Middle Ground

I’m definitely not a DIY guy. I’m not gonna have an HGTV home repair show any time soon. Honestly if I had a time machine the one thing I would go back and get (even more than a masters degree) is home improvement skills. I picked up a few things from my dad, and later on, my next door neighbor (the one who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, a fact I never knew about him until I had lived next door to him for like 25 years, and then only because his wife let it slip in casual conversation). My older brother, who traded handyman work for room and board in his B-Town apartment complex back in the day showed me some plumbing and electric. I know literally just enough to be dangerous. But, I did a couple of things this week:



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Mrs. Dull picked up the appliances on facebook from a guy who had just renovated his kitchen and needed to unload his used items. The price was definitely right.

My father-in-law has the full range of dad skills (he rebuilt a Harley, if that tells you anything), and he has a pretty good sense of my skill level. If he doesn’t think I can handle a project he’ll tell me. If he thinks it’s in my range he’ll point me to YouTube. So we’ve pretty much learned to check online first before we give him a call:

I had to go back and check the video a couple times, and stop to check the connections on the new machine (which didn’t exactly match the version in the video) but it got done. I’m not gonna hire myself out for kitchen renos anytime soon. But it’s good enough for our purposes at home. One time, right now, just after watching a video, I can do this.


For the last two years in my building, by district mandate the math department has weighted tests and quizzes as 75% of the grade. (No pressure, right?). Our teachers immediately recognized if tests were gonna be that high-stakes we needed to offer an opportunity for re-takes, especially to our most struggling students.

As it turned out, the kids who most need the retake opportunities never took advantage. Most of my takers are that kid who got a 70% and wants an A. That’s cool with me tho. Like I’m gonna say “no” when one of my students comes to me asking to do more math.

This year, the first semester anyway, the retakes have resulted in some really good scores. Some of our teachers cap the re-take score at 60%, but I decided that if my students were going to make the effort to come see me on their own time, sit and talk about their original quiz, then re-learn the material before retaking the quiz, that they should get whatever grade they earn.

It sounds weird, but I really, truly, honestly want every one of my kids to ace every test. I want them to earn the grade they get, but I want every one of them to walk out of YL107 at the end of the term with an A. I’m not that teacher that thinks it somehow reflects poorly on me. The one that brags about how many kids are failing or how brutally hard I write a test. Like the great Jon Corippo says, why can’t every kid get an A? Not the grade-inflated kind that get handed out like Halloween candy, but the real deal. The “I learned what I was supposed to learn and I can prove it” kind.

Even better, their self-reported level of understanding is going up. They are telling me that the process of watching the video and working along with me is helping.

Awesome, yeah?

Image result for yay gif

And I’m open to the possibility that there is cheating and answer-sharing going on. That wouldn’t be different than the regular quiz administration tho.

But the results of the re-takes got me thinking. Why aren’t they doing better on the original quiz? What am I missing as far as helping them prepare to take a quiz, vs. the supporting them on the retake? I mean, a tutorial video immediately followed by an open-note quiz is a lot of support. Too much? Maybe. But I need to look at my practices leading up to Quiz Day. Is there some middle ground for us?

We normally do a two-day review:

  • One day a Desmos activity or something else collaborative and interactive gleaned from the #MTBoS
  • The next day a written study guide so they can practice problems matching the skills on the quiz

Do they need to study more on their own? Do I need to get them more reps in class? Maybe a tutorial video of the study guide pushed to them through Canvas?

Maybe I should ask them (*cough* Google Form *coughcough*).

Inquiring minds want to know. Really, for me it’s kind of a “need to know” thing. I just found my bellringer for Monday, in any case. I’ll let you know what they tell me.


Giving and Receiving

Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Let the waiting begin.

(If you have a minute you should check out Kristyn Brown’s work. She’s super-talented. I don’t make a dime if you do, I just like to direct people to other people who are really really good at what they do.)

Christmas time is always pretty melancholy around my house. I definitely am in tune with the mournful longing that accompanies “waiting in joyful hope”.

And we’re off to a flying start in that department this December.

All the men in my family got taken down a notch these last couple of weeks, in different ways, all job or school-related. Life is filled with little disappointments, and with big ones. I’m hurting for them, for sure. My job is to steer my boys through those times. It’s good for kids (and grown-ups) to develop some patience. To be reminded that you are not entitled to that grade you want, or to compete on a team, or to gain entrance to a selective program, or even to have people look favorably on the job you do.

This isn’t the forum to go into details. My boys will bounce back. I will too. Although I’m not gonna lie. I left a meeting in which I was delivered some bad news wondering if I should drop my old principal a line and see if she needs a math teacher.

My department chair could see the concern on my face (she is pretty perceptive and I don’t hide that sort of thing well), and I was a little worried that my students would pick up on it the next day.

We can’t have that, so…

Good strategy. We sang, self-reflected, set up and solved some tough Algebra I word problems and played with quadratics Marbleslides in Algebra II. It turned out to be one of our more enjoyable Fridays in a while. From first hour through last, they lifted me up in a way that adults in schools really can’t.

I’ve been teaching for awhile, and even after all these years there are definitely students I will never forget. For me, it’s four girls at Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. My second year teaching.

I had a small group, maybe 15 in a test-prep class for the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. All we did every day, all hour, was work on skills and released problems for the graduation test. Every day of December before the tardy bell rang, they’d harmonize “All I Want For Christmas Is Youa capella. If I try hard enough can still see the joy on their faces as they sang. All of them are past 30 now, probably have kids of their own, and I swear to you every time I hear that song I think of them and smile. It’s a gift they never even knew they gave me.

Every year my church teams with another nearby parish to donate and deliver a 28-foot truck full of Christmas gifts to needy families in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Every year the people at the social services center in the town we help are stunned: “how is it that those Catholics from up north care so much about us down here?” We end up taking care of about 1800 people each year for the last 40 years.

A group from our parish also drives down for a week every summer to do repair work, install wheelchair ramps & window-unit air conditioners, do makeovers on the ladies, and generally do whatever needs done for a struggling, forgotten community. The instructions given to our parishioners is: anything that is offered to you by anyone, even something as simple as a glass of water, take it. And say thanks. It’s an opportunity for giving, and receiving. Big gifts and small.

And sometimes the very best gifts are free, and small, and things that can’t be paid back.

So: Thanks, my students. Friday you guys gave me a little gift I’ll never forget. “December Eve” is always gonna make me smile too.

Cards Are On The Table

Put Up Or Shut Up

I long ago bought into “teaching different”. And letting my kids get a glimpse of “the real me”. I know in my bones it’s the best way to do this job.

But how do I measure that? Letter grades? ISTEP scores? I’m not sure I meet standard if that is the benchmark.

But every now and then I get a little reminder that I’m on the right track. Last time in this space I wrote a little bit about building culture. That kids will be willing to do some pretty incredible things once the proper supports are in place, supports from me and from their classmates.

Today that got put to the test. I could tell yesterday morning that my vocal cords were getting a little frayed.

Okay, maybe a lot frayed. Woke up this morning to a full-on situation:

Culture of collaboration, huh? Let’s see what you got. I missed three days last week for my oldest son’s Army graduation, and we’ve got four school days until Thanksgiving break. I’m planning on a review Monday and quiz Tuesday, so I really don’t have a day to give away. And I love all our district subs, but I pondered the risk/reward last night at bedtime. And 65% of me is better than 100% of anyone else who walks into my class for one day.

If that sounds arrogant, so be it.

So I packed in some DayQuil, a couple of oranges, my water bottle, and an 80-pack of Halls, loaded the neighborhood kids into my son’s car and battled an early-season snowstorm to get to school in the morning.

I greeted my kids with this slide:

Spongebob Meme

Their reaction was priceless.

“We got you today.” My kids, you guys. <insert heart emoji>

So that’s one day. But it told me everything I needed to know about this group of kids and where we are together so far in the school year.

I’ve got a little playlist I run during passing time in late December, to fit the mood of the season. Today seemed like a good day to break it out. Some of my classes even harmonized along with Mariah.

I don’t have much of a poker face. The WSOP is not for me. But to paraphrase what an #eVillageNWI bud tweeted at me recently, “do we have the best job in the world or what?”

Yeah. Yeah we do.


The Torch Is Passed

Graduation Day. Photo cred: My freshman and his mad selfie skills

I spent the week in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks for my oldest son’s OSUT graduation at Ft. Leonard Wood. He completed 19 weeks of basic training and AIT for the 701st Military Police Battalion.

As you might expect, 4 1/2 months of army training brings about changes, both physical and mental. His training cadre returned him to us (for a couple of days anyway) as a new man.

My AARP card came in the mail for my birthday last year, so I’m under no delusions that I’m still a young man. And I’ve been feeling my age as of late. But this week I definitely knew that the torch had been passed. It’s not that long ago that the only contact between parent and recruit would be the US Mail. In modern day times the highlights of training were beamed directly to my phone via his unit’s Facebook page, with weekly live streams of maneuvers and ceremonies. So we had a decent idea of some of the physical challenges our son met. But getting a chance to spend two days with him was striking. I noticed his eyes first. Sure, he looked sharp in his dress blues, it was obvious he is more confident after successfully completing his training. And addressing wait staff and store employees as “ma’am” or “sir” took a little getting used to.

But his eyes… they are the eyes of a grownup. To be honest, I felt small standing next to him. Small, and kind of weak. Like an old man. Which is fine. Circle of Life, and all. But still. It’s a little jarring when things sneak up on you that you weren’t quite ready for.

Image via the Military Police Regimental Association

Before we left the installation after graduation we walked the Military Police Memorial Grove. He read over the numerous plaques, several featuring a snippet of the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”) from Henry V. His demeanor at that moment told me everything I needed to know: He knows what he signed up for.

Dan has his sights set on becoming a Ranger. He told us over dinner the night of graduation that he is hoping for a deployment within the next couple of years. That sounds like the bravado of a freshly-scrubbed private, but what he meant was, he has trained to do a job, to defend and protect this country and the Constitution, and when the time comes to do the job he has trained for, he’ll be ready.


High school is not the US Army. Not even close. One of the reasons I think my son (a very average HS student) had the experience he did at FLW is:

You get what you earn. And he earned it. You want to qualify as a Marksman? Hit the target this many times. Pass your PT test? Run two miles in under this time. And so forth. Your buddies can cheer you on, but in the end, you are accountable for your own performance, and you are assessed on that. Not everybody makes it. Probably 15% of the recruits who started with him did not complete training, either due to injury or to “Failure To Adapt”.

He found the thing he is good at, and he did it.

He definitely bought into the culture-building aspects of training. He had a gleam in his eye as he told me how the guys in his bay brought out the floor buffer to clean the latrine. Like, sparkling. They were on a mission to have the cleanest toilet fixtures in the state of Missouri.

Who does that? A bunch of guys who are used to pushing themselves and working as a team, that’s who.

Even so, they’re kids and they slip. The night of Family Day, as they were waiting on their accountability formation, one member of the unit was on his phone when a drill sergeant walked out the door. They’re supposed to assume parade rest when that happens, and he didn’t.

Rut roh. So at 12:42 am the morning of graduation his unit was out in the dark and cold doing pushups.


School culture is a different thing but just as important. Soldiers volunteer for the army while our students don’t have a choice but to be there. So there’s no way we are doing pushups on the classroom floor but when we build a culture of collaboration some pretty incredible things happen. Students are willing to push themselves to do math they’ve never seen before and aren’t real happy about seeing now. Just this week I’ve seen tears in my classroom and I’ve seen students bend over backwards to help a classmate. We’ve got a ways to go but that tells me we are headed in the right direction.

Eventually they are going to move on to a senior math class, and then to college. I hope they’ll hold on to at least a little of what they’ve learned in my class. When I send them on to the next teacher, I want it to at least look like we did something productive with our 180 days together. The next math is not easy you guys, at least according to what I’ve heard from some of my past students I keep in touch with.

But eventually I want them to be able to do the things they want to do, on their own, without me hovering over their shoulder. That’s another way I’ll know the torch has been passed.

From Falling Hands We Pass The Torch
Posted in the Montreal Canadiens dressing room at the Forum: “to you from failing hands we throw the torch be yours to hold it high,” John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”

Playing My Role

On Halloween night in Minnesota, it wasn’t quite a ghost returning from the dead, but the next closest thing. From a hoops standpoint anyway.

Former Bull Derrick Rose is the Chicago kid who went from Englewood to MVP, but now he’s a grizzled veteran whose best days are behind him. Injuries robbed him of his prime years. Then:

That’s not the kid that all my female students swooned over back in the early 2010s. He’s got a different role to play now. He knows it too:

“A lot of young guys on this team, my job is to be the veteran, to lead by example.”

Probably not the words he expected to say during a tearful post-game interview at this point in his career, but there it is.

It’s pre-service teacher season in my building. I’m hosting a Valparaiso University student, who comes from an education family and actually graduated from my high school alma mater. So we had quite a lot to talk about when we first met. He’s pretty well versed in the current issues around education, both from a “teaching and learning” standpoint, and also from those regarding how the business of school is regulated.

But on the handful of days that he’s in my classroom, we’re there to get him some observation time and some reps teaching actual classes to actual students. We kicked things off with Mr. L leading the end of class “check for understanding” after the work time on our practice set in a flipped classroom.

That went well, so we moved on to running a full class bell-to-bell. It so happened that the lesson was built around a Desmos activity. We’d already talked philosophy and teaching styles, and he’s seen my twitter, so Mr. L was pretty familiar with the tools I use in class. Now it was his turn to take AB out for a spin.

I sent him the link to the activity I had planned for the day so he could look it over and see what my students would see. He gave them a quick tutorial on graphing and transforming radical functions and then let it fly.

It went well:

Really well, actually:

I have no idea if he’ll jump on the Desmos bandwagon as a student teacher and beyond. I hope so. I do know that he got a chance to see first-hand how a well put-together Desmos activity makes student thinking & learning visible, and how it lets students engage with math in ways that were impossible when I started teaching. But he’s got to decide that for himself.

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My one student teacher from back 6 or 7 years ago is my colleague at my current school now. She’s her own teacher, which is right.  I had to smile at a planning meeting early this year when the department was talking a shift towards standards-based grading for Algebra 1, and she was able to jump right into the conversation because we had done SBG together during her student teaching year. Our department chair was suitably impressed. The best part though was that Mrs. S was able to take what she learned as a student teacher, and all her experience as a licensed teacher in a variety of school settings, and make herself into the outstanding math teacher she is right now.


I’ve shared out what I’ve learned so far at a couple of local conferences (part of the IDOE’s Summer of e-Learning series) the last two years, but I’m under no delusions of grandeur. I’m never gonna write a teacher book. I’ll never be “internet famous”. I won’t ever be the teacher that my principal sends other teachers to watch. Which, at this point in my career, and in my life, is fine. I’ve got a role to play. Pretty much my job is to teach kids, and when given the opportunity, to help a new teacher along the way.

I’m fine with being a nameless, faceless cog in the wheel. Doing my part for teachers and students down the line who will never know my name, or care even if they did. “Flying under the radar” so to speak.

And who knows. Maybe I still have a 50-point game in me still.

Everything Crumbles

Homer and Entropy
From Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr.

“No matter how perfect the thing, from the moment it’s created it begins to be destroyed.”

It reminds me of a line my sainted mother was famous for repeating: “From the moment we are born, we begin to die”.

Or maybe the admonition of the ages: memento mori.


But that second definition speaks to me as a teacher: “gradual decline into disorder”.

Maybe it’s the time of the year, but in my building there’s definitely a lot of folks on edge. The weekly online threats of school violence probably have something to do with it. It also doesn’t help that due to ongoing construction we still have 1000 cars trying to get into the parking lot thru the one remaining entrance every morning, but still: I know I definitely feel less like I’ve got things locked down this year compared to years past.

A presenter (maybe an administrator of some type? Not sure…) once told the staff at one of my schools “what gets monitored gets done”. I don’t really remember if she was speaking of staff or students, but it applies to all of us for sure. Why do you think we all slow down when we see a cop parked on the side of the road?

Our teacher evaluation tool is set up with this concept in mind. Two-thirds of the points come from evidence of ongoing planning, consistent parent contact, and collaboration with colleagues, they type of things we are expected to do all year. Only a tiny sliver is made up of actual classroom teaching. As one of my math teacher colleagues likes to say: “even the worst teacher can pull it together and look reasonably competent for two days out of the year.” There is an incentive to do the foundational work that goes into effective teaching. “What gets monitored gets done.”

Part of the low-level anxiety I’m feeling is due to parenting a freshman in my building. I have a throw-away line I use for some of my kids: “obsessive Skyward checkers” – that student that is in the online gradebook daily, making sure everything turned in is posted, and checking on the hour over the weekend to see if a quiz grade is entered in yet.

Yeah, I am now officially That Dad. If Skyward charged me an access fee I’d be broke. But I’ve got a first-year student trying to find his way at a very competitive school, who maybe is not the most organized 14-year-old on the planet. It’s pretty much my job to help him stay on top of things. Skyward and Canvas are the go-tos.

I’m not sure my extreme oversight is working. It would probably help if I was more consistent with it. He survived the first nine weeks by the hair of his chinny chin chin. I’ve extracted a promise that we won’t do that again. Plus, the spectre of athletic ineligibility is a powerful motivator.

I mean, he’s still got to learn the words to the school song, right?

I’m pulling out all the stops as I try to reteach him algebra while he does his geometry work. If it works for my students, it’ll probably work for my son. That’s my theory anyway. And that’s what Desmos is for.


It’s just one of those things – we’re going to have to sit together every night to keep his geometry experience from spinning into chaos. Nobody likes to feel that they are being micromanaged, but sometimes that’s part of teaching or coaching – checking in and benchmarking every single day. It’s easy to get complacent. He buckled down on a geometry daily quiz retake and the flipped notes tonight. He really didn’t want to do the notes, but he did them anyway. Probably because I was sitting next to him and encouraged him.

But that fleeting success was pretty rare. I’m not a drill sergeant. I can’t make anyone do anything. Never have been able to. My kids, or anyone else’s. And I’m sure that’s where part of the current stress is coming from. I know for a fact I’ve got some classroom things I’ve got to tighten up. Kids do their thing. We try to get them to do our thing. With varying levels of success. But if we don’t try, they won’t try.

And that’s a recipe for disaster. Or at least a gradual decline into disorder.

Image result for unorganized meme

Adventures In Desmos: The Quiz

Desmos Systems example

My kids were working on solving systems by graphing last week. Desmos has been making some inroads in my building the last couple years but it’s still not widespread, partially because we fancy ourselves as a school that prepares students for college – meaning that TI rules in our upper grade math courses. I had my students checking their hand-drawn work in Desmos, which led to some interesting reactions. For many, the ability to enter an equation and instantly see the graph made them more confident in their work. Eventually, one student asked me,  “Mr. Dull, why can’t we have a quiz like this?”

Yeah, why not?

I’m not in love with my current quiz for solving systems. Even with the built-in support, it’s still… not me. It’s basically a dressed-up Kuta worksheet.

It sounds like my students are at max cap with pencil/paper systems quizzes too.

What if the quiz reflected the kinds of things we value in class? I know, novel concept, right? But in one of my many internal conflicts, I know my students need to do skills practice and individual written work, and I also want them to dive in to the discovery and collaborative stuff that Desmos does best. How do I marry the two? I’ve already done performance-based assessments (such as the Desmos art project) for conics. What would a Desmos quiz for systems of equations look like?

So I stumbled across a Twitter convo recently that led me to a circles quiz in Desmos Activity Builder written by one of the co-authors of Classroom Chef. (At least I think I saw this conversation on Twitter . I think even put a “❤️” on it but now I can’t find it. But it happened. Swear.) Anyway: OK, good, now I have a template for making my own quiz. Because if it’s good enough for the #MTBoS people, it’s good enough for me.

Then, time to go to work. For my first time, I’ll take it. I wanted to leverage the power of Desmos, recognizing that the collaborative piece is kind of by design going to be missing if it’s a quiz. We used the graphing tool, the sketch tool, the text boxes and the multiple choice option.

Plenty of explaining their thinking:

Explain Elimination

I wanted to be able to see their math work too, so for several problems I had them do the work on paper, and enter their answer in a text box on the Desmos screen.

And, because Children Must Play: Draw a dinosaur.


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I definitely didn’t do myself any favors by setting up the quiz this way. I traded the self-grading ability of a Canvas quiz for the power of Desmos to support my students in their efforts to show their understanding of the math. That means I’m grading their pencil/paper work as well as their entries into Desmos. I had visions of me spending untold hours over a period of days trying to grade 90 quizzes.

Image result for shudder gif

So, a spreadsheet. Turned out to be the quickest I’ve turned around a stack of quizzes in quite some time. I made a column for each screen in the activity, then went screen-by-screen with the Desmos activity open in one window and the spreadsheet in another, recording the points by screen for each student. I set up a column at the end for their poster points, another to sum each row, and one to double the points so I could make the 15-question quiz worth 30 points in my gradebook.

Desmos quiz spreadsheet
Pow. Done. Now to dump the scores into Skyward…

Automating at least part of the grading cut my overall task time by half, if not more. My kids were stunned when I reported back on Monday that I was nearly done grading.

So how about student feedback on this project? Mixed. Many students appreciated not having to graph lines by hand. Others were stressed by having to switch back and forth between pencil/paper and a chromebook screen.

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A couple were pretty blunt:

  • I feel that the quiz could be taken on paper
  • Please just put the quizzes/tests on paper.

And their answer to the question “How closely does this statement reflect your feelings: “I feel we should use Desmos (including its ability to graph, sketch, and submit answers) for some quizzes in the future.”” averaged 3.2 on a 1 to 5 scale. Right down the middle.

As for my reflections, I’ve got a couple of thoughts:

  • I’m definitely interested in integrating a Desmos into assessments in a way that matches how we use it in class.
  • I’m not sure I did a great job of that with this quiz.
  • Honestly in looking back, there’s nothing about this quiz that was so Desmos-dependent that it couldn’t have been done on paper.
  • So from a SAMR standpoint, this was substitution-level.
  • Desmos activities are extra-awesome as formative assessment tools.
  • Does that translate to Desmos quizzes as summative tools?
  • I still think that a good Desmos quiz is out there for me.

There’s a lot of firepower from the neck up out there in my online PLN. I’m gonna keep searching for some examples of existing Desmos quizzes to use as models. Plus, my department chair offered some useful feedback on my first try, things I was able to integrate into the quiz before I rolled it out to my students. I feel like my colleagues in the department can help me match the tool to the task as well.

Might be a good topic for an informal PD-brainstorming sesh after school someday.

If that happens, I’ll write about it here too.


One-Man Book Club: One Beautiful Dream

Sea Sassi Balance Macro Colors Stone Stones

There’s a lot of brain cells being rubbed together in my world right now around the idea of Work-Life Balance. I can’t open up social media without seeing the term “self-care”.

There’s even a whole “40-hour teacher workweek” program out there (for a fee). Believe me, as a guy who just finished grading a stack of 90 Algebra II quizzes and is running the wash machine at 11 pm while setting the coffeemaker for the morning, I get it. It only took me like a week to finish grading that stack. My Monday, Thursday, and Friday are very overscheduled.

I don’t feel real good about myself when I stand in front of my kids and have to say, “Yeah, you know that quiz I gave you last week? Still not graded. I had football, and did Pack-a-Thon Saturday, and it was my birthday this weekend, and, and, and, and….”

I’ve said for years that when I’m elected POTUS, there will be a whole 12 hours inserted into every week in between Sunday night and Monday morning.

If only I had more time…

Here’s the thing tho. There’s never enough time. There’s never enough money. The house is never clean enough. Meanwhile, there’s perfection (so-called) all around. Social media doesn’t help. I don’t even need to get Instagram shamed. Honestly, even the real-life teachers in my building are all better than me.

All this sounds like a recipe to be perpetually miserable.

I’m that guy that has a lot of unformed ideas floating around in my head. Things I know I should be doing, but I need someone to show me the way. Then I get it.

Enter One Beautiful Dream.

One Beautiful Dream
Yeah, I read Catholic Mommy Bloggers. Sue me. Image via Goodreads.

The book is the latest from Jennifer Fulwiler and it details how one woman, her husband, her six kids, and a support cast of thousands made a dream come true.

I’ve been reading Jennifer’s blog for years. She’s brilliant and funny. Her first book is a must-read conversion story.

But wait. I thought you just said she has six kids. When did she have time to write a book? Much less two?

It turns out that life is messy, your house and mine aren’t gonna show up in Sunset magazine or on an HGTV show anytime soon. And God laughs at your plans. So maybe, just do your thing.

The Fulwilers gave up a glamorous power-couple ATX life to move to a house in the suburbs and raise a family. The family got bigger, the house stayed the same size, and Jennifer received an offer from a literary agent to rep her for a book. Hilarity ensues as she attempts to pound out thousands of words a day during her childrens’ nap time while the neighborhood middle-school-girl clique targets her house for Ding-Dong-Ditch and her judgemental hired babysitter recoils in shock at the kids jumping on the couch.

Fortunately her best friend and fellow faithful-Catholic-mom, along with her Texas-tough mother-in-law help her (somehow) survive some of her most challenging moments.

She and her husband plan for how to replace their aging vehicles and keep a roof over the heads of their ever-expanding family, while he pursues a less-pressure-filled career to be active in his role as husband and father.

Hyper-focused, Jen powers down the tracks trying to complete a re-write of her manuscript under deadline pressure when a life-altering health condition forces her hand.

Let it go

Watching the dream… the thing she had wanted since she was nine years old… evaporate in an instant. It was intense for me as a reader. I felt like I was watching Ray Kinsella try to convince Moonlight Graham to come to Iowa.

Maybe you read this and say, “Wow, that’s easy for Joe to say. It wasn’t his dream he was giving up”. Except…

A Yale-educated lawyer who once could have written his own ticket, he already had made the decision about his career and its proper place in his life, and in his family’s life:

There goes the dream

That sounds a lot like the convos I see on my TL regarding teachers with Pinterest-perfect classrooms or who spend 18 hours in a weekend planning a unit. What’s the cost? This year’s #eVillageNWI Day Two keynoter Kim Strobel likes to talk about the “Minimum Effective Dose” – boiling water at 265º isn’t any better than heating it at 212ºF. We all want to give our best, and do our best for our kids. That’s normal. I don’t trust anyone who’s in the teaching game for a paycheck. But: Maybe it’s worth pondering when enough is “enough”. Mrs. Dull is in a sales/recruiting job that routinely has her working 12-hours days. So it’s not just teachers who are looking for balance. It’s literally everybody.

What if?

Turns out Jen Fulwiler offers a decent template: Let it go. Lots of outside the box thinking. Unorthodox problem solving. Faith.

What does that look like for me?

What if “good enough” was good enough? What if once a week I met with some guys at my parish at 6:00 am to have coffee and talk and figure out how to fully live our vocation as husbands, fathers, grandfathers? What if it was OK to carpool with some guys from the neighborhood and get to school at 7:10 instead of 7:00? What if I could leave to carpool back at 3:30? (Unpopular Opinion Alert: Yeah, I know, no good teacher leaves at 3:30. Most days I take stuff home. Turn me in to the EduTwitter police). But it’s forced me to make some hard decisions about how I spend my time.

After conversations with her closest friends and family about her role in this season of life, Fulwiler ruminates over the tension between duty and passion:

“Now I wondered: What if all desires to create – both with children and with work -are, in fact, all pointed in the same direction? What if both are different but complementary ways of getting in touch with the same ultimate Source of creativity? What if following your God-given passion is not just okay to do during the baby years, but actually something that has the potential to enhance your whole family’s life?”

That sounds like balance, rightly ordered, to me.

I’m still working on it. I work at a pretty hard-driving school, with parents who expect a Four-Star education for their children, and a department filled with outstanding, relentless teachers. My life for the foreseeable future will be filled with take-home work and weekends and summers built around my job.

Feeding a family is important. But we’ve also got a solid commitment in this house to not miss the things that build a family. So that at the end, I can look up and look back at a life that truly was one beautiful dream.

Labor Of Love

We’ve got kind of a thing for Labor Day around here. Pretty much everybody I knew growing up had family either at one of the Indiana Harbor mills, or at Standard Oil in Whiting. Northwest Indiana steel helped build the Mackinac Bridge, amongst other great structures.

Indiana is the United States’ leading producer of steel and has been for 35 years running. If it were a country, Indiana would rank 10th in the world in steel production. Half the blast furnaces in the country are in Lake and Porter counties:

“The Hoosier state has more than 20,000 steelworkers and nearly a quarter of all the steelmaking capacity in the United States. Half the blast furnaces in the country are located in Lake and Porter counties, which boast a wealth of steelmaking assets.

The Region is home to the nation’s largest steel mill, Gary Works, North America’s largest integrated steelmaking complex; ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago; and the newest integrated steel mill in the country, ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor.”

The Times of Northwest Indiana, March 2, 2018.

Moving to Vegas was a rude awakening for me. Everything was “style over substance” there. Here, what you see is what you get. Pick up your hard hat and lunchbucket and go to work. I stood out like a sore thumb out there. I was told my first year of teaching that I was a bit of a workaholic, and all these years later I still won’t leave the building on Friday until I’m set up for Monday. That’s what was modeled for me as a kid. We didn’t call it that, but that blue-collar work ethic was just the culture growing up, and old habits die hard.


As adults, we have an opportunity (and an obligation) to build the culture in our schools, and our organizations. In particular, those of us who work in schools need to help our kids develop the habits that will serve them well as adults.

My youngest son is playing freshman football this year. He played Pop Warner as a 5-year-old but soon outgrew the height/weight matrix, so it’s his first time back in pads in 9 years. Meanwhile some of his teammates have been playing virtually their whole lives. It’s tough for a rookie to crack a lineup of experienced athletes.

He understands his role on the team, and has been working hard to improve. To me, the biggest benefit has been two-fold: he’s learned how to be part of a team, and he understands the commitment that is required to play a school sport. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Our new varsity head coach addressed the parents at an informational meeting last May. Among other things, he told us he had instituted a players’ leadership council, a group that would have input into the program, with those players being selected by their teammates.

Now it’s one thing to say “my players are going to lead”, and completely another for them to embrace that role.

So, here’s a thing I wrote this week:

Proud To Be A Viking

That’s not nothing. If you want to build a program, you have to keep the pipeline filled. You can treat them like crap, not care if they quit, or, you can show them what it means to be a varsity athlete, wearing the uniform of a school that opened 16 years after the end of the Civil War. That guy has nothing to gain from how he treats the freshmen players. It’s not like they’re gonna take his starting job. Which makes it genuine.

And pretty damn important. The qualities and beliefs and actions we want passed down, we have to be intentional about. They have to infuse our world. Pick up your rosary, go to church, hit your knees. Take care of your business. Love your wife and kids. Pick up your hard hat and go to work.

It’s not gonna happen by waving a magic wand. If we want our kids to do it, we have to live it. Period.

And it’s hard work. It’s a labor of love.

Matching Their Pace


We anticipated having to make pacing changes when we detracked Algebra 2 this year. Planned for it as a team all throughout last year, in fact.

But knowing it’s coming, and adjusting pace to match my students is two different things. My track 2 friends are grating at having to slow down and re-teach more often than they are used to. Meanwhile, I’ve been able to hit the throttle and open up the engines already, coming from a track 3 background.

Everyone on my team is veteran though. We’re staying on our toes, ready to call an audible in class based on our students’ needs.

Image result for call an audible gif

This week we wrapped up our foundations module with a day of solving word problems with algebra. I use the flipped class model, and as we reviewed notes at the start of class,  my students let me know right from the jump they did not feel real confident in their abilities: “How did you do that? Like, I don’t even know where to start!”

So we took a minute. Walked through an example from the notes, decoding the text, marking important information. But what my students really wanted to know was, how do you write an equation from all that mess?

My online PLN pretty much lives in my head these days. Now it’s time to lean on my people, in class, on the fly. I brought a little Jon Corippo (and his nachos analogy) with me as we talked making dinner. The Protein – Veggie – Starch framework that we all follow when plating up dinner. Could we look for a model that fits the information in the word problem?

confused will smith GIF

So lets break it down. I showed how we went from concrete to abstract with a verbal model template and an algebraic model over the top.

Then I offered a choice – we could do some pencil/paper math (I had a short practice set ready to go), or we could try… something different. I had tipped them to three-act math in the video notes for the section. What if we did that for real, in class, right now?

Let’s roll. Let’s do Social Math.

So on to the Taco Cart.

Taco Cart Snip

I knew we were on to something when they called out pythagorean theorem unprompted to calculate Ben’s walking distance. And then started doing the math. We compared methods as students determined walking time (some were very formal, writing out d = rt, showing work, doing dimensional analysis (!) and canceling units. Others were a little more back-of-the-envelope, insisting they could just divide (Why?).

We had math fights and we had people working together and we had people laying math on top of their common sense and we had a big reveal.

‘Cuz, you know, students cheer while watching a video in class, like, every day, right?

And: we had students leaving my classroom that day feeling like they were pretty good at math.

So that was cool.

In my first five years of teaching, I’d have never done that. I wouldn’t have known enough to change gears completely. I didn’t have the tools, or the experience. We’d have done more stand & deliver examples (Including me asking them afterwards “Does that make sense?”, and them nodding back at me, lying), more review pages, more me talking.

I’m glad somewhere along the line I learned a better way. The experience to recognize my students need and to recognize the right tool at the right time, its just priceless. They did all the work to figure out if Ben or Dan would get tacos first. I just sat back and watched the magic happen. OK, I asked a question or two along the way, but you know what I’m saying.

We talked recognizing patterns today during the notes review. I told them once you crack the code, algebra is pretty much all angel choirs singing and duckies and bunnies and rainbows and unicorns.

Image result for angel choirs singing gif

OK, maybe not really.

But It’s pretty damn sweet when you get to watch students realize they can do things they didn’t think they could do.


Three years ago I followed through on a commitment to begin blogging as a way to reflect on my practice. I’m not really even sure that blogs are a thing anymore, but I’ve got a handful that I read on the regular (Blogroll is over there to the right).

My online PLN is blogging their way thru August in the #MTBoS Blaugust2018 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

MTBoS Blaugust2018