Time To Buzz The Tower

Changing culture is hard. It’s difficult to do it with one class of kids. It’s a major undertaking to overhaul “the way we do things here”.  Last spring someone asked how things were going. I said I felt like I was being assimilated into the collective.

Locutus
“I am Locutus of Borg”. Via startrek.com.

When grades are king and the college pipeline is pretty well established, Doing Things Different™ can be…wearying.

I’d much rather be the guy who creates learning opportunities for my kids. I mean, I can stand and deliver with the best of them, but Photomath and Google and good old copying makes me feel like traditional worksheets and quizzes are a waste of everyone’s time. And after all of that, if I still can’t tell who knows their stuff and who just knows someone who’ll lend them their homework for five minutes, well, let’s not, OK?

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Image via Giphy

I’m sorry. There’s just better ways to do it.

“Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong. Think of it this way. What if you went to the gym to work out but you didn’t get sweaty and you weren’t sore or tired? You would probably feel like you really didn’t get any exercise. The same is true for learning. Confusion is the sweat of learning.

If I just tell them the answer, that would end the struggle. What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise. Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t actually be useful. However, if I push on the person’s feet a little bit they can still struggle and still exercise. This is what I try to do in these discussions. Instead of flat out answering the question, I often ask other questions for them to consider.”

–Rhett Allain, “Telling You The Answer Isn’t The Answer“, wired.com, October 18, 2013.


 

My guy Matt Miller of Ditch That Textbook fame keynoted at CUE last week. I was able to follow along from a distance via my PLN. He definitely got people’s attention:

Maverick, huh?. For guys of a certain age….


 

I stumbled across my teaching portfolio the other day, filled with evidence of my progression as a teacher, tools and tactics gleaned from the #MTBoSlessons that had migrated from pencil & paper to Desmos activities. There’s a question that stands out to me from the interview process, coming from one of my assistant superintendents. He asked me: “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” He meant, do you give students a chance to get hands on, to discover, do you use unorthodox methods to create learning opportunities? Yes. Yes I do. As often as I can. But sometimes I feel like I’m trying to undo 10 years of student habits. Jump through hoops, give the teacher what they want, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper (even if they don’t know what those squiggles mean), get the grade.

Doing it their way has to be easier, right? Less pushback for sure.

This is the best way. I know it in my bones. But it’s a total square peg/round hole situation. Kids want a worksheet they can Photomath and call it a day. Gimme my points.

I want them to think and struggle and learn.

A lot of them are in for a rude awakening next year. We’re in the process of de-tracking our math classes. Everything next year is gonna be faster and more in-depth. If they don’t have a decent math foundation and the ability to think their way through a problem, it’s gonna be a long year next year. I’m a little scared for them.

It is my job to help them build that foundation and learn those skills. But they’re not gonna get either one by mindlessly copying symbols off a phone screen or someone else’s paper. I think they know by now I’m gonna stand my ground. My Twitter bio doesn’t say “stubborn jackass” for nothing. I’m priming them for Desmos Conic Section Art right now. Nothing mindless there. At all.

On the positive, the kids coming up through grade school and middle school are being trained up to think. They will have been 1:1 for half their school careers by the time they get to me, creating and collaborating and knocking down walls. I see what my fellow district teachers are sharing on social. By the time we do algebra together, the kids will have been pushing the envelope for a while. And then, let’s ride.

 

 

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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:

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Image via picturequotes.com

Can You Help A Digital Native Out?

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

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

Happy Happy! Joy Joy!

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

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

*Greets students on Tuesday morning*

Me: “So, how’d Friday go?”

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

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


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Image via Desmos.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s start rubbing some brain cells together:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 4

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

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

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

Goals

When I was in high school, my buds and I had goals. We wanted to steal enough material from the chem lab to build a still, like Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H.

MASH Still
Makerspace, Korean-War-style. Via mash4077tv.com.

Pretty unrealistic, I know. In those pre-Google days, I’m not sure we even knew exactly what parts we would actually need. But we thought we had a decent shot at emulating Jeff Spicoli and ordering a pizza into class.

That never happened, either. Despite our inability to pull off the wackiness of Hollywood high school kids, senior year was pretty awesome, from a social standpoint at least. I had no idea what I really wanted to do after high school.

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Have I mentioned that we all really wanted to be like Spicoli? (Source).

I was good at math and science, and finally settled in on pre-dentistry. That lasted, like, a semester. Teaching was not even on my radar screen. Safe to say I took an L on my career goals as stated at age 17.

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Image via Project Smart

But in the grown-up world, it’s important to keep in mind goals need to be specific, measurable, and achievable. Day-to-day, year-to-year improvement at teaching is all of those things.


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To everything there is a season. Photo cred: me.

It’s early August. The school year is here. Or soon will be. Happy New Year, BTW.

It’s my 15th year of teaching, my second at my current school. I’ve done this enough times that the basics of the first week are pretty much scripted. And I’m new enough at my school to know I should still be asking plenty of questions.

On the positive, my courses are already set up in Canvas, and since I was a travelling teacher last year (and probably again, at least to start this year), I don’t have a whole lot of “classroom stuff” to set up. I can put about 96% of my efforts into curriculum planning & lesson design.

And thanks to a blogging challenge from my online PLN, a chance to sit down and plan intentionally for the year. To set some goals.

The two major initiatives in my building this year are a move to a 1:1 environment, and de-tracking our math classes. Big changes. Huge. Like, you can’t just roll up to the door on Day One and wing it.

Herman ! I sure could use your help.

  • For 1:1 I’m gonna lean on my PLN. I see Desmos Activities being a much bigger part of my classroom when I don’t have to wrestle a computer cart across the building to use this awesome tool. MyMathlab is the other piece of the puzzle for outside of class, self-paced, self-grading practice.
  • For de-tracking I look to my lean on my department team. They’ve taught Track 2 and Track 3 (where I was last year). They have intimate knowledge of how the two classes might mix, and how we can anticipate our students’ needs. Got a big planning meeting set for next week, but I imagine I’ll be in touch with the ladies on my team on a regular basis throughout the year. I’ve taught mixed-ability classes at a previous school and I’ve got some practices in mind that have seemed to benefit all students. Time to brush up on flexible seating and on-call groups, especially for formative assessment & quick feedback purposes.

For day-to-day lesson design, I’m still wrestling with two pieces. I need to make a call on bellringers & homework.

  • For the last two  years, following the lead of one of my online teacher connects, I’ve used a rotating series of tasks for bellringers. I know that giving my students an opportunity to begin each class with an opportunity to think deeply and critically, with a low barrier for entry, is beneficial. They don’t always see things the same as I do, tho. Several students, used to “sit & get”, wanted to spend less time on estimating or justifying, and more time on practice and note-taking. In a 50-minute class, they may have a point. Part of that is classroom management, and transitioning from task to task. That’s on me. If I dump the MTBoS-inspired bellringers, I am going to use a 3-2-1 or summary exit ticket. One way or another, I’m determined to have brain cells rubbing together in my class.
  • My big leap this year may be homework. We’re talking like Lance Armstrong/Deadman’s Hole-level leap here. It’s a little scary. But more and more I’m wondering if homework is doing what I need it to do for my students. Alice Keeler and Matt Miller have written a book (Ditch That Homework) that outlines the case. I’ve got it on order. For me, the big issue is: Can I give students the opportunity for practice, and the quality feedback they need, and notes, and everything else, in a 50 minute class? I bet the time we use “going over” yesterday’s homework can be re-purposed. And I’m already on board with “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do“.

My mental conflict is: how to balance discovery with practice. Part of that is me accepting alternate ways of students showing their learning. Ain’t but one way to find out. And the case for making the move is pretty solid:

Oh God. Number 4. I hate the fake “let me copy your homework” dance. Infographic via Alice Keeler.

 

From an Xs and Os standpoint, a couple of student support goals that I did haphazardly last year: Videos. Worked-out answer key. Posted to Canvas. Every. Damn. Day. If homework is going to go away, these are two critical pieces for my students, especially those that need additional help. I’m just going to have to carve out the time to make this happen.


 

So that’s it. Goals for the 2017-2018 school year. Last year I was getting my feet wet in a new building. My most trusted advisor, knowing my preference for out-of-the-box tactics and knowing the culture in my new building reminded me to “keep your head down” in year one. I’ve gone to school on myself and my students. In Year Two, it’s time to Rise Up.

Observe Me

That’s how you become great. A bit on the NSFW side, but the basic theory holds. As John Shedd mused: A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.


So this week I received an email from a new colleague.

peer-observation-request
Took me about three seconds to reply in the affirmative. Before I could change my mind.

I’m down. Anything for the team. And seriously, anybody that intentional about getting better at teaching is my brother.

Truthfully: for a second, I wasn’t sure. I’m new here. My fellow teachers are really, really good. I have nothing to hide, but still. What if he comes in here and I’m actually terrible? What if my kids pick today to regress to middle-school?

But several members of my online PLN are all-in for the #ObserveMe movement credited to Robert Kaplinsky. There’s a whole lot of aweseome, risk-taking teachers putting, uh, themselves out there.  So yeah, come take a look. Tell me what you see, good and bad.

Maybe that’s a bit selfish on my part. I mean, I want to know what my colleagues think of my work. And I want to share all the awesomeness of the #MTBoS and the “Classroom Chef” mentality with all my fellow teachers. But it does take two – someone willing to invite, and someone willing to accept. That happened this week….. aaaaaand they’re off.

The plan for the day? A Desmos activity. On phones. First time on the small screen. So, kiddies: let’s find out together. (As an aside, we are headed towards a BYOD 1:1 environment so we are encouraged to begin piloting this school year. The carts in the math department are spoken for, so taking a page from one of my favorite risk-taking teachers, I scouted out a Desmos activity that I thought would work well on the small screen, logged in as a student to test it out, saw what I needed to see, and decided to let it ride.)

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Yeah, so they got to scroll down to see the text entry box. Other than that…

As for the activity: Awesome formative – I knew what they knew (and didn’t know) right away. Although I’m not sure how much of that had to do with math knowledge and how much was related to navigating the slides, especially on ther phones.

The “Wait And See” mode that students love: off. Instead of waiting for me to write stuff down, then copying it, the students, working in pairs, had to think through the questions and come up with answers. Win!

Still a little off task. Not as much of a win!

(I think students are way more tempted to play around on their own phones than on school-issued devices. Also, it’s easier for me to see who’s playing around on a bigger screen.)

Interest definitely waned at the end. But that’s on me. The end of the activity is a word problem, which is like hand-delivering a kryptonite sandwich to class. So would I do it again? Yeah, if it’s the only way to get them doing Desmos activities, phones are better than nothing. But in a perfect world?

Next time: get the cart.

And: Oh yeah. Observe Me.

observe-me-snip

 

The Digital Citizenship Divide

I teach at a high school in a diverse urban district. And by “diverse,” I mean in every sense of the word. My students are diverse in their race and ethnicity, but also in diversity of background, diversity of experience, diversity of interest, of skill, of need. And that extends to their readiness to use the tools of modern learning.

Look at the way we paint our students with the term “digital native”. We assume because our students have grown up around devices, grown up online, that they are inborn with computer/tablet skills.

Then this happens:

Student (looking at computer, calling to me): “What’s this mean, ‘keyboard error’?”

Me: “Oh, just do a Ctrl-Alt-Del on it, you’ll be good to go.”

Student: “What’s that?”

 

Robert Downey Jr Wut

A seatmate set her straight before I could get back over there and help her out, but still. Ctrl-Alt-Del should be like breathing air. Until it isn’t. Instant reminder to me: Don’t Assume. Ever.

So we are doing a soft rollout of GAFE tools in my building. There was a rumor last spring we would be the second school in our district to go 1:1, but that didn’t happen. However, we do have Google accounts set up for all our students, and since I teach in a computer lab, I’ve been itching to give my students the chance to use the GAFE tools in their learning. Saw an opening today when they were studying disciplines of engineering and the engineering challenges of the 21st century. The assignment calls for students to create a power point slide of what they have learned about the specific challenge. I decided to create a Slides presentation, give all my students editing privileges, and have all my students contribute a slide summarizing what they had learned about the contributions of specific engineering disciplines to a major challenge facing us in the 21st century. OK, it’s not true collaboration, but it gave them an opportunity to work in the same document, and to practice the skills that requires. I want to give them an authentic audience and plan to run the presentation at our Open House this week.  My words: “create something you can be proud of when someone else sees it.”

I expected the day to be messy, like having too many cooks in the kitchen. What I got was kindergarten crap. As soon as students found out they had editing privileges, they started playing around with or deleting other students’ slides. As soon as they found the chat box, they started flaming each other in the chat box.

Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.
Pretty much NSFW, even blacked out. Nice.

I let them know that I could see all the edits they made. I let them know I could revert to previous versions. I let them know I could screenshot their chat and send it to the deans.

I reminded myself I Am A Teacher. My job is to teach them. That’s content-area skills, and digital citizenship skills.

Being a teacher is a lot like being a major league baseball player. Went 0-for-4 today? Too bad. We got another game tomorrow. Get your head straight. While I was still shaking my head over infantile knuckleheads being little boys, in setting up an assignment for my class in Edmodo, I ran across this:

In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.
In my house, no question goes unanswered. You wanna know the answer? Look it up.

So here’s a freshman, interested enough in a company she heard about in a video we watched as part of a design process lesson to Google the company, find their web site, read the job descriptions, and to compare that to what we do in class.

The Digital Citizenship Divide. One group saw the tools we have as another way to cut on each other, to be childish. Another student saw the tools as an avenue of learning, and pursued her own interests and questions without my guidance.

So. It’s looks like I’ve got some more teaching to do. I’ll be back at it tomorrow.