go up one penny. And (not “but”) I also know that there is no free ride. Those roads and bridges aren’t gonna repair themselves. I voted yes on the Valpo schools referenda (and raised my own taxes) when I was only a resident & homeowner, not a district employee. Because the schools here (and in East Chicago, and Gary, and Hebron, and everywhere) are that important.

Somebody’s gonna pay the tab for taking care of our most vulnerable citizens, and to repair our roads and bridges, and to keep our schools up-to-date and safe for our students. Who’s it gonna be though?

Our kids. And grandkids, probably.

There are issues you just can’t run away from.