Melancholy Christmas


If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.



Timing Is Everything

Memorial Day. In addition to its rightful place as a day in memory of our honored dead in wars throughout our country’s history, it marks the unofficial start of summer.

My youngest, who as recently as last year would have rather have stabbed himself in the eyeballs with raw spaghetti noodles than go to the beach, decided that on one of the busiest beach days of the year he wants to go to the beach.

Crazy. Got to be way too crowded, right?

Plus, we got a late start to the day. You know what that means….

  • Outlet Mall: A Zoo.
  • Redamak’s: A Zoo.
  • Stray Dog: A Zoo.
  • The actual Zoo: A  Zoo.

But what’s this?

Whitaker To The River
You guys, where’s everybody going?

We first noticed the exodus near Mt. Baldy in Michigan City. By the time we crossed the border it was a convoy. Literally hundreds of cars, virtually every one of them bearing Illinois plates, all heading west at once. That blue line on the map? That’s a two-mile backup through the heart of New Buffalo, Michigan.

I get it. With the onset of construction season, North Shore and Northwest Suburban people were probably looking at a three-hour drive home. If you’re gonna spend a miserable holiday in a car, best to get out on the road in the morning, and maybe get home in time for dinner, right?

On the positive: Maybe they’ll be room for us a little bit farther north in Bridgman?

Yep. While I expected a line of cars snaking back up Lake Street, instead I found a half-empty parking lot. Aww, yeah.

And what a glorious, uncrowded Memorial Day at the beach it was. So fantastic that I left my phone in my backpack, played soccer with my youngest, sat with the fam for ice cream at the pavilion snack bar, and soaked up the sun. No photos.

Well, OK. Here’s one from Sunday night:

Weko Sunset (1)
Sunset. Weko Beach, Bridgman, MI. Memorial Day Weekend. Photo cred: me.

That’s good timing, my Illinois people. And great call on the beach, kid. You couldn’t have picked a better day.


When you’ve been teaching for a while, and are a middle-aged goof, it helps to have a rich fantasy life. Takes the edge off a mundane existence. So you occasionally imagine yourself as the hero in a national security thriller, racing against time…

Image via

So, just as a reminder, I got hired at my current school in part to help relaunch Project Lead The Way, a national pre-engineering program that had plateaued a bit in Valparaiso. There is a bit of a maze involved in rostering your students with the national PLTW, a process that is handled well above me on the food chain. But it needs to be done so the students can take the PLTW End of Course assessment for my class.

(I know. Another test, amongst a sea of tests during Testing Season. This one carries some per student dollars with it. In my first year here, I’m not gonna mess with Free Money. You feel me?)

In the midst of my move, my kids got rostered, but I couldn’t log in to see my classes. Thus, I couldn’t print their login info for the final. My login still took me to my old school, which as you can imagine, had no rostered classes for me.

Minor Panic

So now I’m emailing back and forth with my IT guy and the PLTW help desk (starting on Thursday, 6 days & a holiday weekend before my scheduled final exam window), trying to get the situation resolved. By Tuesday, my inner cool is heating up considerably.


On Wednesday, the actual day of the final tho, strangely cool. My fellow PLTW teacher said, “hey, do you have something else you can give them as a final?” Why yes. Yes I do. I’ve got a million One-Day Design Challenges. Those hit enough of the Big Ideas of the course to stand as a final in a pinch. Plus: it’s a Making Thing. I can live with that. Got my copies made, got an assignment made in Canvas. I would still have to go explain how I cost our district money, but… I’m good either way. Let the chips fall.

Now it’s three minutes before the bell for my scheduled Final Exam period: ah, what the hell. Let’s check my PLTW one more time.

And (whoomp) there it is.

**Angel Choirs Singing**

Now you should see me move. Confirm roster. Print EoC login tickets. Get students logged in to the testing site. Zing-zing. You got 80 minutes. Go…

Broadcast News from Anton Tokman on Vimeo.

Aaaaand… we’re in. Just under the wire.

If I don’t stand there punching the air at my desk, no one knows how epic that just was. And none of it happens without about a million people (who are really good at what they do) doing what they do. So you count on them. Because you can.

And a little patience doesn’t hurt. Because panic is at best counter-productive. And at worst: contagious.

If all this falls into place five minutes later, none of it matters. Everybody’s effort is pretty much a waste of breath and pixels. But these guys and ladies got the job done. On time.

Just like I knew they would.

Nice job, you guys. And: Happy Summer.

No Pressure, Kid

End of First Semester is here, along with the three-day MLK Weekend. But from the way things feel around school, you’d think it was June and not January.

That’s a school full of German kids (via Deutsche Welle) but apparently the feeling is pretty universal. School’s Out…

Everybody needs a break. It’s my first year in this building so I don’t have first-hand knowledge if this year is an outlier, or if this is just the culture. But I have my suspicions.


What I do know is this: That thing about students blowing off steam during Finals Week is real. Back in the day at IU, it was some acquaintances of ours, art students, who used their oversized art portfolios to uh, borrow, some cafeteria trays which we then used to go sledding down the hills in front of our dorm.

Here in the 21st century it probably takes some other forms. Like my engineering students who were playing “Water Pong” with a bunch of Red Solo Cups left over from one group’s entry in the Ballandia project.

Remember, if you are a teacher and your students ask you to play this game, your answer is always: “Uh, no. No thanks.” Image via WikiHow.

Students have been working on their Ballandia worlds (kind of a Rube Goldberg/roller coaster set up, inside a virtual 2x2x2 foot cube) since before Christmas Break. For some, the plan came together easily and they methodically built their design, staying on course to finish by the due date.

Just Keep Swimming. And yeah, there in the center, that’s an anemone for the Big Finish.

For others: a complete tear-down and re-build, 96 hours before ship.

This group’s theme was “Cardboard”. I think they should have gone with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. But I think that name’s taken.

The tension was palpable leading up to Preso Day. Thursday before the due date I had, no lie, 50 kids in my classroom putting finishing touches on their projects. About 95% of the groups poured heart and soul into the effort. And then during presentations… heartbreak. So many found out their design (which worked 9 times out of 10) would fail (that 1 time out of 10) at the worst possible moment. With three trials, most were able to get at least one satisfying run out of their world, (and get the points they craved), but emotions were close to the surface.

And afterwards, those emotions spilled out: Light. It. Up.

The detritus from four classes of projects filled three rolling trash bins. A couple of kids wanted to take theirs home to start a bonfire.


So, three-day weekend, end of semester… Benchmark? Or Celebration?

Or something else…

“Kahoot being more intense than the Olympics”

So, this tweet from a student (not one of mine). Yikes…

I mean (aside from the construction-related issues) most of this stuff happened at every school I’ve ever taught in. Or attended. But “mental breakdowns over finals” sounds like a thing that maybe should concern us a little bit.


So, Mr. Urban Teacher: What’s it like over there?

Here’s a place to start. My school offers a Varsity Academic Letter.

The criteria for achieving the Varsity Academic Letter, the student must: maintain a 3.500 grade point average for two consecutive semesters and be enrolled in VHS for two consecutive semesters.

If the student has a semester under a 3.500 grade point average, the student will have to have two more consecutive semesters to earn a second chevron.

Varsity Academic Awards will be passed out in the fall and the spring.

Students have the opportunity to earn one Varsity Academic Letter, six chevrons and six certificates before they graduate from Valparaiso High School.

This fall we awarded 498 students that letter. That’s like 25% of our entire student population. Yeah, no pressure, kid. Just be perfect.
Image result for frazzled student


During the interview process last spring, I was asked: “Are you the best teacher in your building?” Coincidentally, just that day I had done a peer observation on one of the best, most innovative, most committed teachers in our entire district. Earlier that week I chance to bounce ideas off a 25-year veteran of the HMD, National Board Certified, who is now an instructional coach. My answer in the interview: “Nope”. Which I think raised some eyebrows, until I related my interactions with two of my teaching mentors.

That school, which not so long ago was under threat of turnaround status under the state’s version of No Child Left Behind, just won state honors as a top Title 1 school. That happens because of strong leadership and a faculty willing to dig deep, and do whatever is necessary to improve student outcomes.

At my new school, we want to improve too. Where do you go when you are already an A-rated, Four-Star school? We want to consider ourselves Top Ten in the state, by any metric. So there is a constant push to be better. Nobody wants to let up, because you know the rest of the department is just killin’ it on the daily. Everybody’s good. Real good. So, you know, no pressure, kid.

The ironic part is: among the changes being implemented next year are a couple of things that are very familiar to me, things we had been doing at my former school for a while. A 9th-grade Support class. Looping 9th and 10th grade students with a team of teachers. And something new I’ve been waiting for years to be part of – a 1:1 initiative, where every student will have a device, in every class.

So, what’s it like over there? This is what it’s like: A Challenge. A New Challenge. But: A Challenge.

But that’s not news, to anyone who’s ever taught (or been a student), in a city or in a well-off suburb or anywhere. The challenge is the same, regardless of location, or socio-economic status of our kids. It’s just challenging in a different way.

No pressure, Kid. Just be perfect.


Still Learning

End of Semester 1: imminent. That must mean it’s time for five days of endless, mind-numbing review worksheets so we can all pretend I helped them prepare for a really hard test.

Image result for sike

Borrowing a theme from the great Matt Miller, I opted for the Epic Review Olympics. Planned ahead, before Christmas Break. Made a Jeopardy review for one day, planned out the rest, made my materials.

Then, the actual beginning of review. Snap back to reality

We only got to like 5 practice items out of the 25 on the Jeopardy game board. That’s not enough. I had students grouped up so they could work together and lean on each other. I hoped that would help more students get more assistance than I could give alone.

But instead:

“I can’t learn like this.”

“My group isn’t doing anything.”

“Can’t we just have a worksheet?”

(record scratch/freeze frame….)

Wait a minute. Aren’t all the MTBoS-inspired, student-centered lessons and activities supposed to be a magic wand that miraculously transforms unmotivated, under-prepared students into raging cauldrons of curiosity?

Image result for magic wand gif
Image via The Telegraph

It turns out…. no. One of my go-to guys, Matt Vaudrey, a teacher who literally wrote the book on crafting non-lethal math lessons, has run into the exact same situation:

Ugh. Yeah. Fine. But it’s not working for the class.

Carly, for example — the student who respectfully pointed out “we shouldn’t be tested on this if we didn’t cover it in class” — called me over during test review last week.

She asked, “Mr. Vaudrey, when are we going to practice more… like… actual math? Like, I understand that all these things (she motions at the review problems printed on colorful “stations” around the room) are important, but like… are we gonna get more notes on, like, equations and stuff?”

Ugh. Carly just loves when school is hard.

Students like Carly are accustomed to math class working a certain way. When their usual method of success no longer works, they get nervous.

It’s not wrong to give students what they require to succeed in class; a variety of nutrients is necessary for a healthy diet. If they want notes, it’s okay to give them that for a meal sometimes.

So, a moment of decision: What’s more important – doing a cool/fun game, or providing an opportunity for students to review/relearn?

(Both? Ideally…)

Call me greedy. Like St. Maximilian Kolbe, offered a choice of two crowns, I call “both”. To the MTBoS Search Engine we go.

And we come away with Four In A Row (hat tip to Sarah Carter/Fawn Nguyen). Long story short, I needed 25 practice problems (in this case, for solving systems). And as Fawn Nguyen points out: Kuta makes it easy. Pick the level of difficulty and type of system to solve, generate the problems, have Kuta make a separate answer sheet so the problems and answers can be printed back-to-back.

So what happened?

  • Cutthroat competition: always a benefit when it comes to getting buy-in from students on an activity.
  • Collaboration after each problem: Students working together to find mistakes and re-working problems (AYKM?)
Two brains are better than one.
  • A triumphant “Yes!” from students who have struggled all year long, when they check their answer on the back and find out they worked the problem correctly:
  • And from another who managed to string together a series of boxes: “I’m taking this sheet home and putting it on my wall!”


Oh BTW: to give the activity a long tail I posted the problem set on our Canvas page for students who wanted more practice on their own before the final.

They got what they wanted. I got what I wanted.

Learning has occurred. For students, and for teachers.

No Such Thing

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Rear-facing back seat. A 70’s classic. If your parents didn’t drive one of these, your childhood sucked. Image via The Atlantic.

There used to be a family board game called The Game Of Life. Each player had a little plastic station wagon you’d move around a serpentine path, as dictated by the results of a spinner. Graduation, job, marriage, kids (in that order!), retirement. Get to the end with cash = Millionaire Acres. Broke at the end? Poor Farm.

And maybe life is like that. And maybe it isn’t. There’s more than a few think pieces out there on the Meaning Of Life. The game, I mean. I’m a second-career teacher, and a math teacher, and I can state without fear of contradiction: life is not linear. I think sometimes we get way too caught up in making life too much like Life. There’s a baseline, obviously. As a young teacher I once had an expat New York kid tell me proudly that he was going to Yale after he graduated. I told him I thought that was awesome, although I also thought he should pass my Algebra 1 class first.

On the flipside, right now, even on the cusp of a world dominated by the Gig Economy, I think it’s a really bad idea to be walking around without a high school diploma. For a lot of my students, the connection between what happens inside my classroom walls and what might happen for them or to them ten years down the road is about as clear as mud.

I hope John Mayer is right. It’s just, for some of my kids, I worry that they are counting on a miracle that is unlikely to happen.

So we just finished up Finals Week. On Wednesday, first day of testing, kids rolled into my afternoon class to take a test in Introduction To Engineering Design, the first course in the suite of Project Lead The Way classes offered by my school.  One of my guys (who I also have for algebra 1) said, “my friends told me your final is hard”. I said, “Which friends?” He told me the names, and I immediately responded, gently, “They didn’t study. They didn’t do the work we did all year. Of course they thought it was hard.”

As a BAM guy, I try to make sure my assessments line up with the material I taught. No gotcha. I want to know: Do you understand what we did the last 18 weeks? Can you prove it?

Throughout my teaching career, at two different schools in two urban districts separated by 1800 miles, the process of preparing students for an assessment (chapter or final) has been pretty much the same. Provide students with a study guide, made up of the same problems as the test, substituting different numbers. If problem 1 on the test is solving a one step equation by addition or subtraction, then problem 1 on the study guide is solving a one step equation by addition or subtraction.

In addition, most teachers allow students to hand write a page of notes (don’t call it a Cheat Sheet) which they can use on the test. Many teachers even offer extra credit for making the note page. Within the last week I’ve had the same conversation with two different teachers. They told me how they had designed the review process we just discussed up there, walked the students through exactly what they would see on the final, told them exactly what to study, and students still bombed the final.

One of my former teaching neighbors (now in a different district) said, “We’re like two steps away from just handing them the answer key.” As grown-ups, and professionals, we look at the situation and wonder what is wrong with our students? We pave the path to the outcome they should want on the final, and still they end up driving into a ditch.


It’s easy to blame our students. Call them “lazy”. Blame hip-hop culture and boyfriends and gangs and video games and $8 an hour and persistent unemployment and everything else we can think of. But what if we ask…
What kind of institution have we created?


What have we done, when our students would rather walk into my final unprepared, spend 75 hours of their life doing anything but what I’ve designed for them to do in class, stare at some stupid Youtube video or their Instagram feed when all they have to do is focus for a minute to be able to move on to the next square.

Oh crap. “Do this, move to the next square?”

I mean, if that’s all school was, would you?

My dad worked 40 years in a steel mill. My mom was a school nurse for 30 years, most of them in the same district where I now teach. I remember vividly as a kid, my dad (who died of cancer a few weeks before my 22nd birthday) saying “Look at what the mill has done to my body. You don’t want this.” My mom, as a professional and a school employee, just made it clear that not going to college was not an option.

For a lot of my students, that’s not a benefit they have.

So: just do what the teacher says, ‘cuz you need this credit so you can graduate and go to college and get married and have kids and drive a station wagon and vacation at the Dells and retire.


Buford, keep resisting.”

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