Desmos Art 2.0

One of the hallmarks of the MTBoS is constant refinement and reflection – taking something of your own or someone else’s and making it better.

The conics unit has come and gone in my Algebra II classes, and like last year I want to do a performance assessment. Back in the day this assessment was Amy Gruen’s piecewise functions picture. With the advent of Desmos it’s now a digital version of the same project. (I wrote about last year’s here). Then in early summer I saw the tweet that let me know how much better my project could be for my students.

Dropping the image into Desmos first, then creating the equations to match the image? Brilliant! That led to a pretty productive online conversation, and to me making some slight changes to my plan for this year. My big takeaways from last year were:

  1. my students selected some very cool but also very challenging pictures to duplicate
  2. they needed massive amounts of support writing equations to match lines and curves
  3. probably not everybody did their own work

Providing massive amounts of support is what Desmos does best. That scaffolding probably means less frustration, and less cheating. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Fingers crossed
Via Tenor

Started before break with a functions review (Alg II (3) Functions one-pager), not only of conics but of all the functions we’ve learned this year. The day back from spring break we learned how to match equations with lines or shapes in a picture with this Desmos activity.

Then I introduced the project, and offered a carrot (it’s a quiz grade, you guys!). And away they went, seeking pictures.

 

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They found standard-issue high-school-kid stuff: lots of cartoon characters, superhero or sports team logos, palm trees and flowers. I had them make a (rough) sketch of the image on grid paper, then try to identify equations of four functions that would be included in the final product. I wanted them to get used to the idea of seeing small sections of the larger whole, and finding ways to describe that section in math symbols. We also walked through the process of setting up an account in Desmos, opening a new graph and bringing in the image, and saving the graph so they could access it again.

Double Double
Making ’em hungry before lunch. Double Double, coming up.

By Day Two, we were ready to start getting serious about making some math art.


 

They were pretty excited about this project when they were googling around for images, finding their favorite characters or sports teams. They were less excited about this project when it came time to start writing equations.

A couple wanted to straight-up quit. I’m gonna use all my powers of persuasion to try to convince them otherwise. That, plus walking through the process, step by-step, of writing a general equation, then adding sliders and tweaking values until the curve matched up. I’m not sure it helped.

I did notice that very few of my students actually completed the reference sheet. And (in a related story) almost none had any recall of any function equations except y = mx + b. That is definitely part of the issue – a huge disconnect between a shape on a screen and the math symbols that represent it. And truth be told, that’s part of what I wanted this assignment to do – to cement that relationship.

Best-laid plans, right? I’ve got some work to do.

showtime


 

The morning of Day Three, the putative due date, one of my struggling students came in for extra help on the project. She left with a smile on her face, having made serious progress. Plus she agreed to act as a “resident expert” in class, helping out her tablemates when they got stuck. We made some halting progress as a class, but no one is close to done. Several of my students did say that they understood how to write an equation for a line or curve, and restrict the domain, just that it was going to take a long time and a lot of tedious work. So, similar to last year, with about 10 minutes left in class I offered a reprieve, shifting the due date to Monday. Then I’ll accept whatever they have and go from there. I set up the grading rubric in such a way that the points are weighted toward planning and less on the finished product, so the kids who laid down a foundation can still get a reasonable grade even if their final product is…. incomplete.

But I also want to be able to show them what their project could look like, with a little bit of persistence:

 

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Just a little something I threw together over the weekend. 44 equations later…


 

The breakthrough for many came when they started to use vertex or intercept form for their parabolas. The ones who completed the functions reference sheet caught that first. I showed everyone on Monday, which of course was too late for many folks. Next year I’ll highlight that option earlier.

So, they begrudgingly turned in their paper/pencil planning work, along with a link to their Desmos creation, on Monday. Just like last year, some bit off way more than they could chew. Some got frustrated and quit. Some gave me a half-finished product. But the ones who stuck with it were able to turn in some pretty cool stuff:

 

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Oh, yeah, and this from a student as she turned in the assignment thru Canvas:

Desmos Student Comment
Yeah….

My big takeaways:

  1. I need to steer them towards reasonable images to duplicate. Avoid frustration and shutdown right from the jump.
  2. I need to encourage my students to use the vertex form of quadratics. Anything that makes the movement of the curve more intuitive is good. I think eventually that will help cement translation of functions.
  3. I need to enforce the preparation steps that I built in: the reference sheet, the paper sketch, and the four function equations by hand. I need to help them draw the connection between curves on a screen and the associated math symbols.

The assignment is is a keeper. But I bet you it won’t look exactly the same three years from now as it did this week. In fact, I’m counting on it.

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When The River Runs Dry

Donna And Buzz
Conceived Without Sin, Bud MacFarlane Jr., St. Jude Media.

“… he with blind faith, feeling nothing; she with visionary faith, feeling everything.”

For me it’s both. Sometimes in the same week.

I started Holy Week at my parish’s 24-Hour Prayer Vigil. I selected an intention card submitted by a parishioner who attends our Spanish-language Mass. The intentions were universal tho: Peace for the world, and prayers for the kids in the family, especially that they would find the faith.

I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament in our chapel. Meditating on the events of the Passion. It hit the depths of my soul. I was as emotionally engaged in prayer as I have been in a long time. Adoration has that effect on me in general, but this was unusually strong.

Later in the week I took my youngest son to Notre Dame for an afternoon. We’re not alums, or even subway alums, but when you grow up in Catholic schools with nuns for teachers and the most famous Catholic university on the planet an hour away, that “thing” for Our Lady’s university never really goes away. It was a popular choice for dads and kids during spring break I guess, since we were far from the only family wandering around campus, snapping photos of the Golden Dome and the Hesburgh Library.

 

What I really wanted to see for myself tho was Sacred Heart Basilica and the Grotto. We walked through the heavy wooden doors of the beautiful church, selected a pew, let the organ music settle over us, knelt, and began to pray together.

And I was dry. Couldn’t feel a thing. Same story at the Grotto. I’ve literally waited my entire life to kneel there and light a candle and pray an Ave, and… nothing.

Doesn’t mean the prayers aren’t useful. Don’t believe me, take the words of a saint instead:

“In you, today, he wants to relive his complete submission to his Father,” she wrote in 1974 to a priest suffering his own spiritual blackness.  “It does not matter what you feel, but what he feels in you . . . You and I must let him live in us and through us in the world.”

David Scott: “Mother Teresa’s Long Dark Night“, chapter 17 in The Love That Made Mother Teresa (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2013): 107-113

“Through us in the world.” Hmmm.

 


 

I feel that dryness with Twitter right now. I kind of live in three worlds there: I follow a lot of sports stuff, and a lot of political/news stuff in addition to all my teacher connects. There’s some overlap, of course. Some of it lifts me up right now. The Notre Dame women winning the NCAA basketball championship, for example.

Or an epic thread of priests and lay folks pondering the Easter Vigil. (Seriously, click through and read it. All of it. This nonsense I’m writing will still be here when you get back.)

But the Teacher Twitter stuff…. I’m scrolling right by lately. I glance, maybe. I go, “oh, yeah”, and then I move on. Or worse, I read it and go “ugh”. Truthfully, there’s a lot of stupidity out there in the Twitterverse. None of this is new by the way, just seems to be weighing on me with a little more force these days. People treat each other like crap. Political divisions are leading to derangement. Plus, unoriginal putdowns spread like dandelions. I enjoy a little snark as much as the next guy but everything is only so funny after the 100th time you read it. All of that led me to declare a one-day social media fast for myself on Good Friday. (That is a link to the past as well: tradition amongst my group growing up was all TV and radio was silenced from noon until 3 pm on Good Friday. Not a bad habit to revive, I think.)

I’m getting ready to present at a couple of Summer of E-Learning conferences in June. That has me focused. My two regular chats are always a learning experience. Those things energize me. But mild social media addiction aside, sometimes I feel like I could take or leave the rest of it.

Maybe it’s just the lull of Spring Break, getting mentally ready for the stretch run. (39 school days left, not that we’re counting or anything). Did my brain intentionally shut itself off to teacher stuff online, both to clear space for Holy Week observances, and to clear the mechanism for the fourth quarter? Maybe I’m supposed to be turning my attention outward, go “all-in” on my classes so that the world, my students in particular, can see what I’m really about.

I have the final quarter planned out. We’ve got some cool stuff coming up in Algebra II, for real. The last 9 weeks of the last required math course my students need to graduate can feel like a long march through a parched desert. I’m hoping for spring storms to hit and rush through a dry creek bed, turning everything green again.

 

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Me and Sam at The Narrows, Zion National Park, summer 2016. Splashing around in the Virgin River is a great payoff on a 107F afternoon.

 

College of Arts and Sciences

Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?

But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?

Image result for bob ross memes

Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.

Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.

So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning?  Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.

The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic.  I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.

What about science?  I have to admit I’m biased here.  As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction.  Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning.  Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.

Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.


That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.

So I called an audible.

I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.

But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.


 

I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.

Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.

Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.

BB Blog 2

Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?

And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.

BB Blog 1
Teamwork, baby. Teamwork.

(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)

So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.

BB Hlog 3
Letting Desmos do the heavy lifting to free up brain power for thinking.

Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.

Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.

BB Blog 4.jpg
Not that I’m craving attention or anything, but yeah, I totally posted the brackets on the window of the arena that faces a heavily traveled hallway.

I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.

The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.

Barbie Bumgee Feedback

Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.

What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.

Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.

Art. And Science. It’s a Both/And.

 

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.

Image result for miserable gif
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.

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.

Image result for basketball coaching gif
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.

Image result for basketball frustrated gif
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.

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.

1, 2, Trend

Second quarter is underway. Quadratics are here, in all their parabolic glory. In Algebra I, the quadratic unit was pretty much the culmination of the year. In Algebra II, it’s the end of a quickie nine-week refresher course.

And based on what I see and hear when we start talking “axis of symmetry” and “zeroes of a function”, I have to assume Algebra 1 never happened.  Agent J, do your thing:

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“I don’t get this. Any of it.”

I’ve had to reteach foundational skills in every chapter thus far this year. We literally start at Level Zero with everything.

My kids are good kids, just… math is not a priority to (most of) them. That’s cool. Let’s build in some support then. We can’t just plow thru the sections, throw a day of review at them and give a quiz, then move on. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Multi-day review is now the new normal. One, Two, Three days… whatever it takes.

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GIF Via tenor.com

This time around we started with a set of review problems, split between standard form, vertex form, and intercept form. Students group up, bounce ideas off each other, peer-tutor and correct, all while I circulate and help my students who are most in need of a push to get started. Worked-out answer key is on Canvas so students can check their work, even outside of classtime.

Then the next day: Two Truths And A Lie. Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. Sarah Carter and Jon Orr are amongst those who wrote about it. And after this day, I can see why:

 

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Massive amounts of thinking and collaborating and getting up and moving around and proving. Awesome. Here’s the document I put together for the students to use (pdf):  Two Truths And A Lie Template.

Day Three it’s Marbleslides. Happens to be a Friday, which is perfect. Because Children Must Play™️.

Yeah, there were kids actually cheering in my class today when they collected gold stars. Thanks, Desmos.

By the way, Marbleslides is designed for a 2:1 environment. Matt Vaudrey is among many who are very large proponents of pairing students up on one device for purposes of fostering student conversation and collaboration. I made sure to include “talk it over with your partner, make a plan, draw a ramp with your finger, before you start randomly changing numbers” in my directions on every screen. I think it helped.

Then a performance assessment (Graphing Quadratics Three Ways Miniposter Project) for graphing parabolas next week. They are making a Green Sheet for notes. I sent home a reminder through Canvas including a photo of the skills they should be able to display:

Green Sheet 5.1 - 5.2

Maybe there’s a better name than “review”. “Practice” maybe? Or “extension”? Right now I feel like I’m gonna just call it “teaching” and leave it at that. Because we can’t just leave them there….

I know I’m falling off the pace, a luxury I won’t have next year when we de-track Algebra II. But for now, it’s doing what we have to do for the kids to get what they need to get.

So trendy. That’s a bandwagon I’ll gladly jump onboard.

 

 

Changing The Culture

We’ve changed our in-school professional learning model from late-start Wednesdays to a quarterly Half-Day PD this year. The first afternoon session of the year took place a couple of weeks ago, with a triple focus:

  • The Canvas LMS as curriculum map and parent portal
  • Formative assessments driving instruction
  • Increased Depth of Knowledge, with an emphasis on integrating DOK 3 tasks.

Our department chair related her frustration about the fruits of a planning session with two of our teachers, putting together an in-depth activity as they try to amp up DOK: “We spent 3 hours making one problem!” These are three really good teachers, people.

You guys. Desmos. Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos Desmos.

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In professional development, no one can hear you scream.

I totally appreciate the effort, but, damn, let’s not kill ourselves trying to reinvent the wheel when there are approximately 3 billion awesome activities at teacher.desmos.com. I told my colleagues, “I don’t know how many of you guys are using Desmos activities, but it’s a machine for cranking out DOK 3 opportunities in your classroom.”

Plus: Classroom Chef & Ditch That Homework. We ordered a set of both books for everyone in the department and passed them out at our department meeting today. Except for me. I already own both books. I offered to read along with anybody who wants to do a mini-book club.

Who’s with me?

Trying not to be “that guy” but where we’re headed with being detracked, & being 1:1… it’s the elephant in the room.  We’ve got a ton of work to do. The other emphasis going forward is making sure our graduates are ready for the workforce or to handle entry-level college math. Our lower-track kids this year… aren’t. Sorry. We need to give our kids a chance to think deeply about math, to reason, to notice and wonder. We know the lower-track students have been sliding along, getting by with minimum effort and no real understanding of the math. That’s not a knock on their previous teachers. It’s what they’ve told us and what we’ve seen with our own eyes. Our guidance counselors have told us horror stories of kids trudging into the office complaining how hard Algebra II is this year.

Thing is, we owe them the chance to do this. If you don’t believe me, believe someone way smarter than me:

We’ve got the tools. We’re not the first math department to stare down this challenge. In a conversation with my former department chair, now an administrator, I said “we’re trying to change the culture of the classroom on the fly here. We can’t wait until our kids are “ready”. We need to move forward with what we know is the best way to teach, and be confident that our students will rise to the challenge.”

Because I don’t like the alternative. At all.

 

The Struggle

The battle lines are drawn in Alg 2. The price of poker has gone up.

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Pocket aces. Image via cardplayer.com

Beginning this year, our district has mandated that we weight tests and quizzes as 75% of the overall grade. For track 3 kids, who historically struggle on unit tests, this is a huge deal. They are feeling a little pummeled, watching their grades nose-dive with every assessment. Doing what they’ve always done is not getting them what they’ve always got. Their grade is now performance-based. Mastery is the goal. And the ones that are used to skating by, copying worksheets and guessing on multiple-choice tests are panicking at having to actually do math and support their answer.

“I have no clue, I study the very same way for years and now is the only time that my method hasn’t worked. The 75% is crushing my GPA because “I didn’t show work.” So I have no clue, I don’t have all the free time in the world.”

One of my students, responding to a survey question on how they could change their study habits to obtain better outcomes on quizzes

That’s like saying, “no fair grading me down on my essay because my spelling and grammar is poor and I didn’t support my argument”. We’ve spent a lifetime letting our low-level students slide, turning our heads, giving them freebie points for busy work and extra credit for tissue boxes (guilty!) and we’re crippling them.

But no creature fights back like a hurt bear.

That goes for kids and grown ups.

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My ego is stinging a little bit too. Fight or flight is a powerful impulse. We stopped mid-unit to review when an informal formative assessment showed they were struggling. I started using Julie Reulbach’s One-Sheets for unit review. Then I ran the data spread on their Unit 2 quiz and the average score in both classes is about a 45%. Over stuff they learned when they were freshmen. I want to get on my soapbox and have that Come To Jesus meeting with them. But I know from experience that preaching at them won’t change things, except maybe to make it worse.

Teaching them is the only thing that’s gonna work. Took extra care Monday to model “showing work.” Gave them an example of what “meeting expectations” looks like in a job setting (teachers get evaluated too). Offered them a study skill guide from an AVID school. I’ve set up a remediation plan after school, enrolled interested students in it, and emailed all my parents to let them know it’s an option for their child. The students who commit to getting help from me and working to master the skills can re-take a mini-assessment. If they show mastery, I’ll change their quiz grade. I’ve asked my colleagues for advice. I’ve dug pretty deep into my bag of tricks.

Now my job is to listen, and then to do.

Today we used another of my long-time go-tos, the “Solving Systems Three Ways Miniposter Project“. Students divide a poster page into three sections, and solve the same system by graphing, substitution, and by elimination. Of course, since it’s the same system, they should get the same answer all three times, so it is kind of self-checking. But I allow them to work in groups, use their notes, ask me questions, making sure that I support those who need a little one-on-one time. Then they complete some reflection questions about the methods.

Then I’m going to let them replace three exercises on the upcoming quiz with the three worked-out problems on the poster. They don’t know that yet. But on a unit that is universally, historically a disaster, it’s just my way of meeting them halfway.

I figure that’s only fair. Their struggle is my struggle.

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Image via campuscitizen.com

Linear Systems Stay and Stray

Systems. Ugh.

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Source

My very first go-round at systems of linear equations and inequalities, lo those many years ago, was an eye-opener. I was ready to drop the quiz score, all the scores were so bad. Clearly I must have done a terrible job teaching it. I’ll take the hit for this one, I figured. I related my misfortune to a colleague who had a couple of years experience under her belt. She wrinkled up her face and said, “All algebra I students are bad at solving systems. It happens every year. Don’t drop the quiz.”

Turns out, she was right. Truth: When you find a wise teacher, trust them.

My Algebra II students are struggling more than usual this year though. I covered another teacher’s IED class for a couple of days at the start of the unit, leaving one class of my students with a sub and some pretty thorough video notes, I thought. My first real try at an in-class flip. Thud. But my live class struggled too.

Scale of 1 – 10? They gave themselves a 3.5. No bueno.

So, let’s back up. We need some practice opportunities and a shot at understanding, not copying. We spent an entire class period working thru homework questions and setting up a word problem. That moved the needle a little. Got them to maybe 5. Still room to improve.

Sounds like a job for a Stay or Stray gallery walk. Picked this one up from my instructional coach in Hammond, Rhonda Fehr.

I provided a 9-question practice set, split 3/6 between graphing and substitution. Students group up, take ten minutes to work through problems as a group while I circulate to help troubleshoot. Each group should now have one problem on lock. My job is to subtly notice which problem that is, and assign it to that group as “their problem”. Now they put their work on a piece of poster paper which I strategically place around the room. One student is the “answerer”, the other group members ask questions to get to the point where they could teach it to other groups as they rotate around the room. Now one stays, they other group members rotate to the next station. After each round, a new student (not from the original group) stays at the station to become the new answerer, while everybody else moves on to ask questions at another station.

It was hectic. It was loud. That definitely turned off some of my students. “Mr. Dull, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “I didn’t learn anything from him”. “We didn’t have enough time to figure out a problem/ask questions/make our poster”.

I wanted to give them an opportunity to learn one problem deeply, know it so well they could explain it someone else. I didn’t hit everyone. Maybe just a few in each class. But I posted the original problem set on our Canvas, with a worked-out answer key, and several committed to going home and at least trying the rest of the problems.

So some learned today by explaining to others. Some learned by being taught by peers. Some will go home and get in some reps and check their own work, and learn that way.

I’ll take that.