One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A T-Shirt

There’s a thing I love about the local library – I’ll find books there that weren’t even on my radar. I’m a longtime non-fiction guy and love the new releases shelf. It’s pretty much guaranteed that every time I walk in I’ll find something incredible that I didn’t even know existed.

I consider myself pretty well versed in pop culture. Being around 16-year-olds 180 days a year has that effect. But I had never heard of The Hundreds. (Although it’s been a thing for the entire time I’ve been teaching). Streetwear-wise, I knew Supreme, my youngest is a shoe guy, and my boys and some of their friends are/were into Zumiez, but I’m glad the cover of This Is Not A T-Shirt caught my eye.

This Is Not A T-Shirt
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Bobby Hundreds (aka Bobby Kim) tells his tale of rising from an artistic nerd, bullied in his hometown of Riverside, CA to a jet-setting, fashion-making star.

Meeting his business partner Ben Shenassafar. Attending Loyola Law School. Starting up a t-shirt business and setting up plastic folding tables on the outskirts of trade shows, trying to get noticed. The Black Tarp Trick. An intern/fanboy named Scottie. Learning about fabrics in Hong Kong. Collaborating with brands from Disney to adidas to Casio to the estate of Jackson Pollack. Nearly selling his brand to Tommy Hilfiger. Setting up elite brick-and-mortar stores in LA, Santa Monica, New York, San Francisco.

And a summer spent in Los Angeles Superior Court learning from a dying research attorney that changed the trajectory of his life forever.


The book opens with a tale of Bobby’s interaction with a fan via Twitter.

What's Wrong Dude

“Hi Derek. What’s wrong, dude?”

As soon as I read that I knew I had a teacher book on my hands.

Of course I layer all of this over teaching. Because when all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you’re a teacher, every book is a teacher book. I’m not necessarily sure there’s anything for me here in terms of lesson design or delivery. But what stood out to me was how Bobby Hundreds continuously assessed himself, challenged himself, worked to improve in his areas of interest, and actively looks to mentor other designers and entrepreneurs coming up behind him.

Kim knew from a young age he was skilled as an artist. He relates how his classmates (who typically shunned him, one of the few Asian-American kids at his school) would fall all over themselves to add him to their groups because they knew he could add a graphic punch to their displays. Eventually he grew to learn that his art would not be exhibited on canvas but instead on cotton. His advice to his readers: Figure out who you are first:

Find your thing


 

Finding your thing is one thing. Doing it is another. Sometimes we need a push. Bobby Kim got his push from Abe Edelman, a research attorney in the Los Angeles Superior Court, assigned to Kim as he interned during the summer after his first year at Loyola Law. On their final day of working together, Edelman showered Kim with praise.

“Bobby, In all my years of doing this, you were one of the best interns I ever had. You’re going to be a successful lawyer. You’re going to have it all – the cars, the houses, the women…”

And then, the turning point of a life, and a brand (people before things, right?):

“But you should never be a lawyer. You don’t love this. Being skilled and being passionate are two different things. Look. What do we talk about at lunch every day? Do we talk about memoranda and statutes?”

Kim had to admit, as the mentor and mentee ate tacos in the food court at the civic center daily, he would show Abe his design idea doodles, his plans for a website, marketing ideas, branding concepts.

“Your heart is with The Hundreds. Do that! I have no regrets! I was the best at what I do, and I loved every second of it. And now look at me. How will you feel if you wake up one day and you’re forty and you’re dying of cancer? Will you be able to say you lived your life doing what you were meant to do?”

Oh man. I felt that in my chest.

And it reminds me that my students have skills and talents and interests way beyond my class. Yeah, I want them to do my math and do it well, but I especially want them to be great at the things that are really, really important to them.


In the epilogue, Kim relates his philosophy of work to surfing, the way seasoned riders will patiently wait for a wave while newbies frantically paddle to chase every ripple, usually missing out. He says ups and downs are inevitable.

“The secret: knowing when and where to position yourself when the pendulum swings your way and the moment hits. You can’t control the cosmos, but you can study and get in position for its curveballs. This is an education culled from time and experience and patience – those very things that neither money nor Instagram followers nor power can buy.”

He closes with a FAQ section. This might have been my favorite part. I imagine a kid with a dream, getting a chance to pick the brain of a guy who rose from humble beginnings to run multi-million-dollar, multi-national business. And Kim is very real, and at the same time, very encouraging:

Hundreds FAQ 1

Hundreds FAQ 2

I feel a little bit like that following the lives of some of my former students on social media. We got along well enough back then for them to connect with me on FB or Twitter down the line.(I’m pretty sure Snapchat is not for me). I enjoy when they share their great joys, the challenges and rewards of parenting, their work lives, their chances to travel, and opportunities to do great things and small things in their lives.

It makes the world feel smaller and more relatable. And yeah, it never gets old.

 

Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

When the Classroom Chef  people are so far inside your head that your first thought upon such a questions is: “yes, we definitely should send dolls hurtling down a wire suspended from the top of the football bleachers”…


The teachers I follow online talk quite a bit about risk-taking – teachers stepping out of their comfort zone, doing something besides “Here, you guys, do page 282, #1-30 all. Show your work”.

It sounds great. and honestly, it’s been transformational in my classroom. But “risk” implies the possibility of failure. I’ve had activities fall flat, had them blow up in my face. But it’s been a while.

Planning well, and picking my spots, has helped me pick the right activity at the right time for my students, most of the time. I was confident enough in Barbie Zipline that I started hyping it to my students.

Me: “When you graduate, you’re gonna look back on this day and know it was the greatest math class you ever had.”

Student: “I don’t know, my math teacher last year was pretty epic.”

I’d been bookmarking John Stevens’ blog posts about his adventures in Barbie Zipline design to get the basic idea down, and recognized I’d need to make a trip to see the helpful hardware folks at Ace. Like $55 later, I was ready.

 

Weather-wise the day was fantastic. I’ve got my beach bag in my car so I knew I had sunscreen packed away for the oppressive late-morning/afternoon sun (always amplified by standing on metal bleachers).

Sunscreen
Because you never know when you might have to drop everything and go to the beach. Or take six classes of high school kids outside.

Students were ready. They had planned out their zipline design by selecting a starting height and horizontal distance, pondered the concept of “safe but fun”, brought their Barbie or other figure from home, and hey, class outside on Friday? Let’s Go.


 

And then…

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I struggled to get the harness right the first two classes. We experimented with several different configurations (including one where I threaded the line through the wrong side of the pulley. Dur. Did I mention I used to teach engineering?). Maybe one of ten groups got a successful trial before my plan period.

Later in the day one of my student helpers, in his haste to reel in the line, managed to create a rat’s nest of tangles that I eventually had to cut.

Tangle
Hopeless. I bought a 500′ reel of landscape twine, so I had room for error. Good thing.

A couple of classes had a group of kids that proved to me I can’t let them roam on the ground while i’m 40 feet up at the top of the bleachers. I’ll remember that for next time. But we got a couple of worthwhile trials, enough to call the day a partial success. Although that’s a very rough landing for tandem Spidey/Barbie:


So what now? We had fun, yeah, but there has to be more to the activity, to tie it back to the math we had been doing (distance formula/pythagorean theorem). Back to Stevens:

Let’s say this company in Las Vegas approached you and said they wanted a 3,000 foot zipline. You can’t hand them a cute drawing and expect a contract, so based on your data, what would be a good starting and ending height? Why?

So I made a Desmos graph my students could use to set the dimensions for a 3000′ zipline and set their creative juices flowing. Open up a GDoc or GSlide. Tell me why you selected those dimensions, explain why your design is “safe but fun” and select the building in Vegas that will host your zipline. Insert your video.

Responses ranged from minimal to pedestrian to stunning. They did the math I asked them to do on paper, but even better, they used math talk to tell me about their design. Several compared the slope of their Barbie Zipline mock-up to the slope of their proposed Vegas Zipline. It was a beautiful thing.


 

So the Friday outside didn’t live up to the hype. They probably won’t tell their friends all about it. Several were a bit confused when I asked them to take what they learned from their “proof of concept” to write up an imaginary Vegas Zipline proposal. (“Mr. Dull, our zipline didn’t work. We didn’t learn anything”).

But I learned enough to make some changes for next year. And the write-ups were worth the frustration. We did real math, wrapped up in an activity. There was enough reward to justify the risk.

Also, this kind of encounter with your assistant superintendent and your director of secondary curriculum never hurts:

If you’ve been thinking about making the leap: go for it. It’ll be messy. But it’ll be worth it.

 

Middle Ground

I’m definitely not a DIY guy. I’m not gonna have an HGTV home repair show any time soon. Honestly if I had a time machine the one thing I would go back and get (even more than a masters degree) is home improvement skills. I picked up a few things from my dad, and later on, my next door neighbor (the one who landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, a fact I never knew about him until I had lived next door to him for like 25 years, and then only because his wife let it slip in casual conversation). My older brother, who traded handyman work for room and board in his B-Town apartment complex back in the day showed me some plumbing and electric. I know literally just enough to be dangerous. But, I did a couple of things this week:

 

 

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Mrs. Dull picked up the appliances on facebook from a guy who had just renovated his kitchen and needed to unload his used items. The price was definitely right.

My father-in-law has the full range of dad skills (he rebuilt a Harley, if that tells you anything), and he has a pretty good sense of my skill level. If he doesn’t think I can handle a project he’ll tell me. If he thinks it’s in my range he’ll point me to YouTube. So we’ve pretty much learned to check online first before we give him a call:

I had to go back and check the video a couple times, and stop to check the connections on the new machine (which didn’t exactly match the version in the video) but it got done. I’m not gonna hire myself out for kitchen renos anytime soon. But it’s good enough for our purposes at home. One time, right now, just after watching a video, I can do this.


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For the last two years in my building, by district mandate the math department has weighted tests and quizzes as 75% of the grade. (No pressure, right?). Our teachers immediately recognized if tests were gonna be that high-stakes we needed to offer an opportunity for re-takes, especially to our most struggling students.

As it turned out, the kids who most need the retake opportunities never took advantage. Most of my takers are that kid who got a 70% and wants an A. That’s cool with me tho. Like I’m gonna say “no” when one of my students comes to me asking to do more math.

This year, the first semester anyway, the retakes have resulted in some really good scores. Some of our teachers cap the re-take score at 60%, but I decided that if my students were going to make the effort to come see me on their own time, sit and talk about their original quiz, then re-learn the material before retaking the quiz, that they should get whatever grade they earn.

It sounds weird, but I really, truly, honestly want every one of my kids to ace every test. I want them to earn the grade they get, but I want every one of them to walk out of YL107 at the end of the term with an A. I’m not that teacher that thinks it somehow reflects poorly on me. The one that brags about how many kids are failing or how brutally hard I write a test. Like the great Jon Corippo says, why can’t every kid get an A? Not the grade-inflated kind that get handed out like Halloween candy, but the real deal. The “I learned what I was supposed to learn and I can prove it” kind.

Even better, their self-reported level of understanding is going up. They are telling me that the process of watching the video and working along with me is helping.

Awesome, yeah?

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And I’m open to the possibility that there is cheating and answer-sharing going on. That wouldn’t be different than the regular quiz administration tho.

But the results of the re-takes got me thinking. Why aren’t they doing better on the original quiz? What am I missing as far as helping them prepare to take a quiz, vs. the supporting them on the retake? I mean, a tutorial video immediately followed by an open-note quiz is a lot of support. Too much? Maybe. But I need to look at my practices leading up to Quiz Day. Is there some middle ground for us?

We normally do a two-day review:

  • One day a Desmos activity or something else collaborative and interactive gleaned from the #MTBoS
  • The next day a written study guide so they can practice problems matching the skills on the quiz

Do they need to study more on their own? Do I need to get them more reps in class? Maybe a tutorial video of the study guide pushed to them through Canvas?

Maybe I should ask them (*cough* Google Form *coughcough*).

Inquiring minds want to know. Really, for me it’s kind of a “need to know” thing. I just found my bellringer for Monday, in any case. I’ll let you know what they tell me.

Seeing Things

Choir Kids
Rehearsal before Mass on Sunday at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, founded 1848.

This weekend I had a chance to chaperone a junior choir trip to perform in Detroit.

Despite living an afternoon’s drive away for my entire life, it was my first time visiting this classic American city. Driving in on 94 we passed the Ford Rouge Complex from a distance. (They don’t call it Motown for nothing, right?) My dad worked at Inland Steel for 40 years so I’ve kinda got a thing for down-and-out midwestern manufacturing cities. Looking out over the stacks of the factory complex, deep down inside me, riding in a 15-passenger rental van, I could viscerally feel what Detroit meant to the world not that long ago.

Rouge Overview
A tiny sliver of the 2-million square foot Rouge Complex.

 

We build in educational & sightseeing opportunities on these trips so Saturday we had tickets to the Motown Museum and the Henry Ford Museum.

Hitsville USA
Hitsville, USA – The Empire on West Grand

The Motown and Ford origin stories have been told a million times but we were traveling with 13-17 year olds who don’t have a solid personal grasp of that history.

For their surface-level differences, there was a common thread. Sitting at the hotel breakfast on Sunday morning, the dads who were chaperoning the trip spent time connecting the dots. Henry Ford & Berry Gordy are two men etched deeply into the fabric of the American 20th century. Visionaries, really. To the point where we speak of “Fordism” and “the Motown sound”, and build museums to celebrate them.

  • They’re both from Detroit 
  • Both refined raw materials into finished product
  • Both found new ways around the Gatekeeper 
  • They were in the right place at the right time: “the kids were ready”
  • Both marketed aspirations of better things
  • Both made changes with the times

The visits, and the stories we heard and the things we saw made an important time “real” for our kids. And they learned social lessons that apply even today. 

From a school standpoint I’m hopeful that our kids recognized that the world needs people who can recognize where improvements can be made (or revolutions started), and then use their unique skills to make the change happen. Their job over the next few years is to identify their “thing”, and then prepare themselves to see where their unique skill applies to solve (as the Rigor & Relevance people say) real-world, unpredictable situations.


One last thing our kids learned: A lesson that hit deeper than any book, lecture, or video could:

The Rouge Complex tour started with a video on the history of Ford Motor Company. It pulled no punches on Henry Ford. Our kids saw the photos of labor organizers being beaten by Ford security outside the Rouge plant in 1937.

Later on, after the plant tour, we had about an hour left before the museum closed. That meant we needed to prioritize our visit. Taking my son aside, we made a beeline for the “With Liberty And Justice For All” exhibit. We sat on the bus where Rosa Parks made her stand. A vehicle that the Henry Ford Museum spent $750k to purchase and restore.

Rosa Parks Bus

Every stereotype you have about middle school kids is true, to a point. They are definitely free-range kids. Getting seven of them together and focused on the same thing is a, uh, challenge.

But you should have seen these kids during the presentation on the bus. They were dialed in on the museum employee who gave them the background on the situation in the south in the 50s. They hung on every word of an audio interview with Rosa Parks, relating her story. “I guess I needed to find out what my rights were, exactly, as a human being.” One of the things that middle-school kids understand at a deep level is a recognition of when other people are being treated unfairly. They got it.

Rules of Engagement

I have no doubt they learned what they needed to learn on Saturday afternoon. And it happened because they got to see things they’re never seen before. They sat where Rosa Parks sat, stood where David Ruffin stood, walked past the candy machine where a young Stevie Wonder bought Baby Ruth bars with spare change, sang in a 170-year-old building, and felt the pulse of a city.

There’s a lesson in there for me as a teacher, too.

Studio A
Studio A. The 24/7 operation where the Motown magic happened.

Power Boost

Back in 1998, America’s Greatest Living Writer, Peggy Noonan, sensing a Bad Thing coming, wrote a column called “There Is No Time. There Will Be Time“.  Two decades later, it stands up pretty well as a glimpse at life in the late 20th century. Near the end, she related a story:

“I once talked to a man who had a friend who had done something that took his breath away. She was single, middle-aged and middle class, and wanted to find a child to love. She searched the orphanages of South America and took the child who was in the most trouble, sick and emotionally unwell. She took the little girl home and loved her hard, and in time the little girl grew and became strong, became, in fact, the kind of person who could and did help others. Twelve years later, at the girl’s high-school graduation, she won the award for best all-round student. She played the piano for the recessional. Now she’s at college.

The man’s eyes grew moist. He had just been to the graduation. “These are the things that stay God’s hand,” he told me. I didn’t know what that meant. He explained: these are the things that keep God from letting us kill us all.

So be good. Do good. Stay His hand. And pray.”

–Peggy Noonan, “There Is No Time, There Will Be Time”, Forbes ASAP, November 30, 1998

“These are the things that stay God’s hand”….


 

I’m kind of a pessimist by nature. Every now and then I need to remind myself of the good stuff that’s out there. The good people out there. And every now and then the reminder kind of rears up and makes itself sort of unmistakable.

Then there are the rare occasions when I get three or four reminders in a row that just line themselves up like incoming flights at ORD. As St. John Paul II used to say:

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Over the summer, and again at the World Series, you may have seen the story of Hailey Dawson, a 7-year-old Henderson, NV girl who was born with a partially-developed right arm, and who now wears a custom 3-D printed prosthetic hand. She has a goal of throwing out the first pitch at all 30 MLB parks.

Her mom relates the excitement of the members of the engineering department at UNLV when they met with her to discuss designing a prosthetic:

“Normally when I walk into a situation like this, I was selling them on why they should do this for my daughter,” she said. “Two of the professors emailed me and asked me to come in, and when we met, they sold me. They were trying to sell me on picking them.”

I love the tenacity and audacity of the mom who contacted everyone she could think of to make something that would let her daughter do all the things every other 7-year old does. And I love how the teachers and students at UNLV were all in:

“We had been working with robotics with eight years. We had coached robotic teams. We had been working with 3-D printers for about 10 years, so it caught my interest just because it was a combination of robotics and 3-D printing and a cool story,” O’Toole said. “A little girl needed a hand because she wanted to play baseball and ride a bike.”


 

Anthony Rizzo is a cancer survivor, and a World Series Champion, and a philanthropist. That’s a good combination. MLB recognized him with its Roberto Clemente Award this year. And what happened next is so Rizzo:

You know the Clemente story. Or maybe you don’t. All I know is it’s the first headline I ever remember seeing in the Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1973. Rizzo’s gesture is perfect. Only someone who is genuinely paying attention could be that smooth. There’s enough horrible human beings in the world. We could use more Rizzos.


 

Of course, Anthony Rizzo is wealthy beyond my wildest dreams. The goodwill accruing to the engineering department at UNLV from the “Hailey’s Hand” story is priceless. It’s easy for them to give. But what about Joe Six-Pack? He can’t make a difference with the extra five bucks in his pocket after buying pizza on the way home from his kids’ basketball practice, and filling the gas tank, and buying a bottle of wine for his wife after a long work week… right?

My youngest son has discovered an old jacket of mine, an IU award-style coat with leather sleeves and “INDIANA” on a nameplate on the back. It’s ancient, but he thinks its cool and wants to wear it, so we took it to a cleaner in town. When we went to pick it up, I noticed a small, unassuming sign in the window:

It’s got like 125 “likes” and 700-some shares. Not because my post is all that brilliant, but because people want to do good things. And they want to nod their chin at others who do good too. And there’s something to that. We just had the conversation in class this morning that in 2017, the whole world is “every man for himself, I got mine, I give zero Fs”. Everybody can see the meanness in the world. A gesture like that from a mom-and-pop business in a little Indiana town confirms our best hopes for the world.

A small thing. But a big thing.


 

So…. so what. What can you do with that? How can I bring a little light to my little corner of the world? Here’s how:

“She didn’t give up on me because I was “too far behind” or because “it was too late”.  She changed the course of my life.  I graduated college summa cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in mathematics.  I received a full graduate fellowship to Wake Forest University in mathematics.  I was able to choose the mathematics path because ONE teacher cared.

She is why I became a teacher.  She will forever be my inspiration.  I may not ever be as gifted of a teacher as she is.  However, I can care as much for my students as she cared for me.  Hopefully, I can improve someone’s life as she improved mine.”

-Julie Reulbach, “Change Someone’s Math… Care”, I Speak Math blog, July 7, 2010

Caring costs literally nothing. And yeah, I know we’re supposed to be doing that all the time. And we’re trying. But: It’s November, and I guarantee you the teachers I know are tired. Already. As a colleague told me one year around this time, “I’m just hoping to make it to Thanksgiving”. All it takes sometimes is a little reminder, or four, and it’s like an Underdog Super Energy Pill.

 

Power up.

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Real World

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In 2017, we’re really bad at delayed gratification. Even the microwave isn’t fast enough.  I want results and I want them yesterday.

But for most of the really important things, we need to play The Long Game.

I write this on the feast day of St. Monica, a fourth-century African woman best known as the mother of Augustine, who was breaking his mother’s heart with his immoral lifestyle.

This holy woman followed her brilliant, worldly son all over Italy. Her best weapon, aside from proximity, was nearly 20 years of unceasing heart-rending prayer for him. Who (after he came under the tutelage of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan) we now know as St. Augustine, author of City of God and Confessions, and a Doctor of the Church.

Persistence pays off, people. A good teacher never hurts, either.


It’s easy to see kids as they are, and not as they will be. Even for those of us with a vivid imagination.

But: there is a tomorrow. And the world doesn’t stop spinning when they turn 18.

And that goes for our college-bound students, and for our kids who don’t like math and don’t like school. Those are my people, by the way.

I read a couple of success stories today that made me smile. One was of a student of mine a year ago, a cross-country runner who is rebounding from injuries and took first place at an invite over the weekend.

He ran well at the state track finals last May and has put in the work all summer, so this win wasn’t altogether unexpected.

The second item made me do a double-take.

Christian Ellison.PNG

Woah. A solid student and a good football player in high school, he made a name for himself at a JUCO outside of Chicago, but the NFL is pretty much uncharted territory for a school not known as a football factory.

Good for him. But there were others, you know.

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“There were eight of us, you know. It would mean a lot to them.” Image via mlb.nbcsports.com

One of the more interesting and unusual teachers I had in high school was my Journalism teacher, Ms. Mayer. All “creatives” stereotypes aside she was the type who dropped Jefferson Airplane references into her lectures, carried a travel mug of coffee everywhere (before Starbucks was a thing),  challenged our thinking and let free spirits fly their freak flag.

I was a wannabe jock at the time. Her take on the jock culture in high school was: yes, the football players and cheerleaders should march in the Homecoming parade. Of course. But so should the girls who work at Burger King, the guys who fix cars with their dads after school, and the kids who play in garage bands. Why was their extra-curricular activity not recognized?

Know what? She was right.

Those guys I wrote about up there? They earned the newspaper coverage they got. Don’t take that away from them. But I also keep in touch with a lot of former students via social media. With some space between them and high school, they are now moms, and dads, and husbands, and wives, and college students, and graduates, and servicemen and women, and folks holding down jobs and grinding out a living every day.

Guess they’re doing OK in the real world, huh?

I’m just happy that I’m here to see it. But happier for them that they get to live it.