One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Homework (Part II)

(Part I here)

“As you will find… there is often a number of solutions to any given problem.”


 

Alice Keeler and Matt Miller propose an alternate solution to the problem of homework. In their book Ditch That Homework, they lay out their reasons for making a change:

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Via Alice Keeler

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?

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Source

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 Matt Vaudrey (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.

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Source

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?

DOK Infographic
Alice Keeler calls DOK a “Bloom’s Taxonomy for critical thinking.”

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.

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I’m sold.

Everywhere I’m Not

Sam at Sunset
I know that look.

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.

He smiled.

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.

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All the Cali Flag hoodies. Everywhere. (source)

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 midwest brain 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.”

At the same time, the Golden State continues to see more people moving to other states than move in from other states – Cali natives are being drawn to far-off lands where taxes and housing prices and schools and everything must be so much better. Hell, we moved back here from Vegas (just before the housing bubble popped, Deo Gratia).

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.

Something better.

Hmmm….

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Douglas Coughlin, Logical Negativist. (source)

Always listen to your bartender.

Hockey Sticks

Stickers
Yep, that’s frost on the inside of the windows.

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.”

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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.”

Yep. Rattle-rattle-thunder-clatter…

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.

Odds of a Perfect NCAA Bracket, Graphed

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…

I Feel Like I've Seen This Graph Before
Mind. Blown.

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.

Not willing to rest on my laurels, next we pave the way for Inverse Functions. With a Desmos Activity borrowed from Jonathan Schoolcraft and tricked out with some Iron Giant themes.

Inverse Function AB Screengrab
Desmos Activity Builder, grab a bat. You’re up.

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.

Totally Lost

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Last Time, in Algebra Hell

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?

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Image via UPN.com.

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!”

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“You said it, Scoob!” Image via quickmeme.com.

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.

“Control Freak”

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.

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Math is Love, baby. Image via talljerome.com/NOLA/110807_endofsummer.html

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:

Help me, Obi-Wan….

Algebra Hell

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.

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What type of sin gets one scheduled into an Algebra II course for eternity?

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.

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But hey, that’s why they pay me the big bucks, right? Image via imgur.com.

So, we’re struggling with motivation these days. Not quite open revolt, but we’re on the edge of a bad place.

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I’m not sure she’s kidding, you guys.

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?

Or both….

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 Row Games. 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.

Docs here: alg-ii-3-diyrowgamesreviewproject    alg-ii-3-rowgamestemplate

How’s it going to work out? I’ll let you know. But I’m betting the results (in terms of students’ understanding, and grades) will be better than on some barf-tastic quiz.

A hell of a lot better.

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.

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Borrowing a theme from the great Matt Miller, I opted for the Epic Review OlympicsPlanned 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?

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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?)
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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!”

Win-win.

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.

It Didn’t Just Happen

It’s my last year here
My first class moved to portable ‘A’
Under construction since summer
And it’s cold today

I can see my breath and what’s left of the west parking lot
And all the spaces that we fought

Mat Kearney, “Undeniable”

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Glorious sunset over the construction zone (one of them, anyway) on a Late Advent Weekday. Photo cred: me.

Last day before Christmas Break. I always feel kind of melancholy at this time of year. It’s hard to put a finger on why. Managing “Christmas Spirit” in my world is a Goldilocks experience. Don’t want to start tuning in to MyFM’s 24-hour Christmas music in mid-November, thus risking burnout. And can’t wait too late to start, lest the joys of the season sneak by unnoticed, and the responsibilities of the season sneak up like a cat.

This is probably part of it. Financially speaking, Christmas in my house is like throwing a boulder to a drowning man.

“Some 45 percent of those polled said the holiday season brings so much financial pressure, they would prefer to skip it altogether. Almost half said their level of stress related to holiday expenses is high or extremely high.

That’s probably because nearly the same amount — some 45 percent — say they do not expect to have enough money set aside to cover holiday expenses.”

That story is from 2012, but I suspect that for a large swath of our country, not much has changed, except maybe for the worse.


 

So this year, my first at a new school, working my ass off, I just keep plowing forward, Blue Collar Teacher Guy doing my thing. Today that means: Setting up for Finals Review for when we get back on January 4. Making a Jeopardy review, planning Epic Review Olympics, making sure students have enough practice problems to get them ready for Finals. (Family Motto: “Don’t Leave The Building On Friday Til You’re Set Up For Monday.”)

Me, and a handful of my closest friends.

empty-lot
New game, you guys: Let’s count the cars left in the parking lot.

But it’s way more than that. In the classroom next to mine,  a student team was staying late to put in extra work on their final exam project, a Rube Goldberg layout known as Ballandia. It’s not due till mid-January, but long after his teammates headed out, one guy was still there, fine-tuning things.

working-late-too
Burning the midnight oil. Because that track feature worked once, but will it work every time?

In the shop on the other side of me, three guys in jeans, skate shoes, and neo-punk band T-shirts (and one knit beret) standing at a work table were bent over a laptop and a box of VEX parts, building and programming a clawbot.

clawbot
File photo. Credit: me.

We are in the midst of a $100 million renovation project to expand and upgrade the physical plant of our 70s-era school building. There are two shifts running. Construction guys are here before the admins, teachers, and students set foot in the building, and if you drive by at midnight they will be somewhere inside, still working.

under-construction
A few days ago that structure on the left was bare steel beams. Until some guys worked all day in sub-freezing temperatures to hang the walls.

I’m already buds with the custodians who work my end of the building. Our guys and ladies take meticulous care of the building, the hallways, the classrooms. They clean stuff I didn’t even know was there.

Our office staff? They deserved a serenade:

Or two:


 

The Indiana Department of Education released its school grades last week. My high school earned an A. I just got here, so I didn’t have anything to do with that. But from living here for 11 years, through conversations with teachers in the district, on to the interview process, it’s obvious: that level of performance is expected.

It doesn’t just happen. Behind the scenes there is real work. My sons will graduate from this school, and their teachers will have stayed late and agonized over their lessons. Their classmates will be role models because they will have made time to make a project something to be proud of, and not just a pile of paper to turn in for a stupid letter on a piece of paper. Their classrooms and hallways will be welcoming spaces because somebody cared enough to clean things and places nobody else would even think about.

And they’ll battle robots and fly quadcopters in the new two-story arena in our STEM wing because craftsmen spent a school year building a place from the bare walls in, where learning can explode into doing. That’s gonna be my new home, and it’s gonna be awesome.

And it didn’t just happen.


 

As I write this, it is the Winter Solstice. The shortest day of the year. It is easy to fall into the melancholy of cold grey skies, darkness when leaving school, the morning delays caused by scraping frost off car windows. Or to experience the glorious anticipation of the coming of spring, however far off that may be. But on December 21, the light begins to increase and the darkness shall decrease.

It’s an End and a Beginning.

But the work is never done. Because the things we want, the life we build, the school we as a community offer our kids: It didn’t just happen.

 

Learning Together

Electric.

I know just enough to be dangerous. I can change out a ceiling fan or a car battery. Replace a plug on an extension cord. A few other things. I know enough to shut off the breaker or otherwise disconnect power before beginning a project. But how it all works?

Magic

I mean, I could give you a dictionary definition if you want. But I think you want a little bit more than that.


 

We blew past the circuits module in POE this year. We are smack in the middle of a major renovation right now, and my classroom is ground zero. There are decades of projects, binders, materials, tools, everywhere, across three classrooms. Despite receiving a literal truckload of brand-new PLTW supplies, I couldn’t track down the breadboards and wires for my students to work with. Fortunately there is an online sim for circuit building, which is what we used at my former school, but I need for my students to get hands-on with all of this. It’s one of the major selling points of PLTW – learning by doing.

Thanks to that turn of events, I’m a little ahead of schedule. Too early to start the next unit. But: amongst a recent shipment was a half-dozen boxes of the VEX building kits, including a hydrogen fuel cell and small solar panels for an energy activity.

Nothing says we can’t skip back and do that project now, right?

Turns out we didn’t have quite everything we needed. But in the spirit of American ingenuity and the can-do spirit (and the Porter County Career Center’s Alternative Energy program), we improvised. And learned. Every day I’d dig through stacks and storage of old equipment, find something that looked useful, give it to my students and said, “here, see what you can do with this.”

 

And because they are pretty slick, they’d go to work, think, try things out, look stuff up on Youtube when they needed to, and make some magic happen.

I told them up front that I had not done this project beginning to end before: “I’ll be real honest with you – we’re going to learn together”. I’m not sure I could get away with that just anywhere. I mean it as an opportunity for students to take control of their own learning. They get it.

Good thing, too.

My strategy: Ask a lot of probing questions, help when asked, get out of the way otherwise, check for understanding later. Plus, we eventually found the breadboards and some alligator clips.

And the next thing you know: Solar/Hydrogen Cell Car. Yeah.

 

There are places where this kind of “go forth and play, and oh, by the way, learn something” might not be met with great enthusiasm. “You’re the teacher. Teach us.”

I believe I have.

But wait. There’s more: Wait ’til we start coding in the next unit…

hello-cortex

Robots are coming.