Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

When the Classroom Chef  people are so far inside your head that your first thought upon such a questions is: “yes, we definitely should send dolls hurtling down a wire suspended from the top of the football bleachers”…


The teachers I follow online talk quite a bit about risk-taking – teachers stepping out of their comfort zone, doing something besides “Here, you guys, do page 282, #1-30 all. Show your work”.

It sounds great. and honestly, it’s been transformational in my classroom. But “risk” implies the possibility of failure. I’ve had activities fall flat, had them blow up in my face. But it’s been a while.

Planning well, and picking my spots, has helped me pick the right activity at the right time for my students, most of the time. I was confident enough in Barbie Zipline that I started hyping it to my students.

Me: “When you graduate, you’re gonna look back on this day and know it was the greatest math class you ever had.”

Student: “I don’t know, my math teacher last year was pretty epic.”

I’d been bookmarking John Stevens’ blog posts about his adventures in Barbie Zipline design to get the basic idea down, and recognized I’d need to make a trip to see the helpful hardware folks at Ace. Like $55 later, I was ready.

 

Weather-wise the day was fantastic. I’ve got my beach bag in my car so I knew I had sunscreen packed away for the oppressive late-morning/afternoon sun (always amplified by standing on metal bleachers).

Sunscreen
Because you never know when you might have to drop everything and go to the beach. Or take six classes of high school kids outside.

Students were ready. They had planned out their zipline design by selecting a starting height and horizontal distance, pondered the concept of “safe but fun”, brought their Barbie or other figure from home, and hey, class outside on Friday? Let’s Go.


 

And then…

bummed Cap GIF
Source

I struggled to get the harness right the first two classes. We experimented with several different configurations (including one where I threaded the line through the wrong side of the pulley. Dur. Did I mention I used to teach engineering?). Maybe one of ten groups got a successful trial before my plan period.

Later in the day one of my student helpers, in his haste to reel in the line, managed to create a rat’s nest of tangles that I eventually had to cut.

Tangle
Hopeless. I bought a 500′ reel of landscape twine, so I had room for error. Good thing.

A couple of classes had a group of kids that proved to me I can’t let them roam on the ground while i’m 40 feet up at the top of the bleachers. I’ll remember that for next time. But we got a couple of worthwhile trials, enough to call the day a partial success. Although that’s a very rough landing for tandem Spidey/Barbie:


So what now? We had fun, yeah, but there has to be more to the activity, to tie it back to the math we had been doing (distance formula/pythagorean theorem). Back to Stevens:

Let’s say this company in Las Vegas approached you and said they wanted a 3,000 foot zipline. You can’t hand them a cute drawing and expect a contract, so based on your data, what would be a good starting and ending height? Why?

So I made a Desmos graph my students could use to set the dimensions for a 3000′ zipline and set their creative juices flowing. Open up a GDoc or GSlide. Tell me why you selected those dimensions, explain why your design is “safe but fun” and select the building in Vegas that will host your zipline. Insert your video.

Responses ranged from minimal to pedestrian to stunning. They did the math I asked them to do on paper, but even better, they used math talk to tell me about their design. Several compared the slope of their Barbie Zipline mock-up to the slope of their proposed Vegas Zipline. It was a beautiful thing.


 

So the Friday outside didn’t live up to the hype. They probably won’t tell their friends all about it. Several were a bit confused when I asked them to take what they learned from their “proof of concept” to write up an imaginary Vegas Zipline proposal. (“Mr. Dull, our zipline didn’t work. We didn’t learn anything”).

But I learned enough to make some changes for next year. And the write-ups were worth the frustration. We did real math, wrapped up in an activity. There was enough reward to justify the risk.

Also, this kind of encounter with your assistant superintendent and your director of secondary curriculum never hurts:

If you’ve been thinking about making the leap: go for it. It’ll be messy. But it’ll be worth it.

 

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.

Image result for in space no one can hear you scream
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.

 

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.

Little Help?

 

So, have you read “Classroom Chef” yet? If not, no problem. It’s cool. I read it for you. (But it really only helps you if you read it yourself. Go read it. You won’t regret it.)

The authors not only tweet individually, but write under the @Classroom Chef handle. Not long ago they boosted a classic blog post from Kate Nowak that I like to call the “Rachel Ray” post.

The executive summary: give what you have. Share. Help your fellow teachers. Even if you think your thing you made or did isn’t very creative.

Just a couple weeks ago I tagged her in a thing I did.

She said, “hey let me know how it went”. Cool, right? (It went really well, by the way. It’s awesome when kids recognize they know some things they didn’t think they knew.)

So here’s a thing that happened the other day. A Valentine’s Day WODB

…that made it to Canada:

So, it helped somebody. Yay! Not because I’m so great, but the power of a PLN and a handful of RTs put that little piece of Love Day happiness in front of a teacher who thought it might be a conversation starter for her kids.

Not everybody can be this guy. But the spirit of sharing is universal.

So I’m gonna keep giving my little bit. Join me?

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.)

dab-screenshot
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