This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.
Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.
The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.
For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.
They’re both from Detroit
Both refined raw materials into finished product
Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper
They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
Both marketed aspirations of better things
Both made changes with the times
The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today.
From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.
One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:
Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.
Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.
But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.
I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.
There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.
Growing up, every Tom Cruise character was that super-confident, super-cool guy that could bluff his way through any situation with quick wit and a smile. Who didn’t want to be Joel Goodson or Brian Flanagan or Maverick?
But I definitely also had an appreciation for people who planned every move with military precision. Who could see the downstream consequences to actions that everybody else missed. See: Jane Craig in Broadcast News. So: going by the book, or flying by the seat of our pants? Painting by numbers, or just making some happy little trees?
Is teaching an art, or a science? If you’ve been around the game for awhile, you’ve probably concluded it’s both.
Joshua Eyler of Rice University turns the question on its head in a 2015 blog post, proposing that “the most effective teaching is that which helps students learn to the greatest extent possible”.
So how might we change the art vs. science question to reflect this positioning of learning? Though we’ll have to sacrifice the nicely compact nature of the original, a new version of this question might ask whether achieving a deep understanding of how our students learn (both in general and about our fields) is more of an art or a science.
The sorts of collaborations with students that might reveal this knowledge could certainly be called creative and even artistic. I also think there is something of an art to being attuned to students’ individual approaches to learning (or their Zones of Proximal Development) and adjusting our strategies and techniques accordingly in order to ensure we are helping as many students as possible.
What about science? I have to admit I’m biased here. As someone who is writing a book on the science of learning, I lean more heavily in this direction. Because learning has its basis in the neurobiological mechanisms of the body, I think science has much to teach us about learning. Learning is also rooted in the social world as well, so the fields of sociology and psychology provide further opportunities for understanding.
Brain science and psychology and making adjustments on the fly for what our students (collectively or individually) need at the moment? Yeah, that sounds exactly like what teaching is. “All Of The Above”.
My Alg II students are feeling pretty beat up after the logs/exponentials unit. Like I'm-Not-Good-At-Math-And-I-Don't-Get-Any-Of-This-And-I'm-Crying – level beat up. Maybe it's time to switch gears a little bit tomorrow…#iteachmath#MTBoShttps://t.co/lilaxZwcSd
That was us a couple of weeks ago. I know the look I saw on my kids’ faces after the logs quiz. It’s never a good sign, but that “I don’t get this and math is stupid and I quit” feeling in February makes for a long last 13 weeks for everybody involved.
I’m hardly the first to roll out this activity. My favorite instructional coach was doing Barbie Bungee before I was even teaching, long before Twitter and Desmos had even been thought of. The great Fawn Nguyen and Matt Vaudrey have raised it to an art form.
But I gambled that it would be just the antidote for the Math Plague that was threatening to decimate my classroom. Plus, worst-case scenario, I could justify it (at least to myself) by saying that the linear concepts and DOK 3 activity would be ideal for my students in the weeks leading up to ISTEP re-testing season.
I leaned heavily on Mr. Vaudrey, who is kind enough to post his materials for anyone to use, and to reflect on his own lessons so that folks downstream might be able to anticipate the stumbling blocks for their students. I teach in the new STEM wing of my school, in what eventually will be a combo computer lab and build/makerspace. So I had some essential ingredients on hand: measuring tools, lots of space, and plenty of surfaces at a variety of heights. What I didn’t have on hand, I sought out: eight bags of #32 rubber bands at WalMart, and 8 WWE wrestling figures from my son’s collection.
Day One I tried to hook them in with an insane missile silo bungee jump, then set them up with a figure, a bundle of ten rubber bands, a data collection sheet, and let them go about the business of jumping.
Perfect world: each group of three or four students would have had about 8-10 data points. Reality: most got 4-5. Several got only 3, and one group managed to record only one distance. Those guys are gonna need some extra support.
Day Two, time for some estimates backed up by math: How many bungees would be needed to jump off the top of my projector? How far a jump could their figure make with 25 bands?
And in one of those glorious moments of teaching, I had set the hook. Students were madly pouring over their data, trying to use it to give legit estimates to the questions.
(It was about this moment that I decided that I would honor their efforts at thinking and reasoning and doing actual math on their own by entering some points for the three-day project as a quiz grade. By department policy quizzes and tests account for 75% of a student’s grade, so a good quiz grade is like finding a hundred-dollar bill on the ground outside your classroom.)
So we dumped data into a Desmos graph, let some groups with few data points share some numbers from other groups (that’s that extra support we talked about), made a trend line, set a horizontal line at 533 cm on their graph, and talked about how many bands they’d need to safely make a jump from the top of our two-story Robot/Quadcopter Arena.
Quick group huddle to compare numbers, then after a few minutes of table talk I stopped to see each group, ask about how they came up with their number, and (this is key) have them agree on one number, write it down on their page, and circle it.
Day Three, the Tournament Selection Committee has announced the pairings, and the teams are ready to jump.
I pre-assembled strands of ten bands to accelerate the assembly process, then students built their bungees and gathered, two teams at a time, on the second floor. We quickly found out that everyone in my 2nd hour class had seriously miscalculated the number of bands they needed. Fig after fig crashed to the floor. Lacking other options, and wanting to avoid the buzzkill of a six-way tie for last, we finally decided the “less dead” fig would move on.
The afternoon class seemed to have had some better estimates and we had some competetive matchups, as well as some gamesmanship as some teams attempted to scrunch two or three bands together in their hand on the railing to avoid a figurative skull fracture (high school kids, right?). The extra-long bungees in 2nd hour made a great math conversation starter (“what happened, you guys?”). I used Matt Vaudrey’s feedback form, and found out that Barbie Bungee was a near-unanimous hit.
Would this three-day activity had made more sense back in September when we were doing linear stuff? Probably. Would I have had the confidence to step back from the curriculum map for a minute when my students needed a breather if I hadn’t been hanging out on the periphery of the #MTBoS with its brilliant minds and fantastic lessons and activities? No way. Would I have tried Barbie Bungee without being able to follow a well-worn path? Not sure. I’m down with taking chances in the classroom, but I’m not sure I’d have been wise enough to add the Desmos piece if Vaudrey hadn’t blogged about it. And that made the whole project. We’d have been dead in the water, guessing a number of rubber bands for the Big Jump without it. Which means we would have missed the math altogether.
What I do know is: my students bought it, real learning happened, we all got the stress relief we needed, and I came out looking like an improv artist taking a prompt and making comedy gold.
Brian Flanagan would have been proud. Jane Craig too.
It’s also the first day of Christmas Break that I had nothing scheduled in the morning, aside from making coffee and breakfast for Mrs. Dull. Seemed like a really good morning to make a list:
The great Colin Powell used to say: “never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. I’d add: never step on your own enthusiasm. Christmas Break will fly by in a heartbeat. Untold number of 911’s will pop up to make some simple task that should take 5 minutes last an hour. So when I’m motivated to knock out some housework, schoolwork, and some #WednesdayMorningPD, I’m gonna take advantage. Because To Everything There Is A Season:
Mrs. Dull, to me this morning: "Why are *you* tired? You slept like 10 hours yesterday!"
I’ve been a long-time fan of MattMiller. Reading his blog, borrowing ideas, hitting him up for “how-to” help when preparing to make a short G-Suite presentation to some teaching colleagues, reading his books, the whole schmeer. The last two years he’s called in some favors with fellow teacher leaders and organized a virtual summit over Christmas Break. The 2016 edition was fruitful, and when I heard he was planning on a new set of conversations this year, I signed up for email notifications right away.
Then of course, life got in the way. The #DitchSummit opened on December 15, and my district was in session until 12/22. Which the mathematically inclined amongst you will note, was 72 hours until Christmas Day. We cleaned house and made cookies and entertained and shopped and went to Mass (twice!) and met with family and and and and and…
Here it is, December 27, and I’m just now sitting down to check in on the Summit. I know better than to try to binge-watch them all in one day. Plus that would just sidetrack me from my list. So I made a ranking, by topic, ordering the sessions. They are obviously all talented presenters and brilliant people, but somebody has to be first. And last, for that matter.
The short version is a riff on the flight attendant instructions to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. A burned-out, unhappy teacher is not going to create a very conducive learning environment for his students.
As a guy who broke the “highly effective” scale last year but only graded out as “effective” this year, much to the detriment of my ego, she definitely caught my attention when she talked about the cost of that incremental gain:
“We have to be okay with effective if our personal lives are being outrun.” Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. #ditchsummit@strobeled
Which is at least partly why I took part of the morning to put together my #2018Playlist. And then let it play while folding clothes and doing dishes and whatnot. Which was of course the whole idea behind the playlist in the first place.
There’s more to do today. And every day. I’m just gonna ride the wave and keep getting done what needs to be done, interspersed with some opportunities to just sit and chill.
And maybe take a walk on a frozen beach if I’m lucky.
My very first go-round at systems of linear equations and inequalities, lo those many years ago, was an eye-opener. I was ready to drop the quiz score, all the scores were so bad. Clearly I must have done a terrible job teaching it. I’ll take the hit for this one, I figured. I related my misfortune to a colleague who had a couple of years experience under her belt. She wrinkled up her face and said, “All algebra I students are bad at solving systems. It happens every year. Don’t drop the quiz.”
Turns out, she was right. Truth: When you find a wise teacher, trust them.
My Algebra II students are struggling more than usual this year though. I covered another teacher’s IED class for a couple of days at the start of the unit, leaving one class of my students with a sub and some pretty thorough video notes, I thought. My first real try at an in-class flip. Thud. But my live class struggled too.
Scale of 1 – 10? They gave themselves a 3.5. No bueno.
So, let’s back up. We need some practice opportunities and a shot at understanding, not copying. We spent an entire class period working thru homework questions and setting up a word problem. That moved the needle a little. Got them to maybe 5. Still room to improve.
Sounds like a job for a Stay or Stray gallery walk. Picked this one up from my instructional coach in Hammond, Rhonda Fehr.
I provided a 9-question practice set, split 3/6 between graphing and substitution. Students group up, take ten minutes to work through problems as a group while I circulate to help troubleshoot. Each group should now have one problem on lock. My job is to subtly notice which problem that is, and assign it to that group as “their problem”. Now they put their work on a piece of poster paper which I strategically place around the room. One student is the “answerer”, the other group members ask questions to get to the point where they could teach it to other groups as they rotate around the room. Now one stays, they other group members rotate to the next station. After each round, a new student (not from the original group) stays at the station to become the new answerer, while everybody else moves on to ask questions at another station.
Trying to make sense of solving linear systems. Too hot to sit & watch me do problems (barf!).
It was hectic. It was loud. That definitely turned off some of my students. “Mr. Dull, they don’t know what they’re talking about.” “I didn’t learn anything from him”. “We didn’t have enough time to figure out a problem/ask questions/make our poster”.
I wanted to give them an opportunity to learn one problem deeply, know it so well they could explain it someone else. I didn’t hit everyone. Maybe just a few in each class. But I posted the original problem set on our Canvas, with a worked-out answer key, and several committed to going home and at least trying the rest of the problems.
So some learned today by explaining to others. Some learned by being taught by peers. Some will go home and get in some reps and check their own work, and learn that way.
No, that’s not what it was like at all. In reality, well, it takes students a minute to get on board with something new. I had to take a sub day on short notice on Friday, but I had fortunately planned far enough ahead that my materials were already set up in Canvas for all my PLTW classes and my Algebra II students. All they had to do was sit back, absorb some instructions and/or notes, and commence to churning out pure awesomeness. The worked out examples we do in class are embedded right inside the slides:
Students: “The assignment was easy. We could do that. But we couldn’t do the notes.”
We ended up going back over everything on Tuesday. OK, they need some guidance on this. Digital Natives or no, they need someone to teach ’em what they don’t know how.
Which is how I came to be teaching them Desmos on a Tuesday morning. I had embedded a quickie Desmos activity into their practice set Friday. Problem is, I’m not sure in retrospect they know how to graph a function in Desmos. Actually, after I looked at the dashboard, I know they didn’t know how to graph a function in Desmos.
“So how many of you had a teacher who used Desmos with you last year? Wait. None?!?!? You never? Really? Well guess what: This is your lucky day, kiddies.”
Angel choirs sing, rainbows arch across the sky, unicorns prance, chocolate abounds.
So step One: How to enter a function into Desmos:
OK, so that doesn’t look like much of anything that tells us anything about this flight. But wait. You guys, does negative time or negative distance make sense in this problem? No, they tell me. Great. Let’s get rid of those portions of the coordinate plane:
Now let’s start rubbing some brain cells together:
That took us to the end of class but definitely lit a fire. I sent them home with instructions to finish the activity. Many tore into it during their study hall, because when I went back to check the dashboard on my prep the thing was lit up like a Christmas tree.
From what I’ve been able to gather from observing other 1:1 initiatives from a distance, this is a huge step. In this order: Got the teachers trained up, got some in-house tech coaches in place, now we give the students the guidance they need and we are ready to rock.
I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?
Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:
“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”
My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.
I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.
The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.
Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.
So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.
One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.
As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.
In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.
I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.
Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by MattVaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.
I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.
Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.
The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.
The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.
Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book. Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.
If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.
In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”
Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.
Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?
The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.
My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.
If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.
In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.
Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.
My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.
This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?
So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).
I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.
Mrs. Dull and my youngest caught a sunset at the beach while I was attending graduation last Friday. We shared a cup of coffee before I headed out for a weekend calling hoops on Saturday morning, and she told me a story.
My 13-year-old son is all SoCal‘d out these days – he grows out his hair when school is done, so he’s got a little surfer-boy flow under his beanie, eyes hidden behind shades.
Mrs. Dull noticed that the look kind of suits him, and mentioned that to him as they watched the sun dip under the horizon.
She told me, over strong beans, that she thought he would thrive out there. Vegas, specifically. That the vibe there suits his personality.
Yeah, I can see that. And, truthfully: The draw to the West is strong sometimes.
When we lived there, all I wanted was to be back here. When we visited back there last summer, not gonna lie… I felt a little tug.
We plan to retire to a little beach town in Michigan, and we visit there often. When we sit on the beach at St. Joe, or share pizza and schooners with the windows open and the lake breeze blowing on our face at Silver Beach Pizza, it’s the only place I want to be, forever, watching a glorious sunset every night, or standing in awe as the waves of an angry lake pummel the lighthouse and pier.
But I imagine if we lived walking distance from the beach, there’d be nights I’d think “Oh great, another sunset. Whatevs. Do we have to go? Can’t we just stay inside and watch TV?” Like Dave Ramsey says, lobster gets to taste like soap if you eat it every day.
Rod Dreher writes of a lesson he learned on a trip to Europe as a high school student:
“The other big thing I learned on that trip was that life could be something else, something other than what I had been given. I met my Dutch pen pal Miriam in her town in the south of Holland. Valkenswaard was its name. I had dreamed of Valkenswaard as everything my own town was not. What I discovered was that kids in Valkenswaard dreamed of America as everything their town was not. It was, in truth, an unhappy surprise to discover that Valkenswaard was a real place and not a fantasy village. I laugh to think about it today, at 50, but back then, I needed to believe in Valkenswaard like I needed to believe in Carnaby Street and Dexys Midnight Runners and After The Fire and all of it. If only I could possess it, and be a part of it, I would finally belong.
Well, no. That’s not how it works. There are some places that are better than others, but the thing I learned was that you can’t escape from yourself. This is unfortunate. But there it is.”
When I started back to school for a teaching degree, one of my first professors introduced us to the concept of The Four Square Blocks: for kids who grow up in the city, that space is their world. For a variety of reasons, you just don’t cross the boundaries of your four square blocks.
Then I started teaching in a city. After that, in another, smaller city bordering Chicago. The parents moved their kids across the state line, hoping for… something better for their family. To the kids, living in Indiana (even just a few miles away from their old neighborhood) meant permanently tossing aside whatever street cred they had back home.
My Chicago kids spent a lot of energy putting up a front. The unspoken message was: you Indiana people think you’re hard, but you wouldn’t last a minute in my neighborhood.
Everybody wants to be somewhere else…
Meanwhile, at my new school this year, this was the number one most popular fashion accessory.
Maybe it’s just a fashion trend. Maybe it’s a sign of longing to get out. Midwest kids will always be pulled to Endless Summer. The midwestbrain drain is pretty well documented. My school sends kids to Notre Dame, and the Ivies, and to the top engineering schools in the country. What should we tell them? “No, you can’t go”? There’s a whole world out there, filled with challenging problems in need of answers. As the writer George Ade said: “A lot of smart young people have come out of Indiana. The smarter they are, the faster they come out.”
Everybody wants something better. Me, you, my kids. Everybody. And maybe it’s out there. Sometimes it’s worth it to pick up the phone and find out. (I did). To pack the U-Haul and roll the dice. (Did that too). The trick is, not to fall prey to the fantasy that streets are paved with gold. You can be just as miserable in Florida as you are in Indiana. Maybe more so.
When you drive an old car you get used to some rough sounds.
You also get very attuned to new, strange sounds. To the point where you almost don’t need an engine light to know when something’s not right.
So it is when you teach Algebra 1 frequent fliers, or in my current position, Track 3 Algebra II students with “Junioritis“. As my math coach in a previous district once told a room full of algebra teachers: “Your students have been going to school now for what, 11 or 12 years? Don’t fool yourself. They are not going to instantly start liking math all of a sudden just because you are their teacher this year.”
So we started a chapter on exponentials and logs last week. We kicked the whole thing off with a day of graphing exponential functions by making a table of values. How did it go, you ask?
“I didn’t get to the back page because the front page made me cry.”
How do we fix this? (Hint: The answer is not “Call the Car-X Man.”)
We go Back to Basics:
Opened up class with the odds of a perfect NCAA bracket, graphs included. Because, the first day of the tournament (mid-day games, yo) dominates my students’ attention like little else.
Then on to the bellringer – a Would You Rather on the evergreen task: would you rather have (insert giant sum of money) for a month’s work, or would you rather get one penny the first day, two pennies the second day, four cents on the third day, and so forth, with the daily pay rate doubling each day.
Several students lowered their shoulder and did the grunt work, either on calculator or on paper. And the answer became crystal clear. They actually “justified their answer with math”. Serious “light bulb” moments. (“Woah!……..”)
Then we walk through graphing an exponential with a fractional base, from the previous day’s assignment. Once I reminded (and showed) them that a negative exponent means write the reciprocal to the positive power, things fell into place. And hey, wait a minute. The shape of that graph looks very familiar. Like, we’ve seen it before. Maybe, today even…
They still freeze up any time they are asked to graph a function from an x-y table, but I think they left class that day having a little clearer view of the *concept* of an exponential function. For just one day, I’ll take it. Let’s just say I’m guardedly optimistic. We’ll do some review at the end of the week, and a partner quiz on the day before Spring Break.
Moral of the story: it’s my job to stay in tune with my students’ level of understanding, and back them up when it’s needed. Visuals, a chance to play with numbers, and a chance to manipulate graphs definitely helps.
Or I could sit in a corner and mutter H – E – Double – Hockey Sticks. Those are the options.
We opted for a performance assessment, students (working in pairs) creating their own Row Games-style review rather than taking a “traditional” quiz. Based on their feedback the days leading up to what would have been a quiz day, I knew we were looking at a serious crash-and-burn scenario.
And I was right – the quiz would have been a disaster. How do I know?
Because the project revealed some holes in their understanding. Holes you could drive a Mack truck thru. “What do you mean ‘factor’ that? I don’t know how to do that!”
So we spent three days in class on the project. It was messy, as all good learning is. There was stress from my more traditional minded-students. There was resistance to partner work.
But: I got to spend time with every single student in all my classes, at least just for a few moments, answering questions, giving encouragement, suggesting a way forward when they were stuck. Invaluable formative assessment. There was good-natured teacher humor, and music. Always a plus. Slowly, light dawns. I think they understand operations with rational expressions better than they did last week. We’ve walked back off the ledge together. So that’s a win.
But I have lots of questions. More questions than answers, really. Grading philosophy and special ed and “support for everyone” and what does an “A” mean and Track 2 and Track 3 and everything.
When I started doing this my district was really into performance-based grades for math: tests = 70% of grade. Teachers could do whatever they wanted with the other 30%: projects, homework, participation, a combo of any of the above. But long story short, a student’s grade is made up of what he proves he knows and can do.
Then (after moving to another urban district) I started teaching kids who hate school and hate math and I learned that sometimes it’s worth making sure students get credit for their efforts in practice, especially if that meant I kept them interested and trying for a whole semester. I know, SBG is awesome, it just never worked for my kids. They responded to “points for paper”, even when I preached how much I valued what they had going on from the neck up. Don’t @ me.
Fast-forward to now, my first year teaching Track 3 Algebra II in a high-performing district. My 2nd quarter breakdown was more like 40% quizzes/30% classwork/30% homework. So a student could do all my “busy work” get a 0 on every quiz and pass with a D-. Is that how this “grading” thing is supposed to work?
I can tell my grading system is broken. My philosophy is solid, but when a student can pull a “B” in my class for first semester, then look at me in the eye and tell me she can’t factor a quadratic trinomial, I know I’m Doing It Wrong.
Here’s the thing: I want a letter to represent what they know. I think they want a letter to represent who they are.
So I’ve got some thinking to do. Bounced the question off my Lunch Bunch at school today. And composed the perfunctory tweet for help to my PLN:
OK, #MTBoS: what's your ideal ratio of test points/HW points? Put another way: your goal for assessments as a % of a S's overall grade = x?
The Dreaded Algebra II. For many of the high-achieving students at my school, it’s a forgettable stepping stone on the path to AP Calc and beyond. For my students, it’s the last required math course before graduation, and a figurative peek into the very bowels of Hell.
We’ve finished up the first semester, which is really just a re-hash of Algebra I. Now the fun begins. Brand new material. Brand new material that my students see as having no connection to their actual lives whatsoever. Also, the math is hard. Especially if your foundational algebra skills are weak.
So, we’re struggling with motivation these days. Not quite open revolt, but we’re on the edge of a bad place.
We just finished up operations with rational expressions, and their level of understanding is sketchy at best.
I’m not sure a traditional quiz is what they need right now. Check that. I’m positive a traditional quiz is not what they need right now.
So, some type of performance assessment is more like it. In class, in groups, display understanding, take your time. So: Old standby? Or a new thing?
Kate Nowak is one of my go-tos for review activities that are student-centered and self-checking. One of her go-tos back in the day was RowGames. The basics, from the source:
“Make a worksheet of problems organized in two columns. Column A and column B. The tricky part is the pair of problems in each row has to have the same answer. Obviously some topics are more suited to this than others. (Solving linear systems, easy. SOHCAHTOA, easy. Graphing inequalities, hard.)
Pair up the kids. Decide who is A and who is B. Tell the kids to only do the problems in their column. When done, compare answers to each question number with their partner. And if they don’t get the same answer, work together to find the error. That last step is where the magic happens. I know how well I taught the topic by how busy I am while they are row gaming it up. (Sipping coffee: go, me. Running around like lettuce with its head cut off: self-recrimination time.)”
So, my twist: make it DIY. We tried this with Kahoot! this year, students creating their own questions and distractors, I gather them up, make the Kahoot! quiz, kids play, angel choirs sing, all is well.
Here’s the deal: My students need a day to catch their breath from the forced march of rational expressions. I’ll give it to them. They’re gonna make their own Row Games activity. I took one of the Row Games from a google folder Nowak graciously shared. The kids will work through that exercise on Monday. So now they know what a Row Game looks like. Tuesday I introduce the project, give them the design requirements, list of deliverables, and the rubric, and turn them loose. It’ll go in the gradebook as a quiz grade. Even better: The plan is to take the finished products and use them as a review day activity somewhere down the line. Each class will get an activity designed by students in a different class.