The Torch Is Passed

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

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

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

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

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

Image via the Military Police Regimental Association

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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 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.

One-Man Book Club: The Classroom Chef

Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the takeaway from the most heartbreaking story in “The Classroom Chef” by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens.

I’ll be pretty honest. A lot of days in my first few years of teaching, (and even in recent years) I was way more concerned with how to make my day suck less. With keeping my sanity for the long stretches where I felt like I was the only human being in the class that cared if anybody learned any math.

Image via

There’s a section of the book titled “The Time Matt Yelled At Kids”. If there was a similar section in a similar book titled “The Time Steve Yelled At Kids”, the subtitle would have to be “Hunh. Which Time?”

The futility of the power struggle with teenagers was made clear to me one day, many years ago, as I was making my way around the room, passing out the worksheet for an activity we were about to do. I couldn’t get a small group of students to stop talking, so using a tried and true method, I slammed the stack of papers across the corner of a student desk, hoping the loud noise would get everyone’s attention. In the five seconds of silence that ensued, one of the guys who was in the midst of the talkative group looked at his buddies and deadpanned, “Wow, he’s tweaking for no reason.”

Actually I was tweaking for what I thought was a good reason. We had work to do, and they wouldn’t shut up. Of course, they wouldn’t shut up because I hadn’t done anything to convince them that my class was worth their time and attention, but I didn’t come to that realization until much later.

But his comment stayed with me all weekend. I was tweaking for no reason. Why should their bad behavior get me stressed out? Their bad behavior should make them stressed out.  I vowed to find a more effective classroom management strategy. Preferably one that involved actual consequences that work.

I’m still looking.

But I do know that screaming at 15-year-olds: 1) makes me feel like an ass, and 2) doesn’t change their behavior.


The Classroom Chef Cover
Take a look at and @classroomchef on Twitter.

So, I’ll grab another line from Stevens & Vaudrey: How can we make this better?

As I mentally process the book, it’s a two-pronged question: Better for me? Or for my students?

Turns out that making class more interesting and engaging, respecting all students and giving all of them an opportunity to contribute accomplishes both. It’s still pretty ugly some days, but by instituting many of the approaches that my online PLN (the #MTBoS) champions and that Stevens & Vaudrey illustrate in their book, we’ve been able carve out a space where kids who hate math and hate school, hate it a little less.

 “Teaching is hard – we owe it to our students to constantly seek meaningful ways to engage them.”

That line that will stick with me for years after reading this book. Change is hard. Doing something besides opening a textbook to a page I just looked at last night, offering half-hearted notes and a 25-problem homework assignment is hard. Finding student-centered ways to assess (the authors call it “gathering”) learning is hard.

But, damn, is it worth it.

The Entrees section is the meat of the book (pun intended), but I feel strongly like anyone ready to make the leap to a new way of teaching should consider the Appetizers and Side Dishes first.


The video hook for Dan Meyer‘s Three-Act task “Playing Catch Up“. One of my personal favorites.

“Guys, I want to share a little piece of video with you. Take a look at it, and tell me what you think, what questions you have, after watching it.”

“Is that you, Mr. Dull?” “Why is that guy wearing a suit?” “Damn, he’s slow!”

But somewhere in there, some kid is thinking (and may even say) “who’s gonna win the race?”

That is a video hook. My students don’t need any special kind of math knowledge to wonder about the outcome of a race. Everyone can jump in. Discussion ensues – what Stevens and Vaudrey call “math fights”. That’s the point of classroom appetizers. To create a low barrier to entry, get people talking, arguing even, and only then, after they’re hooked in, let them math their way to an answer.

The big payoff is creating a class culture where risk-taking is allowed, and encouraged. If it’s done right, eventually that curiosity with unanswered questions spills over into more mundane math tasks. Get them talking to each other. Trading ideas, working together to solve problems.

As the authors put it: “Immerse them in a kitchen of opportunity, conversation, collaboration, and critical thinking, and watch how they respond.”

It’s not an overnight change though. Taking a cue from one of my teacher-bloggers, I started using themed bellringers last year. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “why are we doing this?” or “what’s this got to do with math?”, or watched them sit and wait for me to give an answer to an estimation exercise, rather than trying to work through to an answer themselves.

For 10 years we tell our students to sit down, shut up, take notes, get the right answer, and pass the class. Now all of a sudden we want them thinking, putting answers out there that might be wrong, sharing ideas with (not copying answers from) fellow students. It’s gonna take a while.

Stick with it.


It’s a Friday morning. Late fall.  A corny novelty hit of the early 2010s is playing loudly from my room during passing time. My algebra 1 repeat students are filing into my classroom while I stand at the door. One of our most decorated seniors, an outstanding student, is on her way to class down the hall, walks past my room, hears Rebecca Black singing of the glories of everyone’s favorite day, and asks me sarcastically, “Are you proud of what you’re doing right now?”

Yes. Yes I am.

This is what Matt & John would call a “side dish”. In my class we call it “Friday Fun”. Just a quirky little thing we do every week. We also play the theme from “Rocky” on quiz days. As the authors say, side dishes serve a dual purpose: make class more fun for students, and make class more fun for teachers. The big payoff of all of this is, our kids see us taking risks. Sometimes they see us fall flat on our face. Some of them start to think that maybe it’s OK to take a chance in Mr. Dull’s class.



So You Think You Can Dance excited jason derulo lets go impatient
Image via

These guys didn’t need to convince me with 200 entertaining pages. I’ve been following Matt for years, reading his blog, asking his advice on Twitter, borrowing his best lessons. Using his music cues (and some of my own). But after tearing through “The Classroom Chef” in two days, I have my guiding principles for the school year:

  1. Your students deserve better.
  2. The world needs more education geeks.
  3. Can we make their day suck a little less?

I’m holding on tight to the rest of my summer. But I’m going to be ready to tear out of the gate on August 17.

Let’s Go Eat.