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.

Spicoli Van Halen Birthday.jpg
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.

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.

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.

10 Pounds of Math In A 5 Pound Sack

School Countdown
You can pay for an actual working countdown clock for your site at countingdownto.com.

Real talk? If you ain’t counting, you lying. Yeah, I know. We’re not supposed to be counting.

But we are supposed to be planning. And adjusting when plans go sideways.

Which is how this happened at our Algebra II (Track 3) Late Start Wednesday Meeting:

Here's The Math

Related image
Low-Grade Panic sets in amongst our ragtag band of Alg II teachers. Image via What A Day For A Daydream.

29 days.

1 day for the final exam, preceded by 5 days of review. That leaves 23 instructional days. For 21 sections across 4 chapters which will account for 32 final exam questions.

Yikes. Something’s got to give.

I’ve got a thought about how to fire up a spaceship on 12 amps. So do my math department colleagues.

But you know who else has a thought? My students. And they might be willing to go along with some changes if they have proposed those changes.

So I asked them.

Here’s what they told me:

  • Skip bellringers
  • Skip the Friday Self-Assessment
  • Shorten up the notes
  • Do the practice assignment (“homework”) in class
  • Quick-hitter quizzes over a couple of day’s worth of skills
  • Rinse, repeat

Good Lord. Why don’t you just tell me to teach the class while standing on my head in a corner? Because that would be an easier change to make.

One of my students heard her classmates making these suggestions about cutting back on notes and not taking “homework” home and said under her breath “Oh God, that’s stressing me out”. Guess what, my dear: it’s stressing me out too. Wayyyy too traditional a classroom for my tastes. And for my students’ needs.

Or is it?

If they are telling me what they need right now, and what has worked well for them in previous years with teachers in my building, it’s worth a listen. Using a solid, ancient negotiating tactic, I came to the table with a mental list of concessions I was willing to make. Then I can can lay it on the table at make-or-break time, like it’s something that it absolutely kills me to give up. I love giving my students a chance to engage deeply with math thru Estimation 180, Which One Doesn’t Belong, 101qs, and Would You Rather?, but right now I’ll make the trade for the time and hope that over the last 7 months we built a culture of curiosity and problem-solving in my class that carries over to “traditional” tasks.

Plus, it’s nice to have a little leverage as the temperatures (inside and outside the classroom) warm up. “Hey you guys, you told me if I did x, you would do y. Time to hold up your end of the bargain.”

Now, it’s time to go try to land a 747 on a two-lane road. In a crosswind.

Wish me luck.

You Suck

Soaking Up The Sun At Sox Park
Only at Sox Park does a Brooklyn Dodgers hat almost start a fight.

Took my oldest son to a White Sox game this weekend, to celebrate his 21st birthday. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and great seats for him to watch his favorite team. I’m a Cubs guy, but I like baseball just in general. And I love my son. So we go to Sox games together. With seats on the third-base side I knew we were sitting in the sun for a day game at Comiskey, so I broke out my Brooklyn Dodgers hat to keep the sun off my head. Can’t be heading back to school on Monday with a sunburned dome, right? A few innings in, walking back from the restroom to my seat, I hear a voice from behind me: “Look at that guy wearing the queer Cubbie blue hat. And the queer Dodger blue hat.”

Really? That’s the best you can do? “Queer?” I mean, aside from being an unacceptable slur, it’s just… lazy.


My students. They are passionate, but not always about math. At my previous school their NBA discussions sounded like the barbershop boxing scene (NSFW, obvi) from “Coming To America”.

“Awww, LaBron sucks.” “No, Kobe sucks.”

These are 2 of the top probably 10 best players in the history of the NBA. Which means they are 2 of probably 10 of the best at the game in the history of man walking upright and drawing breath.

But yeah, the guy that’s not your guy “sucks”. OK.

This frustrates me to no end. Make an argument, and back it up. Or: Shut Up. Because you sound stupid.


The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years.

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, page eight

The Standards of Mathematical Practice. They are the linchpin of almost everything I’m trying to get done with my students in class. I try to create opportunities for them to persist in problem solving, to model with mathematics, to attend to precision, to reason abstractly and quantitatively, and to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. All sound like important skills, right?

We hit a couple of the SMPs every day with our bellringers. As an example, the Would You Rather task from last Thursday:

Would You Rather Brownies
Image via wouldyourathermath.com. That’s a website put together by John Stevens, co-author of The Classroom Chef.  

Is that a silly question? Sure. Any one could guess A or B. They’d have a 50-50 chance of being right. And that would be a very large waste of instructional time. But the real payoff comes when we get factions of class arguing against each other for their position (Math Fight!). That is an excellent use of our time.

To come up with an answer and justify it, they had to model the remaining portion of brownies (probably with a fraction), calculate what portion of the whole pan would each friend get in each scenario (more fraction operations), and convert to a decimal to compare amounts. A lot of work. A lot of persistence, actually. And right now we’re in that place where all they want is 1) to be told how to do the problem, 2) the homework, and 3) gimme my points. Right now, they want to dump out of the bellringers altogether. They feel it takes too much time away from the lesson presentation. I feel the skills they are building are just as important as the mechanics of working the skills practice, and will help them power through the practice work when they get stuck.

I am very stubborn. The bellringers stay. They are building a problem-solving toolkit that my students will need way after they’ve forgotten my name.

When are my kids gonna have to solve a log equation after high school? Hell, I don’t know. Probably never. But I guarantee you they’re gonna have to take a stand sometime and convince somebody of their position. Or at least not sound like a fool while they try.

Let’s give it a shot, shall we? I’ll help.

Fellow Travelers

We have liftoff on School Year 2016-2017.

Actually we’ve back long enough to make a couple of orbits and pick up a few rocks. But damn, some days it feels like going 17,000 miles an hour.

I share a classroom with our tech department chair. Brilliant dude. Has the relationships built – to the point where some of my students (who know Mr. E from last year) asked him if I was a student teacher. (Which earned me a nickname: “The Young Teacher”. I’ll take that.)

So I have a Home Base for two classes, but I travel for the rest. For real.

Six classes, four classrooms, two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes. Me and my cart, ready to roll. Marathon training in slow motion. But it’s cool. I’ve got a routine in place already. The rest is standard issue Starting At A New School:

Learning my way. Learning new people and procedures and expectations and the most efficient way to get into the teachers’ parking lot. Trying to learn Canvas and MyMathLab on the fly. Late Start Wednesday.

But on the positive, I didn’t have to decorate a room this year. My two work days before students arrived were 100% given over to getting ready to teach. When we move downstairs into the new STEM Wing at Christmas Break, I won’t have much to move. And a bunch of us from the math department get together for lunch every day. Some days the conversation cleans up enough to earn a PG-13 rating.

I don’t feel very much like The New Guy. So far this year is: Just me, doing my thing. The thing I learned from the vast awesomeness that is Math Twitter. For example: It’s Year Two of the Themed Bellringers, and apparently that’s making an impression.

Rolling out Speed Dating ahead of a unit quiz. Playing with Three-act Math on a Friday.


I’m getting good feedback from my students, which is no small thing. They are comfortable enough that one of them asked me if I’d ever seen Breaking Bad… because he thinks I look like Walter White. Don’t worry, I’m not planning on opening up a side gig anytime soon.

I don’t sit down and I’m working my ass off and mid-week training runs are a rumor and I took a half-hour nap after school on a Tuesday. In other words, school is back in session.



Via  menentk.tumblr.com