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

“It’s a deal, it’s a contract, it’s an agreement that you, as student and family, make with educational institutions. It’s an agreement in which, for it to be worth it to you, elements must stay balanced.

As in: Not everything the school is going to ask of me is going to great or even valuable. There are going to be irritating aspects of school. But all of that is balanced by what the school experience gives.

Just like the rest of life, right?

So just as in the rest of life, we make constant cost-benefit analyses. Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

Amy Welborn, “Homeschooling… Again?!“, 8/7/17

Spending some time today pondering: How would I answer a parent (or a student) asking that same question: “Is the good I’m deriving worth the cost I’m paying?”

School starts in a week, and I’m having long thoughts about grading and homework and how class time is spent and everything. I can do better. I know my grading/points system was out of whack last school year. Many times I knew a student’s letter grade didn’t really reflect his ability to do math.

I have to fix that.

I know there’s a premium on time when classes are 50 minutes long. I want kids thinking and arguing and defending their positions and solving problems and working together and practicing skills and having a chance to ask questions and get feedback on their efforts.

And I’m pretty sure that unless I invent a way to elongate time that I can’t do all those things in one class period.

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Source

 

 

Along comes the Dynamic Duo: Matt Miller and Alice Keeler. The question has been around for a while: is homework worth the time and aggravation? Does it encourage learning? Does it increase the educational divide between students of different socio-economic classes? There is much research that at least suggests there is a better way. These two well-known teacher/presenters aim to provide the why and the how for doing things different.

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Image via Goodreads.

I’ve been reading Matt’s blog for years. I read his first book, Ditch That Textbook, around this time last year. I’ve seen videos of Alice pitching her homework theories. To be honest, the Halo Effect is strong around these two. I’m predisposed to read their stuff, punch my fist in the air and shout “Yes”! So I’m intentionally adopting the posture of a skeptic as I read #DitchHW. Playing the Devil’s Advocate. I’m trying hard to punch holes in their argument. I’ve got a tendency to take a new idea and run with it. I want to make sure this one has staying power. To justify putting my teaching money where my mouth is.

But they’re making their case well.

Why Ditch Homework-
Alice Keeler: “But what did they get in return for their investment?”

I don’t know about you, but when I don’t see the value in something I’m asked to do…. I don’t want to do it. That just sounds like the set-up for a power struggle. Even if the research leaned towards homework as a great educational tool, the kids who refuse to do the homework won’t do the learning. And that’s a problem.

Here’s what I saw in my classroom. Pick a year – could be 2003, 2008, 2012, or last May:

  • About 35% of my students legitimately do the homework on their own
  • Another 30-40% copy the work from the students in the first group
  • The rest don’t do homework at all
  • Even when I point out they are getting points just for effort, enough points in a quarter to equal a quiz score
  • They’ll copy homework blatantly in class from a seatmate
  • They’ll snap their homework and text/snapchat it to friends
  • They will see similar problems a week later on a review sheet and look at me like they’ve never seen that type of problem before

Learning has not occurred, people.

On the other hand, the best days for my students are days when there is collaborative work, with students having chances to help each other and to get help and feedback from me.

That sounds like something I’d like to have happen more often.


 

These two really know how to get my attention, that’s for sure:

Reclaiming my time.

So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.

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Miller and Keeler go on to suggest ways for teachers to build relationships with students and parents so that we get buy-in from our two most important stakeholders, offer tips to provide timely and useful feedback, and they examine the brain science of the change-over that will help students own their own learning.

So the Why is in place. We’ll look at the how, and process my takeaways, in Part Two.

 

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Teachers Gonna Teach

 

family-business
All in the family. Image via metromba.com.

I say it often: Teaching is pretty much the Family Business. My mom was a school nurse in East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond for 30 years. My mother-in-law taught elementary school for 21 years, and now in retirement is a classroom aide in Las Vegas. My older brother was a civilian instructor for the Navy during his 30 years in the Army reserves. And my uncle (an engineer and then a lawyer) taught middle school math while he was in grad school.

It’s what we do.

My oldest son has his heart set on police work, which is cool. I personally think he’d make a great history teacher, an area of personal interest for him. But in the meantime, he is (among other things) a Life Teen Junior Core Member at our parish. So, he’s doing a little teaching, usually in small-group settings but often addressing a room full of high school students after Mass on Sunday evenings.

So Sunday morning he’s preparing a talk he’ll give to high school students later that night about “accepting difficult teachings”.

No pressure, right? Also, somewhat ironic.


Image result for computer frustration gif
Image via photobucket.com.

Staring at a blank google doc that stays blank is very frustrating. Especially when the clock is ticking.

It’s his talk and he’s gotta write it, but… Can I help? Because 900 performances a year for 14 years has to be worth something to somebody. And, teachers gonna teach.

So, hoping to give him some guidance on building a coherent and compelling talk,  I pose two questions: “What’s your takeaway for them?”, and “How do you want to hook them in at the start?”

And thus I introduced my oldest to the Backwards Assessment Model and the concept of a hook.

He settled in on using some anecdotes from a concert that we (and several of the kids he’d be talking with) all attended the night before. A comment made by the lead singer while introing a song really stuck with him, and I suggested that if that line spoke to him, it probably would resonate with his audience too. It was a common experience that they could all use as an anchor. He was wise enough to see that would be a great tool for getting buy-in for his talk.


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Image via imgur.com.

Now that he’s on a roll, I dish out a handful of tools from my Blog Writing 101 bag:

  • Type words and phrases as they come into your head. before they evaporate. Don’t worry about complete sentences, or even punctuation. You can flesh it out later. Get the important points down and go from there.
  • Use all your resources. Life Teen publishes a guide book with suggestions for each Life Night. Is there anything in there you can take and run with? Especially with the more technical parts of your talk?
  • Develop a theme or conceit. Is there a phrase that summarizes your point? A little repetition can be a valuable tool for getting a point to stick.
  • Write like you talk. The Talk has to be in your voice. I could tell it sounded like him just by peeking over his shoulder and reading a few lines.
  • Get another set of eyes on it, especially for proofreading (grammar and spelling).
  • And one from my radio days: Read it. The whole thing. Out loud. You’d be amazed how a clever turn of phrase on paper turns into a tongue-twister when spoken aloud.

He’s been in their seats, just a few years ago. He knows what kind of Life Night talks kept his interest and what kind went in one ear and out the other. “Would I want to sit and listen to 10 or 15 minutes of what I just wrote?”

Lastly, we talked visuals. Wifi is a recent upgrade to the Life Teen Center, so he had the option to punch things up with media. He ended up using a piece of  the VeggieTales episode “Dave And The Giant Pickle“, and this one:

Writing themes and persuasive essays was not my son’s idea of a good time in high school. But here, a few years later, given an opportunity to tell a story that mattered to him, he put together a solid presentation.

He came home Sunday evening feeling like things went pretty well.

Cool. I was happy for him. And glad I could lend a hand.

Because Teachers Gonna Teach. In and out of season.

 

 

 

From The Ground Up

What do kids really want their school to be like?

Does that match up with what we offer our kids at school?

Speak Up 2016 Ultimate School Slide
From the “Play Like A Girl” presentation by Dr. Julie Evans. Almost 100,000 Indiana students, parents, teachers, and administrators responded to the “Speak Up” survey.

Dr. Buddy Berry, Superintendent of Eminence Schools in Kentucky, has some thoughts. He calls it the School on F. I. R. E. model. It includes a significant amount of student input:

Eminence Student Voice
From the Eminence Schools “School on F. I. R. E. Framework

His daughter has some ideas too, and presented them to us at the SouthShore e-Learning conference in Hammond.

 

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, obviously. She’s self-taught on a lot of web tools, mostly because her dad gives her the freedom to find and use the tools that help her learn, and express her learning.

That graphic from the Speak Up survey up there? The one that shows what tools kids want in their dream classroom versus what adults think is needed for kids to learn? Brooke and her dad don’t just give that lip service. They live it. On fire, man.

So: What if we could blow the whole thing up and start over? What would that look like?

We can’t rebuild institutional school, but we can change what we do and how we do it within the existing framework. That’s how I’m approaching the coming school year.

My school is going 1:1. We have a unique opportunity to rebuild how we “do school”, what lesson design looks like, how students interact with us, with each other, and with the math.


 

Close your eyes. What do you see and hear when I say “punk rock band”?

The Young Ones
OK, so strictly speaking, not “a band”. Young Ones image via the BBC. RIP Rik.

I don’t imagine too many teachers or administrators will be mistaken for punk rockers. But like Dewey Finn’s kids in School of Rock, we can steal a little bit of the ethos. I’m currently reading Route 19 Revisited by Marcus Gray.  It’s the 500-page backstory of how the Clash made their seminal double-album London Calling.

London Calling
Cover image via theclash.com.

They lived punk. They looked punk. But the sound drew on a variety of influences, including early R&B, blues, rockabilly, reggae, pop, and jazz. And while the stereotypical punk rock song is raw and unsophisticated (“volume, velocity, and aggression”, as Gray puts it), the Clash took its time to craft its masterpiece.

March A Long Way For Glory
Image from Marcus Gray’s “Route 19 Revisited”.

As Gray writes: “The original version of the lyric came first. But the final version of the lyric came last.” The educational equivalent is: “It’s OK to teach 20 years. Just don’t teach the same year 20 times.


 

So: Now’s the shot. A chance to take a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and build something awesome. This tool and that one, and remake my Algebra II classes. My kids are gonna walk in every single day with a laptop. That device can either be a paperweight, a distraction, or an awesome tool for learning. My option.

The seeds were planted at the School City of Hammond’s inaugural e-Learning Day last June:

“My top takeaway from the day: the different sessions I attended (and facilitated), the tools I got hands-on with, all existed as part of a framework. In reflecting at the end of the day, I realized I had curated my own little Lesson Design seminar. Whether using Docs & Forms for formative assessment, or creating a hyperdoc for a unit review, or creating an activity in Activity Builder, this was all about identifying a learning objective, and then laying out a path for students to follow, and letting them do the work. And the learning. I’m seeing that Google Classroom, Activity Builder, and hyperdocs can be a powerful combination for my classes.”

I’ve been building my toolkit for years. Tweaking and adjusting. Borrowing from Vaudrey and Nowak and Nowak some more and Carter and Meyer (of course).

There’s more though. Jonathan Claydon has some cool stuff he’s doing to leverage tech in his class, and his students are climbing way up the DOK ladder.

Chevin Stone modeled hyperdocs for all of us at Gavit. Just the thing to put all the student learning tools in one place. There are a literal ton of resources online, and a book.

At South Shore e-Learn Katie Bradford shared some cool tools for use of video in lesson design. I see this as an opportunity to go 2:1, pairing students up to annotate a quick video on the skill of the day.

 

I’m already down with Desmos Activity Builder. Now’s a shot to build in some activities where the ROI was way too low for checking out a cart and getting everybody logged in. On-demand tech means Card sort, Polygraphs, and Marbleslides will all debut this year.

The wildcard is MyMathLab. Several of our teachers who have on-demand access to carts have been using this Pearson tool on the daily to create practice exercises and assessments. It’s actually an expectation within the district. I picture it as a way to create extensions and additional practice as a way to differentiate for students. Gonna need some tutorial there though.

So much in my head right now. Image via Giphy.

So that’s a lot of tools to sort through. It’s gotta be done though. The shift to 1:1 can be done well, or done poorly. It’s too great an opportunity to fumble away.

It can’t be just, OK, kiddies, open your computer, here’s the lesson, pencil/paper just like its always been. The laptops will be an afterthought. Forgotten. Left in lockers.

Or worse, I use them as a $300 worksheet.

And it will be an opportunity gone by the wayside. Instead, I’ve got an chance to build on what’s come before, give it my own personal touch through several rounds of revision, and who knows, maybe turn out a masterpiece.

“Sometimes it’s necessary to march a long way for glory….”

Rock Family Tree
The Family Tree of Rock. Via The Odyssey.

 

Linear Review: “Children Must Play” Edition

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So: Quiz Review.

I promise my students at the start of each year that I will never drop a quiz on them without scheduling a review day. Now, if they happen to be absent on that review day, that’s on them, not me, but still. I’m not here to play “gotcha”, right?

I also learned way early in my career that me standing at the board and working out problems while they watch me like I’m a trained seal is the worst kind of review.

Seriously, “Sit and Get” didn’t work the first time. Why should I think anything has changed because there’s a quiz tomorrow? So for a while now I’ve been on a quest for quality review activities. (Looking at you, Speed Dating.)

But the reality is, anything can get stale if you let it. Even really good, student centered activities. It helps to have a deep bench. Mix it up. Keep ’em on their toes.

Between the MTBoS and the Classroom Chef/Ditch That Textbook crew I stalk follow online, there are virtually limitless ideas out there. Beautiful thing is, creativity breeds creativity. Reading about my fellow teachers taking chances and putting themselves out there inspires me.

So come time to do linear review with my Algebra II classes, I planned a double-barreled approach: A Desmos Activty based on my Clark County School District enrollment trend project (trend line, writing equations, making predictions), and (inspired by Rafe Esquith, who wrote in his book “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” that as test prep he’d have his students predict the common mistakes that generated the distractors on the California state tests), a Make Your Own Kahoot.

I assigned the Desmos Activity as a do-at-home, which was probably a mistake. Other teachers I follow have had great success using AB this way, but the mistake I made was not priming the pump with an in-class Activity. Not too many of my students logged on to try it out after-hours.

Live and learn. I did do a little crowdsourcing for the slides, and got some good feedback.

That’s a good first step.

Still, I took some time the next day to debrief and walk through (OK, more of a 10k-pace run) through the activity screens, pointing out how the students that attempted the activity had the chance to apply what they had learned about slope to a (semi-) interesting problem.

Next up: a chance to dig in to the common mistakes that derail my students. Time for “Make your Own Kahoot!”

It was a two-day review of linear equations for an Algebra II class, which sounds excessive. But I think it was worth it. Day one, I challenged them in pairs to write their own Kahoot!-style multiple-choice question. With good distractors. No ridiculous, obviously wrong answers, but instead answers generated by common student mistakes, just like the testing companies do.

make-your-own-kahoot-equation
Photo credit: me. Brainpower credit: my kids.
make-your-own-kahoot-slope
How many ways can you mess up slope? Let’s see…

Then I collected the questions and answers and went home and made the Kahoot quiz.

Next day, we played their quiz.

Good folks have their issues with Kahoot.

Which is fine. I wouldn’t do it every day, or every week, for that matter. But damn, do the kids love it. You should have been in the class where one kid picked “harambae” as his screen name.  (Get it? Haram-BAE”). Rich.

Doc here: diy-kahoot-ch-2-review-directions.

Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun?

Oh, hell yeah.

 

 

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.

Facebooks
Image via fractuslearning.com.

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 classroomchef.com 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.

Yeah.


 

So You Think You Can Dance excited jason derulo lets go impatient
Image via giphy.com

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.

 

 

One-Man Book Club: Ditch That Textbook – The Hook

(Retroactively VHS Math Book Clubbing my way through “Ditch That Textbook”. Intro here. Part 2 here.)

You know what happens next. Pew-pew-pew, stormtroopers vs. Alliance soldiers. Dust settles, bulkhead door swipes open, and we meet Vader for the first time. You don’t need to be any kind of genius to know he is A Bad Guy. And just like that, the scene is set. You’re hooked….


There’s a lot of good work being done out there in the area of lesson design. Dan Meyer maps out the Three-Act Math Task here. I’ve taken my cues from him, as well as from the Undisputed Master Of The Presentation:

The common thread is “The Hook” – how teachers pull their students into a lesson, how a sales pro gets face time with a prospect.

In Matt Miller’s “Ditch That Textbook”, the hook to the next 219 pages is a Nightmare In Real Life, or as close as most teachers get.

Students running out the door. Not because of a fire alarm, a swarm of bees, or a fight. Nope. Running out the door, at the bell. Just restless kids, sprung from a mind-numbing 48 minutes of lecture and practice exercises from a worksheet. The kind of class that even bores the teacher.

Oh No.

I can imagine. Although I don’t have to imagine it. Because I’ve been there. I’ve been The Invisible Man to a group of kids who would rather do anything else and be anywhere else. So has just about every other teacher ever. It sucks. Miller says he knew there had to be a better way to teach. He eventually developed a model for deciding what and how to teach: Different, Innovative, Tech-Laden, Creative, Hands-On. (“DITCH”. Get it?).

I’m hooked.

Actually, truth be told, I had already bought in.  Miller doesn’t need to sell me on The Why. And even though I’ve implemented these concepts into my teaching, I’m always open to some help on The How.


Interestingly enough, Miller doesn’t start with a list of “14 Apps You Should Be Using In Your Classroom Right Now”. He first suggests ditching the mindset of 19th-Century Industrial Model education. The middle section of the book begins with reminders to make it personal, add fun and magic, to build relationships, and to win over students. Only then does he start talking tech.

And even then: Not everything has to be techy. Surprised by this admonition from a guy who is best known for using tech to figuratively knock down the walls of his rural west-central Indiana high school? Don’t be. Miller is a teacher, with the scars to prove it.

Is pencil-paper best? As Miller points out, that 45 minutes (or however long your class period lasts) is sacred. If you take a half-hour to get computers issued, booted up, kids logged on and then a quick formative assessment done, well, you were better off with mini-whiteboards or notebook paper. The ROI for the tech was way too low. Miller calls it “choosing task over tool” (Chapter 13).

I had this displayed for me vividly the year I had a student teacher. I wanted to seamlessly integrate some tech, to model some of my “go-to”s for her. Except I hadn’t “gone-to” in a while. I set up a quick poll using Poll Everywhere, but had forgotten to have it display real-time results. So after the kids took out their phones, made their votes, probably started checking their FB feeds, we sat their and stared at a screen full of… no results.

cookie_monster_waiting
Via http://www.reactiongifs.us/cookie-monster-waiting/

Instead, I got to model how to gracefully dump out of a plan that wasn’t working. We did a poll by show of hands instead, tallied the results on the chalkboard, and moved on.


My other big takeaway came in Chapter 15: Choose To Cheat. We live in a world where cheaters really do win, where it seems like the ends always justify the means, and what’s legal is really defined by “what I can I do and not get caught”. But for teachers, “cheating” is a dirty word. So again, Miller uses words to grab the reader’s attention. He means “cheating” in the sense that there are only 30 hours in a day. Something is gonna have to be left undone. The teacher’s job is to figure out what things go above the “done” line and what falls below. And how to maximize the impact.

I’ve read plenty of TFA stuff. I’ve seen the movies. The Super-Teacher shames the rest of us. In real-life tho… I’m just a man. As I tell my students, “Hey, stress me out, I’m gonna go home and have a drink. Make me mad, I’m gonna holler at you. Cut me, I’ll bleed.” I got the same 24 hours everybody else gets today. And I have the same options for spending those hours that everybody else does too. One of the greatest benefits of getting old is knowing that not only can I not “do everything”, but also that I don’t have to do everything. My most trusted advisor will usually let me know when I’ve stretched myself too thin. As Miller says, it’s important to make sure we’re not cheating the people closest to us.

My next One-Man Book Club read is Classroom Chef by Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens. Both those guys tweeted this week that they would be skipping Twitter Math Camp (a huge #MTBoS love-fest) where they would be Rock Stars among rock stars. Both gave the same reason: their kids. That’s what Miller is talking about. Then extending that mindset to the classroom.

It’s really just setting priorities: what’s most important right now? Grading every single question on every activity? Or finding ways throughout the week to assess (formally or informally) what students know and can do?

How can I use this? Let’s cede the floor to Miller (pg. 89):

Ditching & Differentiating

So I use themed bellringers throughout the week. There’s math in there, there’s common sense in there, there’s opportunities to justify your thinking in there (SMP #2, 3, and 4 everyday!). My review day before a quiz might be a practice quiz, it might be speed dating, it might be a Kahoot! game. Eventually, everybody gets what they need. Tech or no tech. The bigger question is: am I using all the weapons I have at my disposal in the service of teaching and learning?

I’m getting there.

Part 2 coming soon, in which Miller lays out the Xs and Os of powering up the classroom: A Home For Your Stuff, Creating Content, Going Global, Jump In And Try.

 

 

 

 

The “e” is for Epic

I’m not gonna lie to you. I love having summers off. As a practical matter, I get to be Activities Director for my very own (Membership: 2) Boys Club of Northwest Indiana. But the opportunity to recharge is awesome. Yes, I plan for the upcoming year. Yes, I reflect on what didn’t work, what did, and what I’d like to change for the upcoming school year. And yes, I attend conferences and/or trainings.

But even for teachers whose summers are packed, that first week off is sacrosanct. Just 7 days to exhale, shake off the weight of 900 performances, and maybe watch a sunset somewhere.

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“And this concludes our broadcast day…” Photo credit: Mrs. Dull.

So how did 370 teachers and administrators end up in a high school auditorium at 8:00 in the blessed am on the Monday of the first full week of summer break?

The School City of Hammond offered its first eLearning Day on June 6th. To me, it’s been a long time coming. As one of our assistant superintendents pointed out, in the SCH we’ve got the numbers, but more importantly, we’ve got the talent. The bulk of the presentations came from among the 1000 men and women who teach in the city of Hammond. And oh my goodness. Superior Firepower from the neck up, people.

iron-man
Also, cool tools. Image via source.superherostuff.com.

Seriously, anyone still mocking urban teachers is gonna have to fight me. You give me any 100 teachers and 3 administrators from that room, let’s start a school, and sit back and watch the magic happen. I’d put this group up against anybody.

Real teachers, sharing real things that really work. Also, sponsors picked up the tab for everything. Whole day was freebie. What’s not to like?

Kristin Ziemke opened the conference with a keynote presentation that set the tone for the day. I was able to reference her talk a couple of times in my own presentation. Her journey from self-proclaimed “Digital Disaster” to a teacher who uses tech as a tool for her elementary school students to show their learning in a variety of ways had teachers ready to open school back up, like, tomorrow.

I found myself nodding as she spoke of “Mini Lessons I Didn’t Know I Needed To Teach” (been there), and stated that “When we invite kids to make something, that is the best representation of what they know and can do today.”

And on a day devoted to tech learning, a guardrail:

In other words, don’t feel like you have to use a million new things. Figure out your go-to tools, then get them in your kids’ hands as often as possible and let them play around. Awesomeness ensues.

I presented on the Desmos Activity Builder, a tool for math teachers to build custom lessons using the power of the Desmos online calculator. Slides are here if you are interested.

I also attended sessions by Chevin Stone on creating formative assessments using GAFE tools, and Katie Bradford on creating and using hyperdocs, which is my main personal learning goal for the summer. Both ladies know their stuff. On a day filled with options, I chose well.

My top takeaway from the day: the different sessions I attended (and facilitated), the tools I got hands-on with, all existed as part of a framework. In reflecting at the end of the day, I realized I had curated my own little Lesson Design seminar. Whether using Docs & Forms for formative assessment, or creating a hyperdoc for a unit review, or creating an activity in Activity Builder, this was all about identifying a learning objective, and then laying out a path for students to follow, and letting them do the work. And the learning. I’m seeing that Google Classroom, Activity Builder, and hyperdocs can be a powerful combination for my classes. I definitely have a picture in mind for organizing my plans in the fall. It’s a fuzzy picture right now, floating around a bit unformed in my head. But it’s there.

That alone was worth 8 hours of my time on a fabulous June day.

But the bigger takeaway? You know that line about where the needs of the world and your passion meet? That was The School City of Hammond’s inaugural eLearning Day.

Thanks, SCH people. Let’s do this again next year. Even if you have to grandfather me in. And invite the rest of the state, shall we?

Discovery

Kung Fu Panda Level Zero
If Shifu can start at Level Zero with his students, so can I.

When we lived in Vegas, I never had the pleasure of coming across an actual, live scorpion. Black widows, however, were everywhere. I saw enough of them to learn quickly to never reach into a dark corner of the garage, or behind the toilet tank, without making sure the space was clear of spiders.

Discovery can be thrilling. Or extremely unpleasant.

We’re in the midst of the Quadratics unit with my Algebra 1B classes – five sections ranging from pure multiple-time repeaters to on-track freshmen. We just finished finding axis of symmetry and vertex algebraically, and are heading towards graphing quadratic functions. Historically I’ve carved out a day for an activity that I honestly can’t remember if it’s stolen from the MTBoS, or just MTBoS-inspired. If it belongs to you and you somehow stumble on this post, let me know. Credit and thanks belongs to you.

Either way, it’s paid off in spades in years gone past.

I’ve got two sets of handouts, asking students to graph the same function, but I give them different x-inputs. One student gets 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. That student’s eventual partner gets -2, -1, 0, 1, 2. Trick is, the axis of symmetry of this function lives at x=2, so neither student gets a complete look at the function, only a sliver. Once they’ve built their table of values and graphed their fishhook, I pair them up and ask them to spend two or three minutes looking at the two tables and two graphs, and discussing what they see.

Docs here:

Axis of Symmetry discovery worksheet part 2

Axis of Symmetry discovery worksheet

I remind them that with our Themed Bellingers (Estimation 180, Which One Doesn’t Belong, 101 Questions, Would You Rather?) that they’ve been noticing and wondering and discussing and predicting and defending answers all semester long.

I’ve grown to love Math Talk. And we’re definitely on a path in my building towards flipping the ratio of teacher talk : student talk in the kids’ favor. We certainly had our moments the last couple of days.

Wait.

Last “couple of days”? I thought this was a one day thing. And it was. Until:

“I don’t get this”.

Not “I don’t understand what you want us to talk about”. Rather: “I don’t know what you want me to do with this list of numbers and strange jumble of letters”.

Oh Crap. I asked my students to evaluate a function for a given value of x and they looked at me like I had two heads.

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Image via http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lx26rf0SBh1qawn12.gif

Formative Assessment, up close and personal. Time to call an audible. Back to Step One. I ended up taking the better part of a day walking group to group, re-teaching in small groups how to plug in a value for x and simplify. No big deal, I mean, I am a teacher, and it clearly needed to be done anyway before we start trying to graph parabolas.

But still. An unexpected discovery for me. Guess I didn’t teach that as well as I thought.

Persist, you must. Image via http://i.imgur.com/g12KOV8.gif.

Gonna let you in on a little secret. I lecture sometimes. Probably 3 out of 5 lessons, on average. Especially as part of our gradual release model. And it has its place. It’s just that what should be a 15/15 split as far as my minutes vs. student work minutes turns into more like 30/5. They’re just really bad at Sit & Get. Short Attention Span Theatre, here we come. I get frustrated, spend way too much time trying to get people back on task, nobody learns anything, and I get reminded of the words of the great Kate Nowak:

Offload the work to students, as often as possible. The one doing the work does the learning.

Wrote about it last December. Still holds.

Sometimes that reveals some uncomfortable truths. But it’s forced me out of my comfort zone.

Plan what you want them to know. Anticipate the trouble spots. Let them struggle. Get them talking.

Putting Their Heads Together

And then, every now and then, a magic moment:

Axis of Symmetry Discovery Paired Activity Display
“Oooooh, it makes a parabola!”

Pinch me.

I took a minute with a couple of classes to pull back the curtain and talk Standards of Mathematical Practice. The last two days we’ve spent hip-deep in SMP 1, 3, 4, 6 and 8. Not a bad payoff.

eight math practices poster
“I can…”

 

Of course, the Me that’s on an Endless Teacher Quest wants more. I love the pencil and paper aspect of this activity. Especially considering we’re gonna turn around and graph parabolas on paper. But: am I missing something? Could this be better? Is it a job for Activity Builder?

My first thought is no. To much learning eventually happened today. I don’t want to mess with a good thing.

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“Now we will turn this rabbit into a chicken!” Image via http://www.jenn98.com/bugs/images/Hot_Cross_Bunny.jpg

Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna go in there and mess around tho. Because: Children Must Play.

 

 

 

 

Do You Even FOIL Bro?

It’s Pre-service Teacher Time in my building. I’m hosting 3 students from the nearby regional campus of Purdue University. They’ll be making 8 hours of observations, occasionally helping groups of students work through problem sets, and trying out some textbook tactics for redirecting wayward students.

As we all were, they are well-scrubbed and eager. When they arrived (midway through a class period) earlier this week, I gave them about a 20-second rundown on what we were doing and let ‘er rip. After a class and a half, during my plan period, we spent a little time debriefing.

Pre-service teacher takeaway: “This school… is nothing like ours.”

(Covered “not pretty, but real” here, last fall, with my first round of observers this school year.)

For years I’ve been on a mission to make sure my students aren’t just robotically following a set of steps, but instead working towards real understanding of the math we do. As an example, when multiplying binomials, we talk about using the Distributive Property twice, rather than the shortcut FOIL (first-outside-inside-last) which names the four partial products of the multiplication. The idea is that by using terminology “distributive property” , students will be prepared to multiply any polynomials, not just a pair of binomials. I literally have said “FOIL” zero times this school year.

And no one has asked about it. Until now.

One of my 19-year-old observers, fresh out of calculus class at a suburban high school, asked me: “Have you heard of FOIL?”

Image via http://www.fieldofdreams.it/IMAGES/Moonlight%20Graham%202.jpg

As Shoeless Joe Jackson said, famously, with a shake of the head: “Rookies”.

They meant well. I just let it ride and we continued our quick debrief before they had to head out. I sent them on their way with two assignments: go look up the free e-book “Nix The Tricks” by Tina Cardone, and do a search for the MTBoS.  I figured that would be way more effective than me trying to squeeze in an explanation before they had to take off. (Note To Self: ask them if they did a little googling when they come back around next week). But, Long Story Short: as Cardone says on pg 117:

As students repeat the procedure they will realize that each term in the first polynomial must be multiplied by each term in the second polynomial. This pattern, which you might term “each by each” carries through the more advanced versions of this exercise.

Here’s what that looked like in our class notes:

I foiled your plan.
I foiled your plan.

I used that pattern as a set-up for factoring trinomials of the form ax^2 + bx +c, hoping that it would lead seamlessly into factoring by grouping. I took great pains to remind them they already know how to do the distributive property, and how to factor out a GCF.

I planned this out intentionally, to make learning happen. I think all I really did was confuse them. But on the second day, when we finished the notes and carved out time in class to begin the practice set… a glimmer of understanding.

Kickin’ back. Image via http://www.bdcwire.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/bougie.gif

Awwww, Yeah.

We’ve been working hard to create a culture of perseverance in solving problems (SMP 1 baby!), counting on that mindset carrying over to a willingness to struggle with new concepts. It’s an uphill battle, when we’ve trained our kids for 10 years to sit there, be quiet, copy what the teacher writes down, and maybe regurgitate it on a test. It’s a big leap for a student to say “hey, it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, I’m gonna try to figure this out”. And I’ve actually heard that this year. No lie.

Students gotta have the tools to be able to struggle with a problem tho. The first tool: understanding the math that holds up the new skill we’re learning. I’m happy to play the role of the helpful hardware man.