It’s Their World

“Mr. Dull, why don’t you play our music?”


I didn’t really have a good answer for him. At that time in my career I was already a big fan of the strategic use of music in the classroom, either as a backdrop for study/classwork/test-taking, or as a way to set a mood in passing time or at the outset of class. Pandora was my go-to: Jack Johnson or Dinner Soul in the morning, Chili Peppers or Anberlin in the afternoon. Great stuff for me and say, half the kids in the room. But I was definitely missing a connection with my young black men. And one day, one guy leveraged our relationship to call me out on it.

Motown & LL Cool J & Run-DMC & the Beasties (the stuff that was part of my mix in high school and college and as a young adult) might as well been stuff his grandpa listens to. So I knew that was out.

The best I could do was Today’s Hits.

I don’t think that’s what he meant.

friday meme

I’ve had a Friday Playlist for years, as a string of youtube videos. Just silliness: Never Gonna Give You Up, Party In The USA, Can’t Touch This, that kind of thing. We went all in this year with a Spotify playlist and everything.

A lot of that stuff was on there ironically, which is fine. I have kind of a reputation as That Playful Teacher, so I’ll own it. Here, have some Taylor Swift and Fresh Prince while we’re at it. We set a mood, but I also caught the occasional cringe as Rebecca Black did her thing.

But every good thing comes to an end. At least they were gentle about it.

make more playlists

So, what do you do with that? A few years ago my answer would have been “nothing”.

“We should make a playlist”. Huh. Just the day before, the topic came up in a twitter chat I participate in every Thursday. OK, I’ll bite. I can take a hint. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

So they gave me a mountain of suggestions and I spent a Saturday morning vetting lyrics and videos for class-appropriateness (sorry, Travis Scott and Sheck Wes…) and built a playlist. Two, actually. One for Friday Mood, and one to run while they work.

I’m not sure I’ve got the sequence quite right, but that’s not really up to me. The order isn’t really what matters, the content is.

Can’t let them down now, right? I’m in. And just in case I was tempted to push the project back, already they were asking me yesterday if the new playlist was ready. I had to fess up – my Thursdays are a little overscheduled and I had not made the playlist. Yet. But I also did not play the Rebecca Black mix. It was, shall we say, conspicuous by its absence. Gonna roll the new playlist out this week and see what happens.

I have no idea how it will be received. If nothing else, It will be “their music”. And all these years later, my student in that Intro to Engineering class will get his answer. It took me a minute, and it turns out all I really had to do was ask. It would have been better if I had figured this out back then, tho.

Because as the late, great Stuart Scott used to say, “It’s their world, we’re just living in it.”


Giving and Receiving

Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Let the waiting begin.

(If you have a minute you should check out Kristyn Brown’s work. She’s super-talented. I don’t make a dime if you do, I just like to direct people to other people who are really really good at what they do.)

Christmas time is always pretty melancholy around my house. I definitely am in tune with the mournful longing that accompanies “waiting in joyful hope”.

And we’re off to a flying start in that department this December.

All the men in my family got taken down a notch these last couple of weeks, in different ways, all job or school-related. Life is filled with little disappointments, and with big ones. I’m hurting for them, for sure. My job is to steer my boys through those times. It’s good for kids (and grown-ups) to develop some patience. To be reminded that you are not entitled to that grade you want, or to compete on a team, or to gain entrance to a selective program, or even to have people look favorably on the job you do.

This isn’t the forum to go into details. My boys will bounce back. I will too. Although I’m not gonna lie. I left a meeting in which I was delivered some bad news wondering if I should drop my old principal a line and see if she needs a math teacher.

My department chair could see the concern on my face (she is pretty perceptive and I don’t hide that sort of thing well), and I was a little worried that my students would pick up on it the next day.

We can’t have that, so…

Good strategy. We sang, self-reflected, set up and solved some tough Algebra I word problems and played with quadratics Marbleslides in Algebra II. It turned out to be one of our more enjoyable Fridays in a while. From first hour through last, they lifted me up in a way that adults in schools really can’t.

I’ve been teaching for awhile, and even after all these years there are definitely students I will never forget. For me, it’s four girls at Cimarron-Memorial High School, Las Vegas, NV. My second year teaching.

I had a small group, maybe 15 in a test-prep class for the Nevada High School Proficiency Exam. All we did every day, all hour, was work on skills and released problems for the graduation test. Every day of December before the tardy bell rang, they’d harmonize “All I Want For Christmas Is Youa capella. If I try hard enough can still see the joy on their faces as they sang. All of them are past 30 now, probably have kids of their own, and I swear to you every time I hear that song I think of them and smile. It’s a gift they never even knew they gave me.

Every year my church teams with another nearby parish to donate and deliver a 28-foot truck full of Christmas gifts to needy families in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. Every year the people at the social services center in the town we help are stunned: “how is it that those Catholics from up north care so much about us down here?” We end up taking care of about 1800 people each year for the last 40 years.

A group from our parish also drives down for a week every summer to do repair work, install wheelchair ramps & window-unit air conditioners, do makeovers on the ladies, and generally do whatever needs done for a struggling, forgotten community. The instructions given to our parishioners is: anything that is offered to you by anyone, even something as simple as a glass of water, take it. And say thanks. It’s an opportunity for giving, and receiving. Big gifts and small.

And sometimes the very best gifts are free, and small, and things that can’t be paid back.

So: Thanks, my students. Friday you guys gave me a little gift I’ll never forget. “December Eve” is always gonna make me smile too.

Good As Gold

The Wolf Finally Came
From John Hoerr’s 1988 release And The Wolf Finally Came: The Decline And Fall Of The American Steel Industry

Teacher horror stories about adversarial relationships between school administration and staff abound. Not just apocryphal ones: I’ve heard from good people the real tactics used to drive teachers out of a building.

There’s also a lot of misperception masquerading as reality: there can’t really be that many “faculty meetings that could have been an email“.

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In 2017, after 15 years of recession, it’s cool to hate your job I guess.

But I’ve been at three schools under six principals, and I just don’t see it. Partly because I’m not a big unionist and don’t have that inherent distrust of management. But mostly because I’ve had really good administrators.

You know that saying “Attitude reflects leadership”? It’s true. For good or for bad.

I’ve been reminded on multiple occasions recently the effect that school culture has on me as a teacher. And by “culture” I mean “people”.

  • I spent my last teacher work day in an empty room hoping I’d have students desks for Monday. My office staff promised the desks would be there in time for school to start. They arrived at 5:00 Friday afternoon. Just in time.
  • My new classroom is also without computer workstations for the 3D design work my students do in Introduction To Engineering Design. We are in the midst of a lengthy renovation project, and making use of all the spaces in the building as construction continues. I’m currently triple-booked in a nearby lab. When the issue was brought to the attention of my principal he got it squared away in a matter of days and came to my classroom to report the news.
  • Friday I had to call off on short notice. Because I care about my job and my students, I drove in just to make sure everything was set up for my sub so he wouldn’t have to go frantically looking for something that should be right there for him. My office manager over subs saw me and said “I thought you weren’t here today”. When I told her what I was doing she just smiled and said, ” I already printed that out from your email. It’s all taken care of”.

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What I’ve learned so far this year: If somebody in my building says something’s gonna get done, you can take it to the bank. It’s as good as done. Honestly, it’s been like that at every school I’ve ever been at. But I know that’s not the case for every teacher.

Does that shape my attitude about my job? I’m a worker bee at heart. Having a dad work 40 years at Inland Steel will do that. Pick up my hard hat and lunch box and metatarsal shoes and let’s go to work.

But yeah, when I know they mean what they say, I don’t have to stress over whether I’ll have what I need to do my job.

That’s as good as gold.

Kids aren’t adults. They don’t go to school and do our work just for their health. Some of them wouldn’t come here if you paid them. Believe me, I’ve had my share. There’s a ton of research out there on intrinsic/extrinsic motivation. Like such. Oh, this too.

Maybe we need a different way to guide students to getting done what needs done in school, and maybe learn a little something while they’re at it.


First Friday of the school year. Second year in the building. Had some Friday Fun ready to go. Instead, had to take a sub day for a family illness. Walked in at 7:00 am to set up my sub. Hat, shades, t-shirt, shorts, which is, as you might have guessed, not your standard-issue teacher uniform. And still, teachers and students I passed in the hallways recognized me and said “Hey”.

Image result for mario andretti knows my name
“Mario Andretti knows my name!” (source)

I’m pretty much floating on air right now thinking about it. And I’m a grown man. What does it do for a student’s attitude for me to smile and say “Hi” in the hallway?

I suck at classroom management. Kids don’t do things for me because I’m their favorite teacher. I’ve never been able to be a Drill Instructor, it’s not my style and besides I’m terrible at it. And yelling at 15 year olds makes me an ass.

And I don’t have that Obi-Wan thing.

I wish I did, but I don’t. If there’s anything at all that I’ve done right in regard to classroom management, it’s that I’ve built relationships with students. I’ve been honest that it’ll take me a minute to learn their names, but I will learn them. They know I love them, even if they make me crazy sometimes. I’ll smile and say “Hi” in the hall. I work to de-escalate conflict. I’ll be reasonable with my rules. We’ll have fun in class, maybe be a little goofy sometimes. It might get a little loud. There might be dancing.

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I’ll never write a book or present at a conference about how to run your classroom. Nobody would read it even if I did. If you read this far looking for a solution in three easy steps, sorry I wasted your time. But a smile and a chin nod is a good start. It’s free, if not easy sometimes. But the ROI is Infinity.

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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.

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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
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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.



Playing Catch-Up

The thought has been bouncing around my head all summer. A prayer. Or a toast, if you will. To all my teacher colleagues who will be starting new jobs in five weeks or so. First-year or veteran.

“May you always be the teacher your interviewer thinks you are.”

Students are a little less likely to give unconditional love than puppies are. Source:

We obviously present our best front at the interview. Our real self, but our best self. Ideally, when school starts, with 30 happy smiling faces sitting in front of us, that real self connects. Theory matches practice.

My own thought is: Culture Matters, In the classroom and in the building.

I’m making a move this year. Starting at a new school, in the town where I live. I already have a couple dozen parents in my circle of people asking me to watch out for their kids. Kids who may or not be among the 180 of mine, out of 2100 or so in the building. No pressure, right kid? I’ll do my best.

But I’m also balancing letting my personality (teaching and otherwise) show. I’m an introvert in real life, so of course I pick a profession where I put on 900 performances a year. Fridays especially are a little wacky. And that won’t change. But my most trusted advisor gave me good guidance this summer: Take a minute. Don’t come in with both barrels blazing. Lay low. Learn the culture first.

“Try and keep up, OK?”

One of my favorite moments in the interview came when an assistant superintendent asked me, “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” Meaning: Are you getting kids hands-on opportunities to learn, or just lecturing and handing out worksheets? I was able to show him how the concepts I’ve learned from my online PLN have influenced my teaching. How my lessons have evolved through a better understanding of desired student outcomes, and the addition of some pretty cool tech. I’m pretty much #MTBoS all-in.

A big Interview Pay-off Moment came when I mentioned using Desmos, the fantastic online graphing calculator. My new department chair’s ears perked up. I took that as a good sign. All of a sudden, I started to feel like my teaching style would be a good fit for the culture of the building. It’s a Four-Star school that excels at serving a college-bound population of motivated students. But more and more the administration is seeking ways to serve the kids who don’t fit in that narrow band of kids who play the game of school well.

Early in the summer, I had a twitter convo with my new department chair, regarding the text for my class and available supplemental materials. Teachers have got plenty of leeway to use whatever materials and activities they see fit, if it serves teaching and learning. And that includes pulling sections from other course texts offered by the same publisher. I told him that’s great, because I’m all about ditching the textbook.

The phrasing was partly intentional, but definitely struck a chord. He replied that the department had read Matt Miller‘s book Ditch That Textbook as a group last year.

Hashtag: No Coincidences

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for a while, I’m fully bought-in to the concepts. Even implemented a few into my work. In a lot of places, that would make me a unicorn. Maybe even at my new school a few years ago, I would have been an outlier. But guess what? Now it’s SOP.

Welcome to The Show.

Thing is, I haven’t read the book yet. I’m already behind my new colleagues. That will never do.

Cool thing though: that personalized learning thing that we keep saying we want to offer our students? It goes for teachers too. Learn what you want, when you want, from anybody, any time. Hell, twitter is one giant on-demand personalized PD for me. So guess what. I’m about to join my department’s book club, from a distance.

Asymmetrical learning, people. Asymmetrical learning. I bought the book, started to tear in as soon as I opened the Amazon envelope on Sunday. I emailed my department chair to see if he had a google doc or written reflection questions from the department book chat that he could share to help me frame my thinking as I work my way through.

Call it my One-Man Book Club. Gonna do some thinking out loud in this space as well. Just what the doctor ordered to get me caught up.

And hey, if you want to join in…..

No time like now to get better.




Do You See The Real Me?

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I read. A lot. Some might say too much. I’ll snap up a few pages of whatever I’m reading in morning while brushing my teeth, or as a nightcap before turning in for good. And if find something I really like, I’ll return to it again and again. I must have read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” fifty times, Gerry Faust’s memoir “The Golden Dream” half that many, and I can pretty much recite “Pierced By A Sword” by Bud MacFarlane Jr. word-for-word. (It’s OK if you’ve never heard of that last one. It’s Catholic fiction, and for a book written 20 years ago, a lot of seems “ripped from the headlines” these days.)

In a note regarding the second edition of “Pierced”, McFarlane states: “I’m a Catholic (and a guy, and a Notre Dame grad, and a New Jersey native) and this book reflects that.” This week I spent a good amount of time wondering how much of my work reflects me – who I am.

Kids can smell fake a mile away. And that’s a relationship killer. I don’t think I could stand in a classroom 180 days a year, 5 classes a day, and be something I’m not. And truth be told, why would I want to put up a front all day, every day?  What’s the gain? Too much work, not enough benefit. So I find myself checking myself often – to make sure I don’t have to worry about somebody pulling back the curtain.

There is a Purdue University regional campus a few blocks from my school, so each school year we host a new class of pre-service teachers for observations. I know there is supposed to be a sharp decline in the number of students in teacher formation programs in Indiana these days, but you couldn’t tell from seeing all the PUC students in our hallways. Seriously: dozens. I’m hosting two students this semester. I told them when they came to see my Algebra 1A classes for students who have previously failed the course (some multiple times), that what they would see wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be real.

I found out a long time ago if I was going to teach that class, I’d have to teach different. I still don’t have it figured out (believe me, when I do, I’m writing a book, getting a web site, going on the speaking tour, the whole schmeer. And maybe hiring some of my teaching besties as consultants.)

So I’ve been on a quest for a while. Last week one of my observers saw Speed Dating as a review for a chapter quiz. Both guys were scheduled to come in on Friday, which I reminded my students would consist of the usual Friday Fun. “What’s Friday Fun?” you ask?

Well, let’s start here:

Guaranteed two or three of them will be going “That’s my jam!” and be up out of their seat dancing for a minute on that second one. Makes my day, every damn time.

Follow that up with a self-reflective activity, via @approx_normal.

Self Assessment EC

So we did the music, and the dancing, and the reflecting, and then we needed to hook ’em for a month-long journey through the joy of linearity. On a Friday. After Hammertime. So I eased my way into an activity lifted from Dan Meyer.

Alg 1A 5.2 Opener – pairs that add to 6

We backed that up Monday with my maiden voyage into the land of Desmos Activity Builder.

I Got Your 6 Screenshot

I’ve been dying to try it out. Gonna have to write about what I saw, I imagine.

Now look. None of this is a screaming cry for attention. I’m not sitting in my upstairs computer lab plotting ways to get my fellow teachers to notice me and think I’m tech-y and cool. Everything I’ve rolled out is designed to make learning happen. Still, my observers… did they see the real me, or am I putting on a dog and pony show? And my students… they’ve got to think this is all pretty bizarre, right? (At least I’m not alone in that regard.)

Personally, I feel like I should be ready and willing to have anyone walk through the door at any time, on any day, and not feel like “Oh God. Busted.”

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Regardless: Nothing strikes fear in my heart like the term “unannounced evaluation”. Even though I know what I’m doing is good, even though I’ve been through it all a million times, even though I get in the zone when I’m in the midst of one of those 900 performances a year, I’m still that guy that gets nervous when he gets called to the principal’s office.

Then one day I read this. Yep, a teacher who told her administrator “Come see my craziest class.”

That takes cajones.

So yeah, I don’t worry too much that they (observers of any stripe) might feel like I’m putting on a show. Here I am…