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.

 

One Man Book Club – It Won’t Be Easy

Bookshelf
These are just the books I’ve spent cash on. Include my Valpo Library selections and the shelf is five times as wide. I probably read too much.

“When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you are a teacher, every book is a ‘teacher book'”.

-Me

There are a lot of Teacher Books out there. I know, “a lot” is a precise technical term. But I teach, and I read, and I follow a lot of teachers on Twitter who read, and who post about what they are reading. So my sample is a little skewed, I admit. But as each summer begins I see a parade of posts featuring photos of stacks of books, captioned “my summer reading!” or some variation thereof.

Which is cool. A lot of us are trying to get better year by year, to meet the challenges of a career that will eat you alive if you are standing still. And there are a lot of excellent teachers out there willing to share what they know. If that advice comes from a trusted source (A woman I saw keynote a conference, a guy I interact with on Twitter), all the better. And, truth be told, a lot of us are searching for “that thing” that will turn everything around next year. Make us awesome.

A tweet rolled through my TL not long ago, boosted by Michelle Baldwin. It reminded me of a story I heard about Lance Armstrong. After retiring from competitive cycling, he entered the 2006 New York Marathon. Already the fittest endurance athlete on the planet, he figured he could conquer this challenge without specialized training. The story goes that 3-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar was part of a team pacing Armstrong and warned him to set a reasonable goal pace, that 26.2 miles would tax him in completely new ways. Armstrong took this under advisement, and went on to just do his thing. He finished in an impressive 2:59:36. And suffered a stress fracture in his leg.

Here’s a thread detailing the teacher-summer equivalent advice:

I can dig that. The Happy Medium is a glorious place. With that in mind, here’s my summer reading (so far):

 

 


 

Especially now that we are all connected, I am trying to be ever more aware of how much time I spend scrolling my timeline. When I see it becoming a giant time suck, I disconnect, close my laptop, put my phone somewhere across the room where I won’t be tempted to check it every 6 minutes, and grab a book.

I’ve been known to get lost in a book. In a good way. Mrs. Dull is always amazed (and not always in a good way) when I power thru 250 pages in a day.

You Just Got It Yesterday
See?

So upon multiple Twitter recommendations I’ve been reading “It Won’t Be Easy” by Tom Rademacher. And, true to form, it showed up on a Sunday during Mass, and by Sunday night I was on like page 105. Not because it was filled with trite motivational phrases, but because it was filled with what teaching is really like.

It Wont Be Easy Page
“You might suck at this”. But for real, this page is teaching in a nutshell.

“Mr. Rad”, as he’s known to his kids, is up front about his ups and downs. The time his students taunted him over his phone being stolen from his desk (“You’re not getting your phone back. Nobody cares about your $h!t!”) and the times his students dazzled him with the awesomeness that only high school students have.

He’s honest about the fact that he is occasionally an insufferable jerk and that he is not always really very good at this whole teaching thing, despite being named Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher Of The Year.

And Rademacher confesses some unpopular opinions:

  • We actually aren’t underpaid, comparatively.
  • Summers off are part of the deal, and it’s OK to admit that you dig that.
  • Even if you actually work during the summer.
  • Teachers knew how to play “The Game Of School” when they were students, too.
  • God help us all if his book ever becomes “assigned reading” in some college course.

And one opinion that is easy to nod your head to when you’re sitting in the sun with a cold drink, reading a teacher book… and really hard to actually do once you are standing in a room with 25 teenagers:

  • How we treat our students matters. A lot. If we would just shut up and listen, especially when they are telling us something we don’t know about, we just might learn something.

I cringed a lot reading “It Won’t Be Easy”. I said over and over to myself, “What an ass!”

About myself.

I think I’ve done every ignorant thing Rademacher rats himself out for. And those things were not any cooler when I dd them. I’m glad a Teacher Of The Year sucks at this job as bad as I do sometimes.

He tells of squelching his students’ voice in class, when he had claimed that his room was a safe space for them. Of treating his Black and White kids differently. Of calling students out in class in front of their peers. Of using his power over kids to get compliance. Of selectively enforcing rules. All the stuff I’ve done. That we’ve all done. Except…

Except Rademacher goes into great detail how he learned from every one of these situations. Usually because he caught himself being a jerk. Often because his students felt comfortable enough to call him out on it. And because his students were smart enough and brave enough to be able to school him on it.

And how he humbled himself enough to shut up and listen.

Oooooh, that part is hard.

Over time, I knew I got better at handling myself in challenging classroom situations. I know the PBIS Team at Gavit worked hard to create a climate where we all supported our students, where we didn’t seek to exert power over them but to get them to seek ownership over their own behavior in the building. Sometimes with awesome results.

I know I eventually reached the point where I silently checked myself before interacting with a student: “This thing I’m about to say, would I say the same thing if I was addressing a white student?” “Is this kid’s skin color affecting my perception of what actually happened?” “Would I treat a male student the same as the female student in front of me?” “What if somebody said these words I’m about to say to my kid?”

Is that good? It’s required in the places where I taught for the first 13 years of my career. Is it enough? No. Is it a good start? Yeah. Truth be told, I think every teacher in the School City of Hammond should read this book. Every teacher in the Valparaiso Community Schools, too.

I’m not perfect at it. Give me 20 more years and I still won’t be. I won’t grow out of my smart-assery before I retire. But I think I’ve made some strides. Rademacher’s book serves as a timely reminder that it’s important to keep working. It Won’t Be Easy. But as he says, our kids deserve it.

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.

 

 

 

 

Playing Catch-Up

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

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

Students are a little less likely to give unconditional love than puppies are. Source: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/45/df/4b/45df4b01c55b4c8774b5abedc25eeb1e.jpg

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

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

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

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

“Try and keep up, OK?”


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

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

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

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

Hashtag: No Coincidences

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

Welcome to The Show.

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

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

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

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

And hey, if you want to join in…..

No time like now to get better.