The Doldrums

Current status:

The stops and starts of the second semester are killing my motivation. One of my students pointed out today was our first full school day since last Thursday. We went: Power outage –> three days of school –> Ice Day –> MLK Day –> early release due to lake effect blizzard –> two hour delay.

The doldrums of the school year are here early. And I’m dead in the water.

Doldrums
Image via The Goog.

 

That Phases Of First Year Teaching thing applies even if you’re in your 15th year.

Wise people have suggested a makeover of the school calendar:

What if we just took January off? Let’s miss all the worst parts of winter altogether.

I gotta admit, it’s tempting. It’s still butt-dark at 7:00 am these days. Cold, snow, wind, ice. Gotta build in extra time in the morning to scrape car windows and let the car heat up. Just crawling out of bed is a monumental challenge.

Related image

It’s that time of year, even if you aren’t the praying sort:


 

All I know is: momentum is real. Inertia too. I need a push. Maybe helping my POE class learn to code will turn the tide. There are some glimmers of hope from the move to flip my instruction in Algebra II: students who have struggled are getting some small-group attention and it’s paying dividends. More than once I’ve heard a student say, leaving class, “hey, I learned something today!” I’m about to break out DIY Kahoot for a review activity. Because the one who does the work does the learning. Also, this is definitely the kind of group that keeps score. At this point, hey, anything to turn the sails.

Because just sitting here stewing and wishing ain’t gonna move the ship.

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Stock photo via Pexels.

 

 

 

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Snow Day

Then…

And now..

E-Learning Day email

It’s not our first go-round with e-learning days. My son’s school did a practice day at the start of the school year, and their half-days for teacher PD are afternoon e-learning days for the kids. My school doesn’t return from break until Monday 1/8/18, so I thought this might be a good day to take in this one from a parent perspective, rather than a teacher.

And I’m off to a flying start, natch:

Having just finished Matt Miller’s Ditch That Textbook virtual summit over break, my head is filled with fantasies of all kinds of cool, techy, collaborative activities his teachers will offer as we sit together at the laptop in the front room.

I think realistically I should prepare myself for standard assignments, delivered electronically.  Time will tell.


Image result for liturgy of the hours
Image via Divine Office

OK, not quite 9:00 am and the Religion assignment is here. Actually, Liturgy Of The Hours would be a very cool way to start every day. Collect, prayer, daily scripture, reflection time, intercessions.

Math might kill us both (spoken as a math teacher). We’re gonna practice solving systems of linear equations by elimination, and work through some systems word problems. He totally gave me the combination “Ugh, With An Eye Roll” when I showed him the assignment.

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That prayer time is gonna come in handy. So is Desmos.

Teacher Me is like, “OK, he’s gonna need help, and motivation, to get this math done. Let’s do this.” Parent Me would be reaching for a Valium sandwich and keeping his teacher on speed dial. Actually, the teachers are all available by email from 10:00 am til 2:00 pm to provide help. But if I wasn’t a Highly Trained Math Person™ this assignment would make me panic.

Note to Self: when my school starts E-Learning days, we need to provide guidance for parents on how to access online help. We’re all embedding help inside Canvas for our students, but we need to train up mom and dad as well.


 

Shortly after 9:00: Health, Social Studies, and Science assignments are all “read and outline”. He’ll power through those without much need for guidance. Pro-tip: save them for last.

Now, where is that online book again?

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Via gifimage

What good is being a 1:1 G-Suite school if you don’t know how to offer your kids new ways to connect learning? Ditch That Textbook blog to the rescue!

So this email popped into my inbox yesterday. Matt Miller teamed up with guest blogger Laura Steinbrink to offer some cool Google Drawings tips:

  • Annotate
  • Caption This
  • Caption and Comment
  • Picture This And Take A Stance

I immediately saw uses in my math classroom. These would be an ideal way for my students to show their thinking during “Estimation 180” or “Would You Rather?“.

But man, would these have been awesome ways for students to show their learning from home on a snow day. Or a way to offer some student choice – make an outline or caption the Big Three Ideas from the reading or Flipgrid your reaction to the reading (or Flipgrid your solution to one of the math word problems – crowdsource an answer key!).

So, I’m a little spoiled. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with playing it straight. Here’s a worksheet, do some math. Here’s a reading assignment, take notes. At least until you know better. I didn’t know better for the first few years in the classroom. It took a lot of digging and connecting and trial and error before I could use all these tools. And I’m for sure not here to tell other teachers how to do their job.

But man, a Desmos activity and some opportunities to create and connect and learn would have been awesome for kids staring out the window at the Frozen Tundra. Sounds like all of us who are learning and sharing together online need to keep reaching out and spreading the word. Presenter proposals for South Shore E-Learning 2018 are opening Monday.

 

So, let’s go teach, and learn, together, on a day when Lake Effect Snow is a distant memory.

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Animation of the New Years Eve lake effect storm that dropped like a foot and a half of snow, via weather.gov.

Hello, 2018!

I love it here in the future. I’ll never go back. And this morning I woke up one year farther into the 21st century.

Hello, 2018.

New Year's fireworks are seen along the Strip from the top of the Trump International, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Image via Las Vegas Review-Journal

One of the benefits of modern life is the support that comes from connectedness. When you scratch out that list of resolutions, you don’t have to look far for resources to help you along. You might still stumble and fall along the way, but you know someone’s got your back.

A few years ago the great Jen Fulwiler put together a Saint Name generator for folks who are looking to jump-start the search for a patron or intercessor. This year I got St. Francis de Sales (patron of writers and journalists).  He spent three years of his life going door-to-door throughout the French countryside trying to teach the faith. No one would listen. He had door after door slammed in his face.

I can relate. As Dan Meyer famously said, “I teach high school math. I sell a product that people don’t want, but are forced by law to buy.” At least in St. Francis I’ll have someone to commiserate with.

As an added bonus for 2017, Jen built a word generator. Perfect for those “One Word” or “word of the year” people who are everywhere today.

Of course, because Children Must Play™, some of Jen’s online connects mashed up their saint and word. Hilarity ensued:

I’m not that cool.

I’m Francis Presence. No editor or producer would take that character name seriously.

But, “presence.” Hmmm. Hold that thought….


spring break party GIF
Image via Giphy

A few weeks back I stumbled across a blog post by Allyson Apsey suggesting folks make a playlist for the new year, rather than making resolutions. I have the usual resolutions, yeah, but I also have a #2018Playlist. As I wrote when I first encountered Allyson’s post, I wanted a playlist in chunks that could be selected to fit a mood.

We’re at a place in the school year and just life in general where everything is a grind. Fitting that mood perfectly is a song I borrowed from one of my oldest son’s playlists, “Hurricane” by Band of Heathens (covering a Levon Helm tune)

Back that up with “All These Things I’ve Done” from the Killers, and a pair from Tenth Avenue North: “You Are More” and “Losing”, and we’re off to a low-key start to power through day-to-day frustrations.

The mid-section is designed to provide a power boost, or at least an upbeat accompaniment to housework or grading, anchored by Jet’s rave-up “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (which is also my go-to running song when I need to dig deep):

Queens Of The Stone Age and Greta Van Fleet both deal in an updated 70s sound, providing a bridge from past to present before the Church and Lord Huron bring the thing in for a landing.


 

So, I’m self-aware enough to build a playlist that is in tune with my needs. What about when we turn the tables? Can I shift gears to meet my students’ needs? Can I be “present” for them? It should be part of the package, like a basketball coach adjusting his playbook to match his players’ talents.

The turn of calendar brings soul-searching and goal-setting in many areas; the classroom is no different. And  this year, my tribe has some backup in the form of Indiana Connected Educators. ICE Indiana is offering teachers here a chance to jump-start their 2018 with an “I will” sharing challenge:

I responded:

We’re at the point of the Algebra II curriculum where everything is new and challenging, and more theoretical. My track 3 students are not likely to move on to Pre-Calculus as seniors, almost all will take either probability & statistics or a college readiness bridge course that hits the power standards of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. They need more time in class to work through practice problems and get help. Looking back to last year, the opposite happened. We would spend almost the entire period on warm-up, homework questions (numerous, because they didn’t get enough time to practice and ask questions in class), and new notes. By April we were all miserable.

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Image via Tenor

So what am I going to try in order to fix this issue?

I am already embedding a video of me working through my notes into the Canvas page for each lesson. My hope is that students who are absent or want to work ahead or need to see the examples worked again can refer back to the video, as often as they need.

What if…. I followed the lead of several teachers in my department who are flipping their instruction? Students watch the video on their own, take notes, and write a brief summary (picked that up from Pooja Agarwal‘s Ditch That Textbook Summit session with Matt Miller). Then the bellringer is a quick formative assessment to gauge their understanding and engage prior knowledge, and the bulk of class is spent on working through the practice set. As Matt Miller and Alice Keeler point out in their book Ditch That Homework, this gives them access to a trained professional teacher when they need help.

OK, so now we’re building in work time in class, but what about my kids who need extra help? There’s still one of me and 30 of them.

Divide and Conquer, baby. Divide and conquer.

I picked up a strategy about 10 years ago at a workshop. Two downstate Indiana teachers who paired up to share their two classes developed a differentiated instruction method they called “Island – Peninsula – Land”. Based on a quick formative assessment (walking around and peeking over shoulders, even), the teacher quickly sorts his students into three groups:

  • The Island group is completely self-sufficient. These are the “just give me the assignment so I can get it over with” students. They don’t need my help, so they can go off and do their thing.
  • The Peninsula group can mostly do the work, but might need a boost from time to time. They can send an envoy to the Island group to ask for help with a specific question.
  • The Land group does not know how or where to start. They need the most help, so I sit with that group for the session.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used this tactic. The last few years my classes were all “Land” – I really didn’t have anybody who could work through a set of problems on their own, so I shelved I-P-L. This seems like as good a time as any to resurrect it.

Image via Women In Product

Gonna run this by my department chair and get ready to roll on 1/8/18.

And don’t be bashful. Jump on the #ICEindiana hashtag on Mondays and Try, and Share, and Encourage, and Remember, and Learn.

Riding The Wave

 

What kind of day is it out there today? I’ll let the great Barry Butler do his thing:

Third Coast Surf Shop, too:

Surf Mackinaw
Photo via Third Coast Surf Shop IG

 

It’s also the first day of Christmas Break that I had nothing scheduled in the morning, aside from making coffee and breakfast for Mrs. Dull. Seemed like a really good morning to make a list:

Make a List
Because if I don’t write stuff down, I’ll forget. Especially while on break.

The great Colin Powell used to say: “never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. I’d add: never step on your own enthusiasm. Christmas Break will fly by in a heartbeat. Untold number of 911’s will pop up to make some simple task that should take 5 minutes last an hour. So when I’m motivated to knock out some housework, schoolwork, and some #WednesdayMorningPD, I’m gonna take advantage. Because To Everything There Is A Season:


 

I’ve been a long-time fan of Matt Miller. Reading his blog, borrowing ideas, hitting him up for “how-to” help when preparing to make a short G-Suite presentation to some teaching colleagues, reading his books, the whole schmeer. The last two years he’s called in some favors with fellow teacher leaders and organized a virtual summit over Christmas Break. The 2016 edition was fruitful, and when I heard he was planning on a new set of conversations this year, I signed up for email notifications right away.

Then of course, life got in the way. The #DitchSummit opened on December 15, and my district was in session until 12/22. Which the mathematically inclined amongst you will note, was 72 hours until Christmas Day. We cleaned house and made cookies and entertained and shopped and went to Mass (twice!) and met with family and and and and and…

Here it is, December 27, and I’m just now sitting down to check in on the Summit. I know better than to try to binge-watch them all in one day. Plus that would just sidetrack me from my list. So I made a ranking, by topic, ordering the sessions. They are obviously all talented presenters and brilliant people, but somebody has to be first. And last, for that matter.

There are 3 or 4 presentations that I think will directly impact my teaching the second half of the year. I’m pretty psyched to hear from Don Wettrick and Jon Corippo and Pooja Agarwal, but since self-care is kind of a thing these days (for good reason), I opted for Kim Strobel first. I’m a little wary of the “motivational speaker” tag, but her topic, “The Science Of Happiness For Teachers And Students” hooked me in.

The short version is a riff on the flight attendant instructions to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. A burned-out, unhappy teacher is not going to create a very conducive learning environment for his students.

As a guy who broke the “highly effective” scale last year but only graded out as “effective” this year, much to the detriment of my ego, she definitely caught my attention when she talked about the cost of that incremental gain:

Which is at least partly why I took part of the morning to put together my #2018Playlist. And then let it play while folding clothes and doing dishes and whatnot. Which was of course the whole idea behind the playlist in the first place.

 

There’s more to do today. And every day. I’m just gonna ride the wave and keep getting done what needs to be done, interspersed with some opportunities to just sit and chill.

And maybe take a walk on a frozen beach if I’m lucky.

The Bor-Monster

Borman entrance HMD
I can smell the refineries and the coke plant just looking at this photo. Photo cred: me.

I was back over in Lake County for a basketball game last weekend. Aside from the grounded-ness of returning (however briefly) to the Tribal Homeland, I was reminded that you haven’t really lived until you’ve barreled down an urban expressway at 75 mph boxed in between semis. For 11 years I did it daily, but it’s been awhile. It’s like riding a bike tho. Right back in the groove. Like I never left.

Back in the day I would knock out a Rosary while winding through the back roads to the Borman Expressway entrance, but I made a playlist to accompany me on the second half of the 35-minute drive: “The Bor-Monster” soundtrack. It’s made in chunks so I can pick the part that fits the mood of the day.

The opening set of Anberlin’s “Impossible”, “Walk” from the Foos, and The Ataris cover of “Boys Of Summer” is a perfect start-me-up for Mondays.

Boys of Summer – The Ataris from COAE on Vimeo.

 

The pairing of “Help Is On The Way” by Rise Against and “Seven Nation Army” is like a mental workout on a heavy bag. It’s way more productive to sing out your anger and frustrations than to punch things… like walls.

 

And every Friday I pulled into the parking lot with Soul Asylum’s “Somebody To Shove” followed by “Dare You To Move” (Switchfoot) jangling in my speakers.

I miss that drive in sometimes, and the way the tunes helped me get my head straight for the day.


So we’re in the St. Thomas More gym in Munster for my youngest son’s basketball game. While the 7th grade game was going on I was checking Teacher Twitter and stumbled across this:

OK, people having been making mixes since the days of cassette tapes, for a variety of reasons. They’re shareable and more portable now, but the concept is the same.

Still, I love the idea of a soundtrack for who I want to be. I don’t have a half-hour drive in anymore, but I could use a life soundtrack or two, custom-made.

What would go on my 2018 playlist? Sounds like something worth thinking about over Christmas Break. And worth writing about the first week of January.

Coach ‘Em Up

In the coaching world, best practices filter down in a hurry, through coaching clinics or word of mouth. Everybody wants something more effective they can use at their own level.

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Coach K image via HuffPo

That’s true for sports and true for teaching (see: MTBoS Search Engine). Take an advantage and leverage it.

The question is, how transferable are some of those practices? What works for Tom Izzo might not work for your kid’s Boys and Girls Club Team. You gotta pick your spots, and meet ’em where they are. (Also, see MTBoS).

The last couple of years I’ve been helping to coach my youngest son’s middle school CYO hoop team. They are good kids, they like the game and each other, but we practice twice a week. Maybe one of our guys will play high school ball, tops. We’re not exactly Jordan’s Bulls or the Showtime Lakers or LeBron’s anybody. The kids mostly want to hang with their friends and have fun and maybe win some games (because winning is fun).

We mostly want them to learn a little about the game and learn how to be teammates and to grow as young Catholic men. And maybe win some games (because winning is fun).

We played a public school team last night, kids who practice every day and run the same sets the high school team runs and who shoot free throws the way kids have been taught to shoot in this town for like 70 years.

BF Valpo Method

 

They want to be Vikings. And it showed in the results.

Truth be told, we play some CYO teams like that too. Teams that are talented and well-coached and play with intensity for 24 minutes. Nothing we do works. We prepare for a press and still commit a million turnovers. We can’t be too mad at our kids. They do their best. The other team is just… better, sometimes.

Those games are super-frustrating.

There are teaching days that feel like that. I’m doing everything right, using the best practices (traditional & non-traditional) out there. And yet I can’t break through to my kids. Can’t reach them. Real talk? Some of them don’t want to be reached. And I go home feeling like I just got outscored 15-0 to end a half. The game’s over and there’s still two quarters left to play.

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Deep breath.

But… I can’t be too mad at my kids. They’re good kids. They’re killing me slowly. But they’re good kids. They really just want to get out of school and get on with their lives. Unlike my ballplayers, they didn’t ask to be here. I wish they cared more. I wish they tried harder. Or at all. I wish they wanted to do well as much as I want them to do well. I wish they’d listen. Just a little bit. And then maybe they’d find out they’re better at this math stuff than they give themselves credit for.

Virgil Sweet, the coach who came up with the Valpo Method of shooting free throws, developed the steps because in order to get hired he had to prove to the school board he could improve the team’s fundamentals.

I’ve met some brilliant math teachers online, who willingly share their successes and failures. I’ve learned a lot from all of them: what works for me, and my style, and my students. What doesn’t. Someday I hope to meet the MTBoS version of Virgil Sweet. I think I’d take pretty well to his style of coaching.

Socks, shorts, 1, 2, 3… swish.

Melancholy Christmas

 

If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.

 

Note To Self

Sunday Night Sunset
The First Sunday of Advent goes out in a blaze of glory.  I’ve kinda got a thing for sunsets. Photo cred: me

Amateur Psychologists, start your engines.

I’ve almost certainly already lived more than half my life. Vegas oddsmakers would consider it a lock.

I turned 50 late last summer. About the same time, one of my favorite twitter follows, a former-atheist-now-Catholic-nun Sr. Theresa Aletheia, placed a skull on her desk. And began to tweet about it using the hashtag #mementomori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase literally translated as “remember that you will die”. More importantly, it is an ancient Christian practice, as Sr. Theresa writes:

“A long-standing Christian tradition recognizes the powerful spiritual value in remembering one’s death in order to live well. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century, includes the imperative to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” As the Catechism points out, both Scripture and the teachings of the Church remind us of “the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (1036, emphasis mine).”

— Sr. Theresa Aletheia, “Memento Mori: How A Skull On Your Desk Will Change Your Life“, aleteia.org, September 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas now is a skull for my desk.

(Look, if you’re wierded out by this, or think all this Catholic stuff is medieval superstition, that’s fine. There’s lots of stuff out there on the interwebs more suited to your interests and beliefs. I’m not offended if you click away. But if you are intrigued: bear with me.)

I’m not dying. Although as my sainted mother, a school nurse, used to say, “from the day we are born, we begin to die”. She and Sr. Theresa would have got along fine. But I definitely believe in preparing for death. And for other things.

Everyone above the age of reason knows intellectually they are going to die someday. And then they go about their business, not giving it another thought. I see the value in keeping death before me always. Especially if how I live my life now determines my address for eternity.

I wear glasses because I can’t see very well without them. I make lists because I forget things sometimes if they are not written down. It’s good to be reminded of important things, even things that seem obvious.


 

high school running GIF

I’ve said many times I wouldn’t go back to high school right now if you paid me a million bucks. Kids have it rough, man. And I’m not sure the adults in a building make things any easier sometimes.

We try. The good ones recognize kids have off days, get distracted, have talents in other areas. In case we forget, there’s always teacher evaluations to remind us what being a student can be like.

Had my evaluation last month. Met my administrator for a post-conference last week. As a former colleague of mine used to say, I’m too old and have been teaching too long to stress out over evaluations. Except this time, I did stress.

I could have graded out better. If I said I wasn’t disappointed, I’d be lying. The biggest takeaway came out of some feedback late in our meeting. My new principal suggested I take more chances, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and be reflective about my practice.

james franco what GIF

My heart sank. All that stuff… it’s literally what I do. Like, if I have a “teacher brand”, that’s it. I left the meeting thinking, “she doesn’t know me.”

And that’s partly my fault. She’s got 100 teachers on staff, and she moved over an office this year, from associate principal to principal. I just got here last year. I’m not that big into self-promotion, despite what you might see from me on Twitter. I’ve shared with my department a lot of the new tactics I’ve picked up from my online PLN, even presented on how to build a PLN at a conference last summer. But I find myself backing off sometimes, just because I don’t want to be that guy who won’t shut up about Desmos and speed dating and Which One Doesn’t Belong.

So of course, I spent some time pondering the situation.


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

— Dr. James Comer

If there’s one piece of advice every veteran teacher offers to every new teacher, it’s: “build relationships”. That nothing happens until an adult builds a rapport with a student, as East Chicago’s Dr. James Comer said. We know this intuitively. It’s not the kind of thing we need to remind ourselves of every day.

Or do we?

I was reminded this week how it feels when someone who you work with, who you rely on for a “grade”, doesn’t really know you. I don’t need to be the Golden Child. She’s my principal, I’m a teacher, let’s roll. But it’s always nice to feel like someone’s been paying attention.

So… how do my students feel about me? I know who plays basketball and who’s a dancer and who’s into computers and who roots for Michigan and who’s a photographer and who’s a runner and who hates school and who moved here from Chicago and who draws and who skates and who goes to the career center and who waits tables nights and weekends and who plays guitar and who likes cats and who’s been coding since they were 7 and, and, and, and, and.

But do they all feel like I know them? I could do better. I guarantee it. It feels like something important enough to remind myself about. Often.

Now, to get that skull…

Sr. Theresa Aleteia, SFP: “And if anyone asks questions, tell them a nun made you do it.”

On Lockdown

We had a Lockdown Browser training at school last week. We have the Respondus browser at our disposal for Canvas quizzes. When it’s in use, students cannot leave the site, open other tabs, print, or do a screen cap.

I didn’t go, but I heard stories. Horror stories of the lengths students will go to cheat on a test. Live Google chats, Snapping each other, sharing photos of a test with friends either in class or with students who will have the class later. All the stuff we all used to do in hallways back in the day, just instant and visual. One of my Lunch Bunch said, “It’s like an arms race. We get tech-savvy, they get savvier.”

And it’s true. At my former school (where I taught PLTW and math in a computer lab) I saw students constantly searching online for answer keys to their other teachers’ worksheets or workbook assignments. I knew then that as we moved towards 1:1, if we were still handing out paper worksheets and expecting students to legitimately do the work we were kidding ourselves. We were gonna have to learn a new way to teach, pronto.

As a result: More and more I’m moving away from traditional assessments to performance assessments where students display their mastery by creating something. I did a Desmos Art project as an assessment for comic sections last year (that one’s gonna return, new and improved, this spring). And a super-ambitious DIY Row Games project for rational expressions. That one was a perfect for for the short Thanksgiving week, adapted to radical expressions.

Started by introducing them to Row Games on Monday, with a ready-made exercise via the great Kate Nowak. Then I gave them the challenge of designing their own Row Game. Docs here:

I told them they were gonna get a chance to turn the math inside-out. I told them it was a quiz grade. And I turned them loose.

Panic ensued. “We’re supposed to make up our own stuff? How?!?”  “We don’t even know how to do it forwards. How are we supposed to do it backwards?” That just means we’ve got a teaching opportunity. Let’s take it.

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Eventually they came up with some pretty cool stuff. I count it as a win.

But I see what’s going on here. We had a brief discussion about it around the lunch table. On my most recent quiz (solving quadratic equations) only 7 of 48 students could identify whether a quadratic was factorable, and then properly factor it. One colleague said her students are “factor-phobic”… that they’ll use the quadratic formula on everything. Another veteran laid the blame at the foot of multiple choice tests – students FOIL all the distractors until they find the right answer. Either way, students end up being too reliant on shortcuts and tricks and miss the underlying skills. Then when they need them, they’re lost.

Let’s be honest. Thinking is hard. Everyone (grownups included) is always on the lookout for an easy way out. But assessments like this, and Desmos activities, give my students also have a chance to dig deep, to make connections between the steps of an algorithm and the skills needed to solve open-ended problems. To learn the math, not the shortcuts. And I get that they can still cheat, and will. (Thanks, Adam and Eve!) But I’m kind of on a quest here. A quest to get them to do it the right way, not the easy way, because I think the right way will result in learning happening. And maybe help them be better prepared for classes (and life) to come.

It’s not pretty. The best stuff never is. But I’ll take imperfect and real every time. As Nelson Algren famously wrote of Chicago:

yet-once-youve-come-to-be-part-of-this-particular-patch-youll-never-love-another-like-loving-a-quote-1
Image via picturequotes.com

Let’s Try That Again, Shall We?

I wrote earlier this year about our new department policy weighting test/quiz scores as 75% of a student’s math grade.

We decided as a group if assessments were gonna be that high-stakes, we would need to offer remediation and re-take opportunities. Everyone was given free rein to design their own remediation plan, and most of us modeled ours after the school’s Extended Term program where students who grade out at 53% – 59% can work after school to remediate skills and show mastery with an online program. The payoff is a 60% D-minus for the quarter.

On Open House night I told parents about the new policy, and my plans to offer remediation. They all nodded that retakes were a fair way to balance the need for a performance-based grade with the opportunity to show mastery at a later date. We walked through the math: a 50% test/quiz average and 100% on the daily work (turning in practice sets, participating in Desmos activities and Three-Act Math, attempting all review work) would average out to a passing grade (D-minus) for the quarter.

I launched my remediation efforts after a Unit Two quiz. Only about a dozen students took advantage, and of those, roughly half had already done pretty well on the quiz. Those are the kids who wanted to bump a C to a B.  The kids with an F-minus-minus, who needed a 50% to have a prayer of passing the term? Ghosts. So it’s still a work in progress.

My plan shakes out like this:

I’m late to the party, as usual, but it turns out, I’m doing it right. Want proof? Check out an article by Matthew Beyranevand at medium.com that’s been making the rounds of my timeline:

View story at Medium.com

I was doing this on the fly. I just stumbled into this plan trying to do the right thing for my students, but according to this infographic, I’m right on target:

Image via medium.com.

I think this is what you call the fruits of hanging out with the right teachers online.


So: self-assessment time. How are things going so far? Well, I still only get a dozen or so kids in for remediation and retakes. I’m not sure it’s the right dozen, but the ones who come to me leave with a better understanding of the math we’re doing. So there’s that.

Remediation Roster Snip

Looking at the long game: the opportunity to retake quizzes keeps my students in the game. Nobody is so far in a hole after a low quiz score that they can’t climb out. Nobody is punished for an off-day, or for not learning as fast as someone else in the class.

Bigger picture, in my classes the quiz struggles are intertwined with poor study habits and a weak math foundation. Until I fix those things my kids will always have struggles come assessment time.

We are raising the bar of expectations at my school. That’s not gonna change. I can’t let my kids drown. That’s not gonna change.

Then what support am I providing to my struggling students?

Everything but the kitchen sink. My Canvas page for each lesson includes the slides I use for notes in class (including embedded videos of the example problems), so students can go back any time to see the examples worked out.

There’s also links to math help pages such as Purplemath and Virtual Nerd, and a video of me doing my notes as well as a selection of other videos on the same topic. And every teacher in my building is required to keep office hours (we call it “Flex Time”) for students to come to us for face-to-face help.

One person I showed this bounty smirked, “is that a golden platter you serve everything up on, or just silver?” I know. It sounds like overkill. Like we are babying a bunch of teeangers who are old enough to drive and work and make lots of important decisions. But my students need the support. I don’t know how many of them ever use any of these resources. Not many, based on the hits counter at youtube. But the alternative is to sit back and let them fail. They might fail anyway. But not because I sat on the sidelines and let it happen.

I think Teddy Roosevelt hit it on the head:

TR Moment of Decision
Via lifehack.

I’ve had that quote behind my desk for probably 10 years. I’ve done lots of right things, and lots of wrong things. I know for sure in this case, the worst thing I could do is nothing.