One-Man Book Club: Copyrighteous

N.B – I make no pretense of objectivity in this post. I’ve had the chance to interact with Diana Gill on Twitter and meet with her IRL at the eVillageNWI conference the last couple of summers. She is the real deal. A fabulous human being and absolutely brilliant as a teacher, coach, and presenter. For full disclosure, she gifted me my copy of her book.

We lived in Vegas for a while at the start of my teaching career. It was a huge culture shock for a Region guy whose dad worked in a steel mill for 40 years. My world was What You See Is What You Get. Pick up your lunchbox and hard hat and go to work. Out there I felt like everything was Style over Substance – like I had to learn to see through everybody’s front. Ironically enough, teacher-wise I’m probably a mixture of the two. You can’t wring the blue-collar out of me: one of my colleagues in my first year commented to my department chair, “he’s a bit of a workaholic”. I think she even meant it as a compliment. Meanwhile, I buy what my UNLV methods teacher was selling us back in the day: “As a teacher you put on 900 performances a year. And you have to nail every one of them”.

In her new book Copyrighteous, Diana Gill leads with a recollection of starting her teaching career by being given a scripted curriculum that stifled her creativity. She eventually broke the mold, creating her own classroom experiences tailored to her students’ needs and interests. In the process she learned to remix existing activities, respecting others’ creations while putting her own stamp on them.

When I first heard the basic outline of her book, I was definitely intrigued. To the extent that I have a “brand” it is as “that creative teacher”, ditching the textbook and creating (or at least sourcing and serving) tantalizing learning experiences in my classroom. And from the jump I was sure to share what I had learned with others, and always give credit when I shared online what my students had done that day. We share a philosophy of teaching in that regard.

Things have changed for me from the neck up the last year or so. I’m losing my teaching mojo. Maybe my style just doesn’t play in my building. I’m teaching a new (at least new in the last 8 years or so) prep. As awesome as our LMS is, no textbook means I’m pretty much writing my textbook digitally as I go. Building a plane while I’m flying it. We are “encouraged” to plan together and use common materials, and in my building that means TPT. That’s not really my style. And besides, I had… concerns, based on the experiences of some of my online teacher friends. I reached out to my MTBoS connects, and they came thru with the goods. In the end tho, I bent the knee to the stack of worksheets. I felt like I was letting myself and my PLN down. But wait. Can I do both? Keep pace with and use the same pre-made materials as my teaching colleagues, while staying true to my creative self but more importantly continuing to use the tools and activities freely shared by my PLN to offer my students engaging learning experiences?

I’m trying. I needed an activity this week to give my students a chance to collaborate and get extra practice on proving parallelograms in the coordinate plane. And in like 30 seconds of searching, bam, there it was, via @mathequalslove and @mathymissgrove –> Two Truths & A Lie, Parallelogram Edition. It might be a really good mashup, and remind me again how to combine the two in my classroom – a common curriculum and custom goodness. I was able to make some slight tweaks to meet the needs of my kids, and to use some advice the creator of the activity gave in her recap of the activity on her blog.

I feel like I should do more of that. Copyrighteous shows the way. And it came along just when I needed it.

So here’s my 15 second recap of edtech since it came on my radar screen 10-ish years ago: We’ve moved on from “Hey look at this shiny new toy, what can I do with it?” to “How does this tech or this process support teaching and learning in my classroom?” Now add in, “How can I respect the rights of the creators of the materials I’m using, while still presenting lessons that fit my personality and meet my students interests and needs?”

That’s Copyrighteous in a nutshell.

  • Find the thing that works for you.
  • If it doesn’t quite work for you, remix it until it does.
  • Always give credit.
  • Make something if you can’t find something.
  • Share with your people.
  • Ask for feedback.

It’s been a long time since my days in the College of Education at UNLV. I don’t know if they teach this stuff at teacher school in 2020.

But I know they should.

One-Man Book Club: Every Tool’s A Hammer

“Making” is the flavor of the month. And if you follow folks like Josh Stumpenhorst you know it’s seeping into schools far beyond STEM spaces into creative spaces. In really, really cool ways.

The famous saying goes “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” My corollary is: Every book is a teacher book. I guess in a less flippant way, I’m always open to learning something about what I do, regardless of the source.

No really, I mean it.

But I read a lot. Probably too much. Some of it ends up impacting my practice, some not. I long ago left behind the section-by-section, textbook driven method of teaching for a more engaging, student-centered model championed by my online PLN. That kind of makes me a “maker” I guess, whether I’d use that term for myself or not.

I’ve never considered myself a Creative Teacher™ although that term is subjective too.

But now, a day short of finishing my 16th year, it’s what I do. I wouldn’t go back. It’s a tough sell in a very traditional building, but I’m down for life.


I found kind of a kindred spirit last week when I swung by the library and picked up Every Tool’s A Hammer: Life Is What You Make It by Adam Savage. Of course I knew him from Mythbusters. I didn’t know a lot of his background as a creative person tho.

So when he busted out a Matrix – inspired outfit for a shoot near where some of the movie scenes took place, it was the culmination of a life – long interest and a comfortable fit. The knowing nods from the crew confirmed it.Savage Matrix

Tracing his journey, Savage notes that there are places that will feed your soul, and places that will drag you down. Sometimes you just have to learn what you can in a place, and move on to a less toxic environment.

But he did some of best work when surrounded by like-minded people.


So what does any of this look like in a classroom? Do you have to be 3D printing your own custom-designed mobile device stand? You can, of course, but maker mentality sometimes has more to do with designing (lessons, classroom layout, Canvas pages) than with crafting a tangible “thing”. I mean, what does a standing ladder rack have to do with teaching?

Ladder Rack

Savage has a term for it: First-Order Retrievability. He built this rack so he could see all of his hand tools at a glance, instead of having to dig through a drawer to find just the right tool. The classroom equivalent is assessing what tools I need on the daily, and making sure they are accessible with a minimum of search. Dry-erase markers, Ladibug doc cam, pen, pencil, handouts, passes? I knew a teacher in my first year who wore an actual toolbelt in class, with markers and calculator and eraser and passes all stowed neatly away.

My other takeaways:

 

  • Lists

Oh my goodness did we connect here.  Actually Mrs. Dull is the Queen of Lists, so it’s not a new concept for me. We both make lists to help us organize our work, but for slightly different reasons. I’m old enough to worry about being forgetful, so my list-making started on the last day of a school term – a list of everything that needed to be done to post grades, and everything that needed to be done to set myself up for the start of the next term. I didn’t want to walk out the door only to remember something vitally important in the midst of the evening rush on the Borman.

Next up was tackling the flow of Thanksgiving dinner. A list of everything I planned to serve, in the order I needed to start it, so that everything could go on the table at once.

Then Adam Savage introduced me to checkboxes.

And yeah, I’m kinda hooked.

 

  • Loose Tolerance

“Every maker needs to give themselves the space to screw up in the pursuit of perfecting a new skill or in learning something they’ve never tried before.” That sounds a little bit like the Teach Like A Pirate mantra, or maybe a quote from Julie Reulbach’s “You Are Enough” address to a group of math teachers. And that’s definitely part of it. Savage talks about how book learning and hands-on learning are both necessary – “Doing puts the kind of knowledge in your body that can only be gained by an iterative process”.

To Savage, this means giving yourself cushion with material. If the dress you are trying to make calls for four yards of fabric, buy eight or twelve. If you are making dinner for 20, buy enough to make 25. There’s room for screw-ups that way. In the classroom, maybe that means piloting some new tech on a low-key Friday with your students before you invite your admin to come watch you roll it out live.

Or being willing to be bad at Three-Act Math enough times to get good at it.

 

  • Use Cardboard

If you’ve got any familiarity at all with Adam Savage, you have probably guessed that he was that kid who saw a spaceship or a racecar or a knight in shining armor when he happened across a cardboard refrigerator box out on the curb. As a professional maker now he swears by cardboard as his “material of choice” for any kind of mock-up.  The concept goes hand-in-hand with loose tolerance. Pixar’s Andrew Stanton says the laptop is his “cardboard”. It gives him room to mess up. He went from animating & storyboarding to writing for Pixar. And that’s a little intimidating. But Joss Whedon gave him some advice: translate the movie you see in your head onto the page:

Cardboard

“I can be messy” seems like a pretty good teacher motto, since the best lessons rarely are on point from the first iteration. Class Motto since I learned to teach different: Be messy. Tweak it and try it again. Keep what works and throw out the rest.

 

  • Super-secret special tools

To Adam Savage, there is a class of tool you cannot buy – it can only be gifted to you by someone more experienced than you. As he says, “you must be lifted up to it by your maker community, by your collaborators and coworkers and clients.” A good idea, tool, or technique spreads through a shop with lightning speed. He tells how he crafted a dozen mini radar dishes for a set in Space Cowboys in a fraction of the time it would take to glue plastic strips together – it involved a acrylic and a laser cutter and a wooden bowl and a heat lamp.

mindblown

He said: “By the end of the day most of my coworkers made it past my desk to take a look at this new technique and figure out how they could incorporate it into their repertoire.”

I’m on a mini-crusade these days to find a way for the learning that happens at summer conferences to come back to my building in August. I’ve been pushing for a way for the teachers who present or attend to share what they’ve taught or learned with their colleagues. And on a wider scale, I can learn something from every teacher in my department, and probably from every teacher in all the rest of the departments. How do we carve out time to make that happen? I don’t know. But I bet you it would set the world on fire.

 

  • And, Oh, yeah, Sweep up your shop every day

Or as I like to say, I’m not leaving on Friday until I’m set up for Monday.


So what does “the maker mentality” look like for a teacher? Well, specifically for me as a teacher? I’ll cede the floor again to Adam Savage:

“…the deeper I got into the writing, the more wary I became of speaking from a position of authority because my talent lies not in my mastery of individual skills, at which I’m almost universally mediocre, rather in the combination of those skills into a toolbox of problem-solving that serves me in every area of my life.”

I’m not sure I’d sit on a chair that I built, but I put together a pretty wicked pot of gumbo for when we invited the bishop of the Diocese of Gary for dinner last Mardi Gras day. And I think I’ve gathered enough tools and techniques to create some learning opportunities in my classroom. Some of them were even kind of memorable. I got an email over the weekend from a student who found something she wanted to share with me, and with my classes next year:

And yeah, I’m definitely in favor of letting my kids help me fill my toolkit. They know me better than I know myself sometimes.

Better Than Me

My summer reads have been a nice mix of “Teacher Reads” and “Free Reads”:

 

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The latest is Frantic 7 which tells the story of American air support of the Warsaw Rising in 1944. Hundreds of B-17s loaded with supplies took off from Britain, dropped thousands of crates over the city and Kampinos Forest, landed in the Soviet Union to refuel, then returned.

Despite a muscular escort of P51 Mustangs, several of the bombers suffered severe damage.

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I read quite a bit of this stuff, and the grace under pressure and heroism of these times never fails to stun me. Those guys are heroes, in the strictest sense of the word. I’m not. And never will be. I’d have been like, “damn, guess we’re all gonna die” and making an Act of Contrition, and here’s a guy dangling over a hole in a plane 1000 meters in the air and rigging up a repair so the crew could land safely. Woah.

Yeah, all men are created equal. And then…

Ordinary guys doing extraordinary things. But we hold these men and women up as examples for a reason: that maybe we’ll be able to follow in their path when it’s Go Time. In the aftermath of one of the school shootings last year, my wife confided to me that she worries every time the news of a tragedy hits her phone because she thinks I would be that teacher that bars the door while his students escape.

I’m glad she thinks so. I hope I would. But let’s be honest. Self-preservation is a powerful force. It takes a special kind of person. They don’t call it “uncommon valor” for nothing.


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My oldest son is at Army basic training as we speak. He’s your standard-issue 22-year-old. Jokingly, we said if he comes home having learned how to make his bed and put his dishes away, we’ll be thrilled. I was curious if there is an Army equivalent of “ship shape” (Navy) or “squared away” (Marines). I did a little googling around and found out that “squared away” is pretty universal. What caught me by surprise is how many slang terms exist for “substandard soldier”.

At the swearing-in, the officer addressed the recruits, congratulating them on making it as far as Chicago MEPS. She told them only 1 person in 20 who enters a recruiting office ever takes the oath. She congratulated them on their mental, emotional, physical, and moral fitness for the job. One in twenty. Five percent! So these recruits are already the cream of the crop, and still, some of them are gonna suck at being a soldier.


 

My online PLN gathers together once a summer for Twitter Math Camp. All the people I’ve been following, and borrowing from, for the last like 10 years, all in one place. One of the most tweeted-about events of #TMC18 was the keynote address from Julie Reulbach:

While the presentation was live, my TL was filled with tweets stating “I am a great teacher because…”

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Watching from a distance (#tmcjealousycamp), reading the words of many of my math teacher role models,  I couldn’t pull the trigger on that tweet. At all.

Writing about why I’m a great teacher? Can’t do it. ‘Cuz I’m not. Just check my latest eval.

It turns out that some of us are better than others. That’s just reality of life as human beings. We rank everything. Everybody turns in the uniform for the last time, plays their last recital, passes the torch.

So, what do we do with that?

  • Resent everybody else?
  • Pull back into a shell?
  • Or, maybe, aspire to get just a little bit better.

The first two are pretty miserable options. I’ll take Door Number 3: Seek out people who can help me get better. That’s kind of what Teacher Twitter is for, right? And the South Shore and eVillageNWI conferences. And virtual summits like the CUE Craft Ditch Summit and Hive Summit and the Global Math Department. And my state twitter chats (#INeLearn and #NVEdChat). And the veteran teachers and brilliant new teachers in my department who share and ask questions every day.

From the Reulbach keynote (paraphrased): “Just being here makes you a leader. Compare it to the folks who are not here, not sharing, not learning.”


My youngest started football practice today. I pulled into the lot at 7:15 to find about a million cars there. True, that’s construction guys, and athletes and coaches from every fall sport on the first day of practice across the state today, and administrators and office staff who work year-round, and more than a few teachers I bet. But still. Way more cars than I’ve seen there in the last eight weeks or so.

And it hit me. That buzz that signals the start of a new school year. A unique-to-us combination of excitement  (“We are gonna do so much cool stuff this year!”) and rampant panic (“OMG there is so much left to do before the year starts you guys!”).

I don’t know what kind of football player my son is gonna be. He was always too big for the Pop Warner age/weight matrix and his middle school didn’t offer football so he’s starting from scratch. But he put in his time on the practice field and in the weight room over the summer, and he’s kept his enthusiasm. He’s learning every day, paying attention to his coaches and older, more experienced teammates. He’s probably got a pretty good idea who’s better than him, and he’s sticking his hat in there every day anyway.

Sounds like a pretty good role model to me.

One-Man Book Club: Teach Like A Pirate

“Are we ready to start full speed?” Dave Burgess keynoting Day One of the South Shore e-Learning conference in Hammond, IN, June 6, 2018.

Yeah, I know. 2012 was a long time ago. Doing a One-Man Book Club post on Teach Like A Pirate is like live-tweeting an episode of The Office I’m watching on Netflix. But it’s what I’m reading right now and the thoughts are spilling out of my head onto my screen, and for many of my colleagues at the South Shore e-Learning Conference it was their first exposure to this loud, crazy SoCal guy. I wanted to watch the show through their prism, and the experience stirred up some memories.

Dave Burgess keynoted a conference I presented at last week. Leading up to the two-day event I went to the library and got his book. Even though I’d seen him outline his TLAP philosophy with Matt Miller on the 2016 Virtual Summit, I was pretty psyched to get the In-Person experience. I still wanted to read the words in black and white.

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Image via Goodreads.

(Burgess runs at like 7000 rpm. My laid-back Vegas kids used to tell me I talked too fast. If they were in a room trying to listen to the Teach Like A Pirate keynote their heads would have exploded. Having read the book was like having built-in subtitles for the presentation. 10/10 would recommend.)


 

I just finished my 15th year of teaching. I was a pretty by-the-book guy at the beginning. Things have changed since those early years, thanks in part to a lot of reading, a lot of connecting, a lot of trial-and-error. And error. And error. Let’s just say I’ve been trying to get better for a while. Reading Teach Like A Pirate, my mind snapped. I recalled a long-ago online conversation I had with Matt Vaudrey, co-author of Classroom Chef.

If you’ve read the book or seen the TLAP preso, you know what started my reverie. The Six Words.

TLAP 2

“It’s Easy For You. You’re Creative.”

TLAP 3

I remember struggling with classes that weren’t buying what I was selling. I remember spending prep time and after-school time searching for activities and lessons that would get my students’ attention. I remember being amazed at what my fellow math teachers were rolling out to their students. Everything I found online was brilliant and clever and creative. I remember thinking, “there’s no way I could come up with stuff like that on my own.” I remember falling flat on my face many a time.

But I remember having success just often enough to keep trying. Which is good, because as one of my favorite UNLV professors used to say, teaching is like being a performer. And you have to nail 900 shows a year.

All these years down the line I should point out, she never told us how tough the audience would be for those 900 shows. Or that they’d be able to tune us out with a tiny little computer they’d all carry in their pockets.

As Burgess says: “Would your kids be there if they didn’t have to be? Do you have any lessons you could sell tickets to?” I felt like I had to work harder than anyone else because before I could teach my kids anything, I needed to make them want to show up for my class. I used to tell them, “someday I’ll be that old, bitter teacher who hands out a worksheet then goes to read the paper with my feet up on my desk. But today ain’t gonna be that day.”


 

 

 

I’m not a pirate. Not a good one, anyway. But I’m down with Lesson Design. Which, it turns out, once you get past the bandanna and earring, and the grilling analogies, is what “Teaching Like A Pirate” is all about. Intentional lesson design, every time.

I’ve got a certificate on my classroom wall from ETS. It’s a Certificate of Excellence for my score on the Math Praxis exam. Me and a couple of my UNLV classmates studied hard for that test. The semester of student teaching we met three times a week after school at a coffeeshop/bookstore near where we all taught in Vegas to work through problems from the study guide. But the State of Nevada also requires a passing score on the Pedagogy test for licensing. Ugh. That one is not as easy. My idea of lesson planning as a pre-service teacher was limited to:

  1. Check the section in the textbook
  2. Select example problems
  3. Select guided practice problems
  4. Select homework problems
  5. Rinse, repeat

That’s all. And on the Praxis or in the classroom, it wasn’t good enough.

I eventually stumbled across Dan Meyer and the greater MTBoS and started to get an idea of teaching with the end in mind. It’s a concept that Bill Hanlon of the Southern Nevada RPDP introduced to us. It was a unit design tactic he called BAM, but it applied equally to lesson design. Later on I was exposed to Desmos, and then Hyperdocs. All tools for designing lessons from the ground up, thinking deeply about what questions to ask, what I wanted my students to ponder, what tools and resources they would need.

I’ve claimed as a class motto for years, “You want better answers? Ask better questions.” Turns out I have common ground with Burgess there too.

TLAP 4

Then Burgess goes on to include a section with literally hundreds of questions a teacher can ask when planning a lesson, questions that can spark creativity and create hooks to student engagement. Pretty much everyone I know can take two or three or six of these questions and create something incredible in their classroom. Without a single trip to Goodwill.


 

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It turns out that once you get past the pirate persona there is a seriously good teacher who is passionate about not just punching a clock, but in creating learning experiences for his students. And Teach Like A Pirate makes clear that there is no secret sauce, except for a willingness to take chances, to accept failure as part of learning, and to recognize that nothing great comes easy.

TLAP 1

I don’t know about greatness. I’m still trying, still learning. I doubt I’ll ever have a “guest speaker”. But we sing and dance a lot in my classes, get up and move around. Use visual hooks. Stick crazy memes and GIFs in my slide deck. Try new things. Shift on the fly when it’s called for.

Maybe I’m not such a bad pirate after all.

Leyahs Card

 

My Summer Vacation

Fight!

If you know anything about Twitter, you know you don’t have to spend much time there before stumbling into a spirited back-and-forth. Two conversations dominate my timeline these days:

  1. How I spent my summer“: reading a stack of teacher books vs. sitting on the beach
  2. What exactly are we doing here?“: the traditional math stack of Algebra through Calculus vs. Burn It Down. Like: Why Algebra II? Is Calculus every student’s Mt. Everest?

(Actually, those convos take place online every year at this time, but just like the first time the sunset inches past 8 pm, they catch my attention every time).

Futurist/marketer/author/blogger Seth Godin weighed in on the topic the other day on his blog:

“What would a year of hands-on truth-finding do for a class of freshman? What mathematical and vocational doors would it open?

Every day we spend teaching hand factoring of binomials to non-math majors is another day we raise mathematically illiterate kids. What are we waiting for?”

— Seth Godin, “More Better Math“, May 30, 2018

Since I changed schools and started teaching Algebra II to mostly non-college-bound students two years ago, well, I wonder if all my kids time is best spent on these topics. They vote with their brain cells and their focus of attention during most of the spring semester, that is for sure. My Algebra II finals sucked. Like, way worse than I expected. Nothing like anticipating the final day of school, then encountering a stack of tests that make you want to start a bonfire. In the middle of the classroom.

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Via Tenor

My colleagues in Track 3 also had low scores overall, so I’m not alone, but still…

chart
Avg: 44%. There were two actual scores of 0/50.

Sometimes I have long thoughts about whether I’m doing this right. Which, well, thinking about that qualifies as a good use of reflective teacher time over the summer.


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Specifically, I have several questions:

  1. We’re detracking – what’s gonna happen to this group next year when everything gets faster and more in-depth?
  2. How do I hook the ones who were utterly disinterested?
  3. How do I hook the ones who don’t care if they fail because they’ll “just retake it in summer school or credit recovery”?
  4. How do I hook the ones with a really insufficient math foundation?
  5. How do I hook the ones who are used to playing the game of school and putting the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter grade?
  6. How do I get them to think….

 

I don’t have answers. I mean, if I did, I’d share, right?

I do have a lot of time to ponder the questions. Preferably while sitting on a beach or reading a book. Educational or otherwise.

Meanwhile, I’m just gonna hold on to a couple things from this year for a minute.

Because my summer vacation is here.

Hello, 2018!

I love it here in the future. I’ll never go back. And this morning I woke up one year farther into the 21st century.

Hello, 2018.

New Year's fireworks are seen along the Strip from the top of the Trump International, Monday, Jan. 1, 2018. (Richard Brian/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Image via Las Vegas Review-Journal

One of the benefits of modern life is the support that comes from connectedness. When you scratch out that list of resolutions, you don’t have to look far for resources to help you along. You might still stumble and fall along the way, but you know someone’s got your back.

A few years ago the great Jen Fulwiler put together a Saint Name generator for folks who are looking to jump-start the search for a patron or intercessor. This year I got St. Francis de Sales (patron of writers and journalists).  He spent three years of his life going door-to-door throughout the French countryside trying to teach the faith. No one would listen. He had door after door slammed in his face.

I can relate. As Dan Meyer famously said, “I teach high school math. I sell a product that people don’t want, but are forced by law to buy.” At least in St. Francis I’ll have someone to commiserate with.

As an added bonus for 2017, Jen built a word generator. Perfect for those “One Word” or “word of the year” people who are everywhere today.

Of course, because Children Must Play™, some of Jen’s online connects mashed up their saint and word. Hilarity ensued:

I’m not that cool.

I’m Francis Presence. No editor or producer would take that character name seriously.

But, “presence.” Hmmm. Hold that thought….


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Image via Giphy

A few weeks back I stumbled across a blog post by Allyson Apsey suggesting folks make a playlist for the new year, rather than making resolutions. I have the usual resolutions, yeah, but I also have a #2018Playlist. As I wrote when I first encountered Allyson’s post, I wanted a playlist in chunks that could be selected to fit a mood.

We’re at a place in the school year and just life in general where everything is a grind. Fitting that mood perfectly is a song I borrowed from one of my oldest son’s playlists, “Hurricane” by Band of Heathens (covering a Levon Helm tune)

Back that up with “All These Things I’ve Done” from the Killers, and a pair from Tenth Avenue North: “You Are More” and “Losing”, and we’re off to a low-key start to power through day-to-day frustrations.

The mid-section is designed to provide a power boost, or at least an upbeat accompaniment to housework or grading, anchored by Jet’s rave-up “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (which is also my go-to running song when I need to dig deep):

Queens Of The Stone Age and Greta Van Fleet both deal in an updated 70s sound, providing a bridge from past to present before the Church and Lord Huron bring the thing in for a landing.


 

So, I’m self-aware enough to build a playlist that is in tune with my needs. What about when we turn the tables? Can I shift gears to meet my students’ needs? Can I be “present” for them? It should be part of the package, like a basketball coach adjusting his playbook to match his players’ talents.

The turn of calendar brings soul-searching and goal-setting in many areas; the classroom is no different. And  this year, my tribe has some backup in the form of Indiana Connected Educators. ICE Indiana is offering teachers here a chance to jump-start their 2018 with an “I will” sharing challenge:

I responded:

We’re at the point of the Algebra II curriculum where everything is new and challenging, and more theoretical. My track 3 students are not likely to move on to Pre-Calculus as seniors, almost all will take either probability & statistics or a college readiness bridge course that hits the power standards of Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry. They need more time in class to work through practice problems and get help. Looking back to last year, the opposite happened. We would spend almost the entire period on warm-up, homework questions (numerous, because they didn’t get enough time to practice and ask questions in class), and new notes. By April we were all miserable.

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Image via Tenor

So what am I going to try in order to fix this issue?

I am already embedding a video of me working through my notes into the Canvas page for each lesson. My hope is that students who are absent or want to work ahead or need to see the examples worked again can refer back to the video, as often as they need.

What if…. I followed the lead of several teachers in my department who are flipping their instruction? Students watch the video on their own, take notes, and write a brief summary (picked that up from Pooja Agarwal‘s Ditch That Textbook Summit session with Matt Miller). Then the bellringer is a quick formative assessment to gauge their understanding and engage prior knowledge, and the bulk of class is spent on working through the practice set. As Matt Miller and Alice Keeler point out in their book Ditch That Homework, this gives them access to a trained professional teacher when they need help.

OK, so now we’re building in work time in class, but what about my kids who need extra help? There’s still one of me and 30 of them.

Divide and Conquer, baby. Divide and conquer.

I picked up a strategy about 10 years ago at a workshop. Two downstate Indiana teachers who paired up to share their two classes developed a differentiated instruction method they called “Island – Peninsula – Land”. Based on a quick formative assessment (walking around and peeking over shoulders, even), the teacher quickly sorts his students into three groups:

  • The Island group is completely self-sufficient. These are the “just give me the assignment so I can get it over with” students. They don’t need my help, so they can go off and do their thing.
  • The Peninsula group can mostly do the work, but might need a boost from time to time. They can send an envoy to the Island group to ask for help with a specific question.
  • The Land group does not know how or where to start. They need the most help, so I sit with that group for the session.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used this tactic. The last few years my classes were all “Land” – I really didn’t have anybody who could work through a set of problems on their own, so I shelved I-P-L. This seems like as good a time as any to resurrect it.

Image via Women In Product

Gonna run this by my department chair and get ready to roll on 1/8/18.

And don’t be bashful. Jump on the #ICEindiana hashtag on Mondays and Try, and Share, and Encourage, and Remember, and Learn.

Riding The Wave

 

What kind of day is it out there today? I’ll let the great Barry Butler do his thing:

Third Coast Surf Shop, too:

Surf Mackinaw
Photo via Third Coast Surf Shop IG

 

It’s also the first day of Christmas Break that I had nothing scheduled in the morning, aside from making coffee and breakfast for Mrs. Dull. Seemed like a really good morning to make a list:

Make a List
Because if I don’t write stuff down, I’ll forget. Especially while on break.

The great Colin Powell used to say: “never step on another man’s enthusiasm”. I’d add: never step on your own enthusiasm. Christmas Break will fly by in a heartbeat. Untold number of 911’s will pop up to make some simple task that should take 5 minutes last an hour. So when I’m motivated to knock out some housework, schoolwork, and some #WednesdayMorningPD, I’m gonna take advantage. Because To Everything There Is A Season:


 

I’ve been a long-time fan of Matt Miller. Reading his blog, borrowing ideas, hitting him up for “how-to” help when preparing to make a short G-Suite presentation to some teaching colleagues, reading his books, the whole schmeer. The last two years he’s called in some favors with fellow teacher leaders and organized a virtual summit over Christmas Break. The 2016 edition was fruitful, and when I heard he was planning on a new set of conversations this year, I signed up for email notifications right away.

Then of course, life got in the way. The #DitchSummit opened on December 15, and my district was in session until 12/22. Which the mathematically inclined amongst you will note, was 72 hours until Christmas Day. We cleaned house and made cookies and entertained and shopped and went to Mass (twice!) and met with family and and and and and…

Here it is, December 27, and I’m just now sitting down to check in on the Summit. I know better than to try to binge-watch them all in one day. Plus that would just sidetrack me from my list. So I made a ranking, by topic, ordering the sessions. They are obviously all talented presenters and brilliant people, but somebody has to be first. And last, for that matter.

There are 3 or 4 presentations that I think will directly impact my teaching the second half of the year. I’m pretty psyched to hear from Don Wettrick and Jon Corippo and Pooja Agarwal, but since self-care is kind of a thing these days (for good reason), I opted for Kim Strobel first. I’m a little wary of the “motivational speaker” tag, but her topic, “The Science Of Happiness For Teachers And Students” hooked me in.

The short version is a riff on the flight attendant instructions to secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others. A burned-out, unhappy teacher is not going to create a very conducive learning environment for his students.

As a guy who broke the “highly effective” scale last year but only graded out as “effective” this year, much to the detriment of my ego, she definitely caught my attention when she talked about the cost of that incremental gain:

Which is at least partly why I took part of the morning to put together my #2018Playlist. And then let it play while folding clothes and doing dishes and whatnot. Which was of course the whole idea behind the playlist in the first place.

 

There’s more to do today. And every day. I’m just gonna ride the wave and keep getting done what needs to be done, interspersed with some opportunities to just sit and chill.

And maybe take a walk on a frozen beach if I’m lucky.

Note To Self

Sunday Night Sunset
The First Sunday of Advent goes out in a blaze of glory.  I’ve kinda got a thing for sunsets. Photo cred: me

Amateur Psychologists, start your engines.

I’ve almost certainly already lived more than half my life. Vegas oddsmakers would consider it a lock.

I turned 50 late last summer. About the same time, one of my favorite twitter follows, a former-atheist-now-Catholic-nun Sr. Theresa Aletheia, placed a skull on her desk. And began to tweet about it using the hashtag #mementomori.

Memento mori is a Latin phrase literally translated as “remember that you will die”. More importantly, it is an ancient Christian practice, as Sr. Theresa writes:

“A long-standing Christian tradition recognizes the powerful spiritual value in remembering one’s death in order to live well. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the 6th century, includes the imperative to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.” As the Catechism points out, both Scripture and the teachings of the Church remind us of “the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny” (1036, emphasis mine).”

— Sr. Theresa Aletheia, “Memento Mori: How A Skull On Your Desk Will Change Your Life“, aleteia.org, September 12, 2017

All I want for Christmas now is a skull for my desk.

(Look, if you’re wierded out by this, or think all this Catholic stuff is medieval superstition, that’s fine. There’s lots of stuff out there on the interwebs more suited to your interests and beliefs. I’m not offended if you click away. But if you are intrigued: bear with me.)

I’m not dying. Although as my sainted mother, a school nurse, used to say, “from the day we are born, we begin to die”. She and Sr. Theresa would have got along fine. But I definitely believe in preparing for death. And for other things.

Everyone above the age of reason knows intellectually they are going to die someday. And then they go about their business, not giving it another thought. I see the value in keeping death before me always. Especially if how I live my life now determines my address for eternity.

I wear glasses because I can’t see very well without them. I make lists because I forget things sometimes if they are not written down. It’s good to be reminded of important things, even things that seem obvious.


 

high school running GIF

I’ve said many times I wouldn’t go back to high school right now if you paid me a million bucks. Kids have it rough, man. And I’m not sure the adults in a building make things any easier sometimes.

We try. The good ones recognize kids have off days, get distracted, have talents in other areas. In case we forget, there’s always teacher evaluations to remind us what being a student can be like.

Had my evaluation last month. Met my administrator for a post-conference last week. As a former colleague of mine used to say, I’m too old and have been teaching too long to stress out over evaluations. Except this time, I did stress.

I could have graded out better. If I said I wasn’t disappointed, I’d be lying. The biggest takeaway came out of some feedback late in our meeting. My new principal suggested I take more chances, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail, and be reflective about my practice.

james franco what GIF

My heart sank. All that stuff… it’s literally what I do. Like, if I have a “teacher brand”, that’s it. I left the meeting thinking, “she doesn’t know me.”

And that’s partly my fault. She’s got 100 teachers on staff, and she moved over an office this year, from associate principal to principal. I just got here last year. I’m not that big into self-promotion, despite what you might see from me on Twitter. I’ve shared with my department a lot of the new tactics I’ve picked up from my online PLN, even presented on how to build a PLN at a conference last summer. But I find myself backing off sometimes, just because I don’t want to be that guy who won’t shut up about Desmos and speed dating and Which One Doesn’t Belong.

So of course, I spent some time pondering the situation.


“No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

— Dr. James Comer

If there’s one piece of advice every veteran teacher offers to every new teacher, it’s: “build relationships”. That nothing happens until an adult builds a rapport with a student, as East Chicago’s Dr. James Comer said. We know this intuitively. It’s not the kind of thing we need to remind ourselves of every day.

Or do we?

I was reminded this week how it feels when someone who you work with, who you rely on for a “grade”, doesn’t really know you. I don’t need to be the Golden Child. She’s my principal, I’m a teacher, let’s roll. But it’s always nice to feel like someone’s been paying attention.

So… how do my students feel about me? I know who plays basketball and who’s a dancer and who’s into computers and who roots for Michigan and who’s a photographer and who’s a runner and who hates school and who moved here from Chicago and who draws and who skates and who goes to the career center and who waits tables nights and weekends and who plays guitar and who likes cats and who’s been coding since they were 7 and, and, and, and, and.

But do they all feel like I know them? I could do better. I guarantee it. It feels like something important enough to remind myself about. Often.

Now, to get that skull…

Sr. Theresa Aleteia, SFP: “And if anyone asks questions, tell them a nun made you do it.”

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.

What We Learned

14 years, in the books.

As the years go on, the last day of school is always a bit anti-climactic. It is melancholy, for sure. But that’s true everywhere. You might have seen this one floating around a few years ago from up in The Mitten:

Gonna miss my kids, and those moments of awesomeness when a lesson all comes together or they discover something cool and get excited about math. I’m not gonna miss setting my alarm and programming the coffeemaker for the next 10 weeks or so. But the “woohoo” of turning in my keys and walking out the door is gone. Compared to the first few years, it is less an “event” and more a “point in time”.

Either way, it is a moment ripe with opportunities for reflection. Especially now that I’ve just finished my first year at a new school.


 

After school, waiting for my ride, I bumped into my department chair, who is leaving the classroom to go into administration. We had an opportunity for small talk, and he hit the bullseye with the first question:

“So, how did it go here during Year One?”

My stock answer to every who has asked that question since August is: Smooth.

But Nick is a good guy, and deserves more than a stock answer.

“It was good. Pretty much what I expected. Getting used to everything new. Building out a course in Canvas ate up a lot of time, but that will pay off next year and beyond”.

Then: “the department is a powerhouse, man”.

He said: “Yeah, we push each other pretty hard.”

And I said: “Yeah, I felt that. In a good way.”

I ate lunch every day with a group of four other math teachers. I heard them collaborate and troubleshoot on the fly between bites of brown-bag sandwiches. I heard a 25-year veteran asking for help from her subject area teaching partner. I saw a young teacher ask to come in and observe his colleagues in the department. I heard teachers gently push a colleague who could do better.

Everybody’s got everybody’s back. But nobody lets anybody else slack off, either.


So, Mr. Reflective Teacher, what did you learn this year?

  1. City or suburbs, kids are pretty much kids.
  2. They got kids that hate math in the green leafy suburbs too.
  3. If math class is just about math, those kids will hate it intensely.
  4. So, children must play.
  5. Living where you teach and seeing your kids outside of school is cool.
  6. Changing the culture is not a one-day process.
  7. The kids that don’t want to change will fight you for 180 days if they have to.
  8. I’m still more stubborn than they are.
  9. There’s only 30 hours in a day.
  10. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
  11. Having a planning partner is a gift.
  12. Having an hour a week to plan with your team is like finding a little gold nugget.
  13. Having a Lunch Bunch to ask questions/bounce ideas off/talk elections with is imperative to mental health.
  14. Having a copier that staples automatically saved me probably 24 full hours of my life over the course of the year.
  15. Having six classes in four classrooms on two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes meant I got my steps in for sure every day.
  16. I got fat anyway.
  17. We’re going 1:1 next year.
  18. I’m thinking of a million ways my kids can use Web tools to knock down walls, or at least to look at and think about math in a different way.
  19. Like this guy.
  20. I’m also trying to find a way to use MyMathLab to support my students who need extra practice.
  21. I know that makes their laptop a $300 worksheet, at least for that night. Sue me.
  22. Give kids a chance to do incredible things and they will. Or at least they’ll try.
  23. Give kids a chance to jump thru the right hoops and put the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter that will keeps their parents off their back or get them in the right school, and they’ll do that too.
  24. I can retire in 10 years.
  25. I don’t want to.
  26. I won’t be able to, anyway.
  27. Teachers report back to school in 63 days.
  28. I’ll be ready.
  29. But first, sunsets.
  30. This is really, really, really true:

teacher13-itokpjmqqzvn
Image via takepart.com.

Probably.