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).”
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.
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.
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.
I’d bet that anyone who has taught for any time at all would be hard-pressed to argue against these points. So, OK, parents, teachers, students all have their issues with homework, but can we really just walk into class tomorrow and go “No homework tonight! Or, ever!” and not change anything else?
Ditching the textbook isn’t an act, it’s a state of mind. Same with Ditching Homework. It’s not “OK kids, snapchat each other and scroll your Twitter feeds for 45 minutes. See ya tomorrow!” We’re talking about a philosophy, a mindset, of redesigning everything in the service of teaching and learning. To quote the authors:
“If we want to develop well-rounded human beings, higher quality assignments are a step in the right direction.”
My school is going 1:1 this year. There’s no better time to make the move to a full-on student-centered classroom, making use of technology and good pedagogy to eliminate traditional drill-and-kill homework.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean my students will never practice math. They’ve made it quite clear to me that they need reps to learn the skills in Algebra II. I just want to make the most of our time together in class, in school, to give them as much support in that effort as I can.
I committed to reading this book as a skeptic. I wanted Miller & Keeler to sell me. That lasted like a day. Less that 24 hours after I started reading, I’m sitting in the waiting room at my son’s doctor all nodding my head and going “yep” every two minutes.
The Why wasn’t an issue, as I addressed in Part I. I was (and am) way more interested in the How. Miller suggests easing into Ditching Homework, a bit at a time, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. But I want to be able to be up front with my students and their parents about what I’m doing. And that means having my strategies in place on Day One.
Parent communication is big with Miller & Keeler. They recognize that parents can be your best friend when they’re on your side. And you want them on your side. The authors went to the extreme of creating a Parent/Guardian Contact Log in Google Sheets for readers to use. Nice touch.
So what’s the secret? Miller & Keeler ask teachers to build relationships with students and parents, leverage brain science, encourage students to own their own learning, and to commit to giving timely and useful feedback. In other words, I already have the pieces in place. I just need to use the right tools in the right order at the right time.
One tactic presented in the book is the “in-class flip”. By making use of a learning management system such as Google Classroom or Canvas, teachers can publish a playlist of tutorial videos that students can use to get up to speed. By using Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify, teachers can actually record their own notes in video form to include in the playlist. Thus teachers can use tech to provide a support for struggling students. Combined with intentionally created groups, students can use the resources at hand to help themselves while the teacher makes the rounds to provide assistance and feedback.
As an added bonus, the teacher gets a chance to sit with every student, albeit briefly, every day. Instant relationship-building opportunity.
In my experience, by using intentional student groups, teachers can also make use of the “You Do – Y’All Do – We Do” method of lesson design. Students are given a chance to work individually, then meet in small group to compare work and push the ball forward, then the teacher convenes the whole group for additional notes, as needed.
I think this is the lynchpin that makes the whole thing work. Turning a 50 minute class inside out: more student talk and student work, less of students sitting passively while the teacher fills the air with words.
Another tool the authors recommend for building relationships with students is using a “student survey”. A great example is the Teacher Report Card used by MattVaudrey (link to copy for your Drive here). Students are brutally honest (you may have noticed this). But it’s worthwhile knowing how your students think your class could be better (most of us are our own worst critic, but sometimes we don’t see things as others see them), and then using acting on those suggestions. I’ve done it via Google Form and as a class discussion. It was totally, totally worth it.
I’m as addicted to my phone as anyone else. When I want to sit and concentrate on a task, such as reading, I’ll put my phone in another room. Yet still, as I was reading Ditch That Homework the other night, Mrs. Dull caught me in the midst of a deep thought, lost across the room. Her question, “what are you thinking about?” was legit. I was making a deep connection between an Alice Keeler anecdote and events in my own teaching career. Had I waited until finishing this book to ponder, that immediate hook would have evaporated.
Keeler & Miller recommend using what we know about brain science to improve our students’ learning. As an example, what I did in the anecdote above is an example of “retrieval”. I stopped reading, and made a cognitive connection. What does this look like in class? Could be Think-Pair-Share with a shoulder partner, the “Y’All Do” portion of the lesson intro where students share out what they’ve discovered with their group, a summary question or statement as part of Cornell Notes or an exit ticket, or a spiral review. Restating the information helps cement the learning.
The authors are also large fans of movement – using physical activity to stimulate thinking. This could be an Instagram stroll where students seek out “math in the real world”, snap it, and describe what they see in the caption. Maybe include a class hashtag? With one of my most challenging algebra I classes, I would occasionally instigate a 5-minute dance party at the outset of class before taking a quiz. That was a tough one to explain to my dean as he walked into my classroom while I pounded out a beat on a table while ten of my students were rapping and dancing around the perimeter of the room. To his credit, he got it. He knew what I was trying to do by letting students blow off some steam.
The chapters “Ditch Those Habits (cited above)” and “Ditch That Remediation” alone are probably worth the cost of the book.
Keeler points out that “Ditch That Remediation” is the longest chapter in the book. Here’s where the rubber meets the road as far as helping students own their learning through improved study skills, research skills, and critical thinking skills.
If you handed me a pile of cash and told me to spend it in one place for my former district, I would have walked the money to the offices of AVID. It was 2000 miles, and I’m not even kidding. The program was in place at my first school, and it was worth twice whatever we paid for it. When I had students coming to my class before school ,after school, at lunch, asking for help… I thought “No big deal. Of course, all students are like this”. Nope. My next 13 years of teaching disabused me of that notion. The kids in the program learned study skills, including Cornell Notes and how to get help from teachers outside of class. The improvement for my AVID kids vs. the rest of my enrollment was noticeable.
In addition to note-taking skills, we can offer students a chance to create, either by expressing what they’ve learned in a new way such as a video, e-book, or electronic poster; or by creating questions about what they’ve learned. An example of that from my classes is DIY Kahoot. After learning how to make good distractors for a multiple-choice exercise, students groups made their own Kahoot questions for a chapter on graphing linear functions. I gathered up the questions, made a Kahoot, and we played the game the next day in class. As I said at the time: “Are my Track 3 kids learning Algebra? They’re trying, which is what I ask. Are we having fun? Oh, hell yeah.”
Probably the biggest challenge for most teachers is offering opportunities for critical thinking. We take the math word problems labeled “real-world” and hand them to the students like we’re doing them a favor. Keeler points out that most textbook word problems are very formulaic. “Follow these steps and you’ll get an answer”. Bad. If you’ve seen Dan Meyer’s TED Talk “Math Class Needs A Makeover” you know what she’s talking about.
Meyer famously promotes a style of lesson design known as Three-act Math. The idea is to ratchet up the Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) of our work in class. As Keeler says, “note-taking is DOK 0“. How do we give our students a chance to think critically?
The series of themed bellringers I used the last couple of years lived in DOK 3, where students were making claims, explaining their thinking, and justifying their answers.
My last big takeaway is the idea of students “owning their learning”. I’m reminded of a student in my first year of teaching whose IEP allowed him to decide when he was done with homework. If I assigned 30 problems and he felt like he got it after doing 5, well then, he was done, and I was to accept that as complete.
If that sounds unfair, it’s been awhile since you sat in front of an insanely long algebra problem set.
In a relatively early light-bulb moment, I backed off of homework for my algebra classes a few years into my career. I’d assign 10-15 problems, enough for them (and me) to know if they “got it”. I wasn’t trying to kill ’em with math. Overall, it was a good move. The ones that understood the skill didn’t have to spend an hour on needless repetition, and the ones that didn’t grasp the skill weren’t gonna try all the problems anyway.
Is there a chance my students are mature enough to know when they’re done, and to know when they need more practice? Yeah. Is there a chance they’ll blow it all off and do nothing? Yep. It’s worth giving them the opportunity to try it out. All of us scraped a knee and an elbow up before we got good at riding a bike.
My hope is that MyMathLab can provide opportunities for extension & differentiation. I can make a self-paced, self checking assignment, put it in my students’ queue, with instructions to work on it until they are confident in their skills.
This as much as anything sums up the “Ditch That Homework” ethos: students own their own learning. They get help when they need it in class, have an opportunity to do engaging, meaningful activities in class, and understand the math skills at a deep level. And isn’t that what we wanted “homework” to do in the first place?
So in unpacking Ditch That Homework, I see from my own 14 years in the classroom that I have the tools in place to be able to re-invent my classroom with my students in mind. The addition of on-demand laptop/chromebook use means we can make use of Desmos or Excel or a Google search at the drop of a hat. And that I can build in the meaningful activities that used to require reserving a computer cart from the library (hit-or-miss proposition sometimes).
I love teaching. I don’t love how I ran my class sometimes. If you think endless worksheets and multiple choice tests make students miserable, check on their teachers sometimes. This is a much more enjoyable way to do school.
“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?”
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.
Along comes the Dynamic Duo: MattMiller and AliceKeeler. 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.
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.
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:
So the bait has been set. Time to reel in the catch.
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.
“When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you are a teacher, every book is a ‘teacher book'”.
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 MichelleBaldwin. 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:
People posting a bunch of professional books, calling it your summer reading. I love your enthusiasm, but I want you to dial it back.
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.
So upon multiple Twitter recommendations I’ve been reading “It Won’t Be Easy” by TomRademacher. 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.
“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!”
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.
Sports teams use it as motivation. (“Nobody believed in us!”)
It’s been fodder for a million Hollywood movies, from Karate Kid (“Love your car, Mrs. LaRusso!”) to Kung Fu Panda.
If you’ve been around the teaching game for a while, you’ve been told: our kids crave connections. They need relationships. No learning can happen until you connect with your kids. They need to know they belong.
I can relate.
Up here in the Region, we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. To the point where we fight over which parts of this area qualify to carry the title “Region”.
For the last 6 years the Indiana Department of Education has put on a series of conferences during June and July known as the “Summer of e-Learning“. My former district, the largest district in Northwest Indiana, and the 11th largest in the state, started thinking it should be able to host one of the 22 conferences last year.
The state had a plan. I’ll paraphrase: You guys are a pretty big district (13,860 students in 2016). Host a conference just for your district. Get your feet wet. Find your keynoters and presenters. Get a facility. Then check back with us. Let us know.
After 370 attendees, nationally-recognized speakers, presenters from within the SCH and beyond descended upon Hammond the Monday after school let out, well, what could the IDOE say?
Fast-forward to the Summer of 2017: We’re in the Big Leagues. (And yeah, I know… “we”? I work in a different district now. Teaching in Hammond is the family business. Old habits are hard to break. Sue me.)
AlishaFoor and her team put on a whale of a show. Crushed it behind the scenes during 12 months of planning, and knocked it out of the park during two days of awesome learning and sharing experiences.
Yeah. We belong.
When I taught in Vegas, my Midwestern-ness stuck out like, well, a flashing neon sign. (“Mr. Dull, why do you wear a sweatshirt and shorts?”) When I taught in the HMD, maybe I was “from there”, but I lived out with the cows and the corn. Now in an exurban district, where everybody’s “from here”, even though I live in the city, I’m still kind of an outsider. I found that out when people here weren’t heartbroken over the Stracks bankruptcy. (Seriously, like I had a tear in my eye when I lined up for lunch today and saw a big tray of Stracks chicken on the table.)
So maybe I don’t belong either.
I’ve been stalking hanging out online with a group of math teachers that call themselves the MTBoS (Math-Twitter-Blog-o-sphere). I steal all their best teaching ideas, follow them on twitter and at their blogs, and just in general fanboy a tiny bit too much.
But really, they’ve got superior firepower from the neck up. Way out of my league. I can use their stuff, but I could never make their stuff.
I don’t belong.
But this morning, with a donut balanced on my travel mug/water bottle, and my laptop, well, on my lap, settling for in for the keynote, I open twitter and see this in my mentions:
(I had posted this in a twitter chat I occasionally hang out in, in response to a question. The #MTBoS hashtag gave it a signal boost).
Here’s the blog page, with about a million other presos linked there. But for reals, for about 20 seconds there, Sam Shah made me feel like a million bucks. Like…
If you’ve never seen Christine Pinto, she looks like she’s about 12. Weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. She doesn’t have a commanding stage presence. But she is a lowkey powerhouse. If you listen… oh boy. You’ll learn. One of her main points in her preso is:
And guys, that’s the takeaway from today. We belong. Our kids belong. And it’s our job to give them an opportunity to prove it. In Hammond, they walk their talk. Two of the most powerful sessions I attended were led by students. Buddy Berry’s freshman daughter knocked ’em dead with “A Techy Teens Tools For Teachers”.
A 3rd-grader taught about 30 of us how to use Animoto to make book trailers. Had a Google Classroom and a slide deck and everything. Yeah.
All of us, on a Tuesday and Wednesday of summer break, when we should have all been laying on a beach somewhere, instead, the Island Of Misfit Toys, we’re all inside an urban high school, learning, together, getting better, for our kids. Kids we won’t see, probably, for like 8 more weeks. Doesn’t matter.
I was at a fundraising gala this weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of Opportunity Enterprises, an organization in my area that serves individuals with disabilities, providing job opportunities, housing, and life skills.
The 600 or so of us in attendance viewed the trailer at the gala. We all chuckled nervously as April, one of OE’s clients, reminded us that “50 is, like, old.”, since 50 was approximately the average age of the couples seated at my table. But we got the joke.
I just finished reading “Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. You may know him as Pope Emeritus Benedict, who famously resigned the papacy in 2013, the first pope to do so in nearly 600 years. He is at once a man of profound holiness and powerful intellect; a prodigious writer and a humble servant. The memoir closes with his consecration as bishop of Munich, a moment which would eventually lead to him being called away from his beloved Germany, to Rome, where he has lived out the remainder of his days.
“The present is not a specific date, but The Now of a human life.”
That’s how I feel about teaching. Attempting to fill in the Now. For Father Benedict, that meant leaving behind his life of study and diving fully into a life of service: “a person who does not act and live for himself but for Him and therefore for all.”
That’s what they call it in teaching, right? “Service Time?”
And like every one of us, my time to serve is limited. I could teach a full 30 years (16 more) or retire in 11 years under the Rule of 85. Or one more day.
But there’s work to do. A review for Monday, a quiz Tuesday. Brushing up on some topics I haven’t taught in a while for later in the school year. Moving into our new STEM wing, the first fruits of a $140 million dollar referendum passed in our city. Planning for next year. Building relationships.
I won’t get it all done this year. I won’t get it all done in 50 more years. But as The German Shepherd wrote: “This Now can be very long or very short.”
And: I can’t write the story yet. Just the next chapter. Starting in the morning.
As St. Bonaventure said: “To lead a good life a man should always imagine himself at the hour of death.”
The Dreaded Algebra II. For many of the high-achieving students at my school, it’s a forgettable stepping stone on the path to AP Calc and beyond. For my students, it’s the last required math course before graduation, and a figurative peek into the very bowels of Hell.
We’ve finished up the first semester, which is really just a re-hash of Algebra I. Now the fun begins. Brand new material. Brand new material that my students see as having no connection to their actual lives whatsoever. Also, the math is hard. Especially if your foundational algebra skills are weak.
So, we’re struggling with motivation these days. Not quite open revolt, but we’re on the edge of a bad place.
We just finished up operations with rational expressions, and their level of understanding is sketchy at best.
I’m not sure a traditional quiz is what they need right now. Check that. I’m positive a traditional quiz is not what they need right now.
So, some type of performance assessment is more like it. In class, in groups, display understanding, take your time. So: Old standby? Or a new thing?
Kate Nowak is one of my go-tos for review activities that are student-centered and self-checking. One of her go-tos back in the day was RowGames. The basics, from the source:
“Make a worksheet of problems organized in two columns. Column A and column B. The tricky part is the pair of problems in each row has to have the same answer. Obviously some topics are more suited to this than others. (Solving linear systems, easy. SOHCAHTOA, easy. Graphing inequalities, hard.)
Pair up the kids. Decide who is A and who is B. Tell the kids to only do the problems in their column. When done, compare answers to each question number with their partner. And if they don’t get the same answer, work together to find the error. That last step is where the magic happens. I know how well I taught the topic by how busy I am while they are row gaming it up. (Sipping coffee: go, me. Running around like lettuce with its head cut off: self-recrimination time.)”
So, my twist: make it DIY. We tried this with Kahoot! this year, students creating their own questions and distractors, I gather them up, make the Kahoot! quiz, kids play, angel choirs sing, all is well.
Here’s the deal: My students need a day to catch their breath from the forced march of rational expressions. I’ll give it to them. They’re gonna make their own Row Games activity. I took one of the Row Games from a google folder Nowak graciously shared. The kids will work through that exercise on Monday. So now they know what a Row Game looks like. Tuesday I introduce the project, give them the design requirements, list of deliverables, and the rubric, and turn them loose. It’ll go in the gradebook as a quiz grade. Even better: The plan is to take the finished products and use them as a review day activity somewhere down the line. Each class will get an activity designed by students in a different class.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 bestlessons. 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:
Your students deserve better.
The world needs more education geeks.
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.
So the topic turned to PLTW at home one night this week, as we plotted ways to get various combinations of children and adults to various extra-curricular commitments. To allow for some additional intensive ECA/ISTEP prep classes for our 10th graders, I voluntarily gave up my Introduction To Engineering Design course for the second semester to pick up three more sections of Algebra 1. I realized I had missed being this immersed in math. PLTW is cool. Really cool. But I’m a math teacher at heart.
Still, it’s killing me. Literally. I told Mrs. Dull that this semester has taken five years off my life. And it’s only half over.
When I start re-reading “Relentless Pursuit“, Donna Foote’s chronicle of a year in the life of four first-year teachers at a high school in Watts, well, that’s an indicator I’m feeling a little like I’m drowning.
I love my kids. And I hate my kids. And I love my kids. But like Eddie Murphy says (extremely NSFW), sometimes I find myself wishing misfortune on them. Nothing serious, just a paper cut and a jar of pickles. Or maybe a locker infested with cockroaches.
My obituary will read: “cause of death: 3rd period class”.
We took a quiz on Friday. I promised my students I would never give them a quiz without doing a review day first. If they miss the review, well, that’s their problem, not mine, but still. We’ve been doing Speed Dating reviews to great success, but every now and then you got to mix things up. Even the good stuff gets old.
I opted for a Kahoot review. If you played the trivia game at the bar back in your college days, you know Kahoot.
This particular class checked out long ago. I’m not sure I have any tricks left in the bag to bring them back. I was not optimistic. After our 101qs bellringer and checking homework, I launched Kahoot.
And I hear: “awwww yeah!”
Each student signs in with a code for the game at kahoot.it, and selects a screen name. Teachers can reject inappropriate names, and with this class I feel like it pays to be quick on the draw. So I see them start to pop up on screen:
“A’ight My Babies”
The little cherubs are using my catchprases as screen names. AYKM?
At least they are paying attention. Sometimes. Here’s to small victories. And maybe, relationship building.
We have been all-in on PBIS for the last four years in my building. (PBIS = Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). A small but growing core group of teachers is constantly on the lookout to catch our students doing something good. Not in a condescending way, but just to say thanks for doing what they are supposed to be doing. Our markers of PBIS are Responsible, Respectful, Engaged, and Caring. When students display one or a combination of these behaviors/attitdues, they are given a purple ticket which is entered into a quarterly drawing for a goodie bag and on-stage recognition at a school-wide PBIS assembly.
So I’m walking down the stairs with a stack of copies at the end of the day and I hear an adult call my name from the top of the stairwell. It’s one of our freshman academy teachers who is also on the PBIS committee. She has a story to tell about one of her kids whose usual interaction with adults in the building is negative:
Her: “<student name> today: ‘Hey, here’s my purple ticket. Mr. Dull saw me pick up papers that a kid dropped in the hallway. I’m a rock star’. He must have said it 13 times in 40 minutes. I had to listen to him all class. Dull, You’re a rock star.”
Me: “Yeah, but you reminded me to write purple tickets at the PD the other day.”
The day ended with a faculty meeting. We just finished a round of state testing, so our principal felt it made sense for this meeting to be a little more low-key. We started off receiving an individualized note and a scratch-off lottery ticket (I won 5 bucks!).
Then it continued with a poster hunt with each group tweeting out a photo.
She didn’t have to. There’s a lot going on in the building right now. But she did anyway.
Appreciation is definitely a two-way street. Maybe even a five-points intersection. But this day the message from kids, teachers, and administrators (and back) was hard to miss: I appreciate you.
Indiana University has what is widely considered one of the top public-school business schools in the nation. I was working through a business minor to go with my telecommunications major, dreaming of someday becoming the play-by-play voice of the Chicago Cubs. My classmates were probably looking forward to becoming princes of Wall Street. It was the 80s, after all.
Now known as the Kelley School Of Business, it was renowned on campus for its two-year preprequisite program. 11 courses, ranging from English Comp to Stats to Business Law, all completed with a grade of C or better. That grade requirement was really just window dressing though. The B-school took 1200 students a year. Everyone with a 3.0 GPA in their prereqs was in. After that – well, you were ranked highest to lowest. Number 1201? Sorry, thanks for playing. Go find a new major.
So I’m sitting in a giant lecture hall one fine May morning, taking my final exam in Accounting. I’m surrounded by overcaffeinated frat boys who would step over their own grandmother to ace this class and build up their prereq GPA. As a minor, I really just want to pass, pack my stuff, go home and go sit in the bleachers at Wrigley.
The test is 33 multiple choice questions. Coming to the final page, I felt reasonably OK about how I had done so far. Probably not great, but good enough. Then I saw it.
Huge exhale… I mean enormous. Not six weeks earlier I sat in the Louisiana Superdome as Keith Smart hit the shot that gave Bob Knight his third national title. And gave the Hoosiers their fifth banner in Assembly Hall.
You’ve probably guessed that I’m thankful to that instructor to this day.
One of my go-to teacher blogs is Infinite Sums, by Jonathan Claydon. The dude is literally a rocket scientist – an engineer in a former life (OK, construction engineer, not NASA, but still. Engineer.). The subtitle of his blog (“Vertically Aligned Whimsy”) tells you everything you need to know.
So this week, with a quiz on Solving Systems Of Linear Equations looming, I swiped this idea without a twinge of regret. No conscience whatsoever.
I should probably point out that until we get to quadratics in May, my Algebra 1 students struggle with systems like nothing else. Neuralized daily.
Nobody does well on this quiz, ever. In 13 years of doing this, through all the various methods, I strike out swinging. Every. Single. Time.
Look, half these kids I just met. Most of them are super frustrated with math. I’m not above bribery. Or in this case, throwing out a little playful thing that might buy me a smile and help them forget they are really bad at solving systems.
Call it “The Great Equalizer”. Or at least, some easy points that all my students will pick up. Which most of them did, with varying degrees of aesthetic quality, and varying degrees of enthusiasm.
I made a decision long ago, after watching my students take a few of my algebra quizzes: no multiple choice. I’m not interested in finding out how good you can guess, or how well you can cheat. I care if you know the math we’ve been working on learning the last couple of weeks. Maybe that drives my students’ scores down. Well, not maybe. Definitely. You can’t guess how to show the work if you have no idea how to factor a quadratic, or solve for y, or write the equation of a perpendicular line.
But maybe I can vary the level of difficulty of the questions? Is that a best practice? Legit pedagogy? I’ll never forget a discussion in an Assessment class at UNLV (taught by a midwest-raised professor who not-so-secretly wanted to work for the National Storm Prediction Center. They told her to come back when she had a Ph. D. in physics. Which I don’t doubt for a second she could have completed. But that’s a huge committment for someone who is already well-entrenched in a career).
A student asked if it was fair to include a test question only her best students would be able to answer. The instructor turned it back around, asking, “Is it fair to include a question you think all your students will be able to answer?”
The student said, “Of course.” The professor then stated that yes, that challenge question would be completely legitimate, in particular as a way to separate “A” students from “B” students. True, but I also took that exchange to indicate that it was important to create test questions with a range of difficulty. Here’s how one document from Indiana University suggests planning an exam:
The easiest way to ensure a representative sample of content and cognitive objectives on the test is to prepare a table of specifications. This table is simply a two-way chart listing the content topics on one dimension and the cognitive skills on the other. We want to include content and skills in the same proportion as they were stressed during instruction. Table 2 shows a simple table of specifications; it is intended to be illustrative, not comprehensive.
Most importantly, the suggestion is that test questions match the type of exercises given as practice during the chapter.
I’m far from the first teacher to write a silly, playful question into a test. My oldest recalls a final exam in his freshman algebra class in which the stem to a multiple-choice question read “Pick ‘C'”. Another year, his math teacher asked his students on a test “2 + 2 = ?”. He resisted the urge to write “fish”.
So I can justify (to myself anyway) writing a test question that all my students will get right, that some might have fun with, and that will take some of the sharp edge off a class that many of my students find incomprehensible. Plus, it’s playful. And my students seemed to enjoy it.
Will I ask them to draw a dinosaur every test?
Nope. But I know what question I’m using come tournament time. Number 33.