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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What's Wrong Dude

“Hi Derek. What’s wrong, dude?”

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

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

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

Find your thing


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh man. I felt that in my chest.

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


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

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

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

Hundreds FAQ 1

Hundreds FAQ 2

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

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

 

Who’s Teaching Who?

There are teachers out there who have been working hard the last few weeks to develop a theme for their classroom this year, whether it be overt in the decorations and bulletin boards, or more subtle, a “guiding principle” for their teaching and learning.

This is good. It’s helpful to have a well-thought-out guide for “how we do things around here”.

Sometimes the “theme” is public and visual; sometimes private, held close to the vest by the teacher for motivation, or for a mental reset during the lowest moments of the year.

One year early in my career, as I prepared to teach kids who were repeating Algebra I, I settled on Buzz Lightyear triumphantly pointing a finger at Woody and boasting “Can!” after he (sort of) flew around Andy’s room as my guiding principle. I wanted my students to know I believed in them whether or not anybody outside of our district did.

Buzz Can Fly

It seemed a perfect motivation for kids who struggled in math, maybe had their doubts about whether they even wanted to be “good at school”. I related my plan to my next-door teaching neighbor, a gamer/sci-fi/animation geek who went about 6-6. He looked at me and said, “You know Buzz was delusional, right? He really couldn’t fly?”

 

Yeah, the whole thing does fall apart right there, huh?

Buzzkill comment


As I write I sit on the cusp of a new school year. In less than 24 hours I’ll meet a senior homeroom (graduation is May 31st you guys!), then 155 brand-new math students. Well, not all brand-new. I have a handful of holdovers from my freshman classes a year ago. Plus my son (and some of his knucklehead football buds) will be in my 7th hour Math 10 class. Ora pro me.

Friday was our freshman orientation. I had forgotten that included new-to-the-district kids too. So as I was prepping for the freshman activities fair, four kids wandered into my classroom, looking as lost as most of the 15-year-olds who wander the halls on this last day of summer freedom.

We do all our welcoming on the first day in my classes, and given just five minutes with each class of freshmen on orientation day all you can really do is ask a few questions:

  • “Do you know where you’re going next class?
  • “Do you know what lunch you have?”
  • “Do you know your locker number yet?”

So that took like 30 seconds, now what? Despite being a teacher I’m kind of an introvert by nature and small talk is not my strong suit. But I have a trump card: ask questions about the other person. Let them carry the conversation. Then listen. It’s a philosophy that’s helped me avoid a lot of awkward silences thru the years.

“Where did you go to school last year?”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

One girl came from Indy, one was a move-in from the south suburbs, two kids from schools out in the county.

So one kid coming from an enormous racially mixed high school (literally twice as big as my school, which is itself one of the 30 largest in the state), one kid crossing a state line from the Chicago area to the cows and the corn, and two kids whose whole schools are barely bigger than my class rosters.

They’re already gonna feel like they don’t belong when they get here on Monday.  Best thing I could do Friday was take my five minutes and just listen to their stories. Make sure that on Monday they’ve got somebody they’ve already met, who remembers them. It’s the least I can do.

I’m clearly not the first guy to go into a year with a clear plan to build relationships, or to plan to build relationships with the kids who feel like they don’t belong.

But if the things I heard and read and thought about and wrote about this summer mean anything at all, this is where it has to start. On Day One, with every kid, but especially with the kids who come to me feeling like “other”.


Royko One More Time

I’m gonna miss summer. I’m gonna miss reading in the sun with a cold drink and a bowl of fruit at my side. I’m gonna miss sleeping in, and afternoon naps. I’m gonna miss sitting around the fire with friends. I’m gonna miss sunsets on the beach, and concerts in the park, and a million other things.

But it’s time. It’s time to go back. It’s time to meet kids and learn about them and serve them. It’s time to teach. And I’m ready, thanks to some kids I met unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon.

Go For Launch
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mitbos-blaugust-2019-xs

Four years ago I followed through on a commitment to begin blogging as a way to reflect on my practice. I’m not really even sure that blogs are a thing anymore, but I’ve got a handful that I read on the regular (Blogroll is over there to the right).

My online PLN is blogging their way thru August in the #MTBoS Blaugust2019 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. Not sure what to write about? Here’s some prompts. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

Look Good, Play Good, Dance Good

He’s not getting quite the attention of his fellow second-generation big-league phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. is drawing notice for his electric style.

Javy Baez, Tim Anderson, these guys are injecting life into a game widely seen by younger generations as slow, stodgy, out-dated, irrelevant. Instead, these guys have decided it’s time to Let The Kids Play.

They’re making it fun to watch baseball.

Javy Baez Youre Out GIF
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I’ve been a little apprehensive about the coming school year. Alternately ignoring the calendar and the countdown, and stressing over getting ready to teach a new prep with new materials. Then I read the latest blog post from Allyson Apsey, a school principal in Michigan I first encountered when she suggested making a New Year’s Playlist instead of a New Year’s Resolution.

She relates a story of a sightseeing trip she made while on the West Coast for a conference, riding the famous tram up San Jacinto Mountain.

They had a bit of a tense ride on the way up with the tram equivalent of nervous flyers screaming and holding on for dear life. A very professional operator tried to reassure all the riders as they made the long, bumpy trip. The way down tho?

Our tensions were relieved somewhat as soon as we saw the big smile on the face of our driver. He welcomed us aboard, told us to fill in all the space because it would be a full tram, and reassured us that there was room for everyone if we work together. Before the ride even started, the 60s music was playing again. But this time he told us that it would be a sing-along. We barely noticed that we were moving down the hill and rotating as we all belted out the chorus of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”. Good times never felt so good.

Just before we came to the first tower transfer station, our driver told us to be ready for some rocking and rolling, and then led us in a fun woo hoo as we swayed back and forth. He had another park employee standing next to him and she was singing her heart out and had a smile a mile wide the entire ride. Looking at them, the rest of the fear about the tram and the rocking just melted away. Before we knew it, we were back at the base of the mountain and we were disappointed that the ride was over.

Who would you rather ride with? The second operator, right? His name is Gil Moreno, and not only is he going to make sure you successfully and safely reach your destination, he’s going to anticipate the rough spots and smooth them over for you.

Kinda sounds like the teacher I want to be. The teacher I want my kids to have. The groove I want in my classroom.

Yes. Be like Gil.

Play your music, watch for the ones who need hand-holding, call out the rough spots and bust through them together. Serve their needs.

After I read the blog post I sat back and thought about the student who was so into one activity we did this year she bought a Lake Superior Ice Crew hoodie which she wore to school like once a week the rest of the year. The student who emailed me activity ideas two days after the school year was over, hoping I might roll them out for my students this year. The girls in my Algebra Lab class who asked if I could be their teacher again this year for geometry (surprise!). The former student who is a nursing student at the university in my town and a nurses aide at the hospital where I had my surgery this summer (also, surprise!). The kids who suggested I update my Friday playlist, the students who suggested I grow a beard, the kids who wouldn’t enter my classroom without their daily high-five, the student who hand-made an invitation for me to see her work in the Honors Art Show, the student who caught my eye across the fieldhouse during graduation lineup and said “I did it Mr. Dull!“, and I sat and thought…

Javy Slide GIF
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If I can’t be a young, handsome, healthy All-Star stud with Cut4 and SportsCenter posting my highlights every night, teaching is about the best job there is. The kids make it fun.

So I turned a corner a little bit on this rainy Thursday morning. I might be a little more ready to go back to school. And I committed to be more like Gil. More like Fernando Jr. More like TA7. More like Javy.

And be honest, after I pondered the moments of a year gone by, more like me.

 

One-Man Book Club: This Is Not A Test

I went off-budget on the morning of Teacher Work Day, putting in an online order for a book that’s been on my to-read list for a while. (Don’t underestimate the commitment that was – 13 bucks is kind of a big deal right now).

In my never-ending quest to read books five years after everyone else, I picked up This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative On Race, Class, and Education by José Luis Vilson.

I’ve been reading his blog for a while, recognizing that my thinking needed to be pushed in the classroom. His thoughts were as critical to my classroom survival in regards to my relationships with my students as my #MTBoS friends’ thoughts were to my evolution as a math teacher.

It was a hard read. I saw my struggles as a new (and not-so-new) teacher in his story. I mourned with him the death of a former student. I felt the knots in my stomach that developed this year as I read about him getting dinged on his evaluation for a sloppy bulletin board (the hell?). I’ll be pretty honest: I didn’t really know that part of the story. Kids get the best of all of us sometimes. I’m glad my failures are mostly private affairs. No one but my students see when a lesson bombs.

But that’s all selfishness on my part: “Here’s this awesome, brilliant teacher who stands up for his students and has forgotten more about classroom management than I’ll ever know, and look, he was bad sometimes too.”  It was a hard read because it showed me how far I have to go, still. I teach kids who struggle with math in a very traditional, results-oriented, suburban “college-prep” type school. Classroom-management-wise, I kind of got my ass handed to me this year. I thought I was better at it than that.

I feel like I’m pretty good at recognizing and encouraging my students’ interests and talents outside of math. I probably could get a lot better at finding ways to encourage them to have their maximum level of success in my class too.

I want to low-key let them know I support them. In every sense of that term.


The timing on this read was interesting. Just last week I attended a two-day conference in which I sat in on a keynote & breakout session by Ken Shelton. He talked about how he had only one male teacher of color in his entire K-16 school experience, and how he was often the only student of color in his classes. And how his teachers often did not understand his lived experiences, and made no effort to tailor their instruction with those experiences in mind. That sounds super-familiar in my current assignment. I’m fortunate enough to follow some folks on social media who help me to see why this is important, and I’ve taken their words to heart. Now I know better. But still, I can do better. My first 13 years I taught in city schools, so the importance of culturally responsive teaching is not a new thing for me. And I brought that with me to the Vale. But it’s a daily process of recognizing my shortcomings and committing to improvement.

For all of my marginalized students. We do an awesome job of supporting our elite students.  But I’ve felt for a long time we can do better for the 85% who aren’t 4.0 kids. That kid that doesn’t want to go to college, or does not have an Ivy League or Big Ten school as a goal. How do we support them? It’s one thing to recognize the problem. It’s another thing to call out the problem. And we do. At the district level our stated goal for the math department is to ensure all students are prepared for success in a livable-wage job or for their first college-level math class. But there’s more that is required.

Vilson relates the process of writing his 2012 TED Talk on Teacher Voice.

He felt that “teacher voice” comes down to four questions:

Four Questions

That last piece is huge. “Do you see yourself as part of the change?” What am I willing to do to bring about change for my kids, even if it’s just my kids? No district-wide mandate or program is gonna fix it. If I want my kids to be “college and career ready”, it’s gotta bubble up from the classroom level.

And actually our Secondary Curriculum and Instruction Director is on that. He led an effort with the English department to rebuild the curriculum from the ground up, starting with the question, “why do we teach English?”. It sounds like a similar effort is coming for math. I’m curious. And optimistic. Especially since he’s a Math Guy.


Also: added bonus value if you make the read interactive (mildly NSFW).

Went and put Eric B. & Rakim on the Google thing while I was reading and grilling yesterday. It was just about perfect.


My last takeaway was actually one of the first things that caught my eye: a comment by Vilson’s wife, a school principal, in a conversation about his middle school days. “You’ve been trying to create that Nativity experience ever since you started.”

It made me close the book for a second, lean back in my chair with the sun on my face and ponder what kind of school I’ve been trying to create.

I found myself nodding along to this section from the chapter, “Why Teach?”:

WhyTeach

“If a kid shows a creative side, teachers ought to push them to develop it and relate it to what they are doing in class.”

In preparation for a presentation at two Summer of E-Learning conferences I briefly toyed with joining the cool kids who have stickers made to hand out.

I pitched the idea to one of my artistically gifted students for the image, and one of my clever (smart-aleck?) students for the slogan. I unfortunately started the ball rolling too late and we never did manage to put a mock-up together, but I think they both were kind of honored that I asked them.

I’m down with relationship-building. I just need to be more consistent with it. And I’ll have José Luis Vilson’s closing words in my head as I do:

Go Hard Or Go Home

This year had me questioning my future in this profession. After a summer to recover, I’ll be ready to go in August. But not halfway. “If you plan to do, then do this. Go hard or go home.”

It’s Their World

“Mr. Dull, why don’t you play our music?”

busted
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I didn’t really have a good answer for him. At that time in my career I was already a big fan of the strategic use of music in the classroom, either as a backdrop for study/classwork/test-taking, or as a way to set a mood in passing time or at the outset of class. Pandora was my go-to: Jack Johnson or Dinner Soul in the morning, Chili Peppers or Anberlin in the afternoon. Great stuff for me and say, half the kids in the room. But I was definitely missing a connection with my young black men. And one day, one guy leveraged our relationship to call me out on it.

Motown & LL Cool J & Run-DMC & the Beasties (the stuff that was part of my mix in high school and college and as a young adult) might as well been stuff his grandpa listens to. So I knew that was out.

The best I could do was Today’s Hits.

I don’t think that’s what he meant.


friday meme
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I’ve had a Friday Playlist for years, as a string of youtube videos. Just silliness: Never Gonna Give You Up, Party In The USA, Can’t Touch This, that kind of thing. We went all in this year with a Spotify playlist and everything.

A lot of that stuff was on there ironically, which is fine. I have kind of a reputation as That Playful Teacher, so I’ll own it. Here, have some Taylor Swift and Fresh Prince while we’re at it. We set a mood, but I also caught the occasional cringe as Rebecca Black did her thing.

But every good thing comes to an end. At least they were gentle about it.

make more playlists

So, what do you do with that? A few years ago my answer would have been “nothing”.

“We should make a playlist”. Huh. Just the day before, the topic came up in a twitter chat I participate in every Thursday. OK, I’ll bite. I can take a hint. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

So they gave me a mountain of suggestions and I spent a Saturday morning vetting lyrics and videos for class-appropriateness (sorry, Travis Scott and Sheck Wes…) and built a playlist. Two, actually. One for Friday Mood, and one to run while they work.

I’m not sure I’ve got the sequence quite right, but that’s not really up to me. The order isn’t really what matters, the content is.

Can’t let them down now, right? I’m in. And just in case I was tempted to push the project back, already they were asking me yesterday if the new playlist was ready. I had to fess up – my Thursdays are a little overscheduled and I had not made the playlist. Yet. But I also did not play the Rebecca Black mix. It was, shall we say, conspicuous by its absence. Gonna roll the new playlist out this week and see what happens.

I have no idea how it will be received. If nothing else, It will be “their music”. And all these years later, my student in that Intro to Engineering class will get his answer. It took me a minute, and it turns out all I really had to do was ask. It would have been better if I had figured this out back then, tho.

Because as the late, great Stuart Scott used to say, “It’s their world, we’re just living in it.”

 

Relationships

My oldest son has some certifications to complete before he starts patrolling as an MP at his new base. He’ll work dispatch for about six months, but before all that gets underway he’s assisting at the tax preparation center on the post. Probably not how he thought he’d be spending his days right now, but as he says, he serves at the pleasure of Uncle Sam.

d3e1aa54-cf41-49ff-a4af-837b2242a652
Bumped into my son’s Algebra II Teacher after school the other day. Hilarity ensued.

Yeah, we do silly stuff in my algebra classes. Like sing the quadratic formula.

F7E5D157-A495-4204-97D2-5D40DFD25D90.jpeg

I don’t know if it helps them remember math but it seems like more than a few remember their math class fondly because of it. Which is OK.


Last year we moved the assignment to Flipgrid. That made it easier for students who are a bit reluctant to stand in front of a class to participate. Plus they can all watch each other’s vids and it made for a fun playful day. My Varsity Singers camped it up and knocked it out of the park.

In one class last year, two girls from Chicago became quick friends with a new student. She had moved from place to place often, and it turns out, she’d leave my school also before the year was out. She was not super interested in math but her group made her comfortable in class.

I thought of her not that long ago when I was looking at some old #teach180 posts and saw a photo of her group working on an activity. I smiled, thinking about her sense of humor about her struggles with math.


Two students came to me today in the hallway between classes, within a couple minutes of one another. Both had the same news. The girl they befriended in my class last year was shot dead last night. None of us really knew what to say.

One of the girls asked me if I remembered a day when they made a video of a math song last year in class. Of course I did. She asked me if I’d send her the video. Of course I did.

The whole thing is heartbreaking. Eighteen is ridiculously young to die. At my former school we had a year and a half stretch in which six current or recently graduated students died. It sucked every time then, and it never gets easier. I’m thankful for the teacher long ago who turned me on to singing the formula. Not because we did something memorable in class, but because we did something that one of my students could use to remember her friend by.

Folks keep saying ” building relationships” is the most important thing teachers can do. I’m not sure it’s ever been more important for me and some of my kids than it was today.

Requiescat in pace.

 

Cards Are On The Table

Put Up Or Shut Up
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I long ago bought into “teaching different”. And letting my kids get a glimpse of “the real me”. I know in my bones it’s the best way to do this job.

But how do I measure that? Letter grades? ISTEP scores? I’m not sure I meet standard if that is the benchmark.

But every now and then I get a little reminder that I’m on the right track. Last time in this space I wrote a little bit about building culture. That kids will be willing to do some pretty incredible things once the proper supports are in place, supports from me and from their classmates.

Today that got put to the test. I could tell yesterday morning that my vocal cords were getting a little frayed.

Okay, maybe a lot frayed. Woke up this morning to a full-on situation:

Culture of collaboration, huh? Let’s see what you got. I missed three days last week for my oldest son’s Army graduation, and we’ve got four school days until Thanksgiving break. I’m planning on a review Monday and quiz Tuesday, so I really don’t have a day to give away. And I love all our district subs, but I pondered the risk/reward last night at bedtime. And 65% of me is better than 100% of anyone else who walks into my class for one day.

If that sounds arrogant, so be it.

So I packed in some DayQuil, a couple of oranges, my water bottle, and an 80-pack of Halls, loaded the neighborhood kids into my son’s car and battled an early-season snowstorm to get to school in the morning.

I greeted my kids with this slide:

Spongebob Meme

Their reaction was priceless.

“We got you today.” My kids, you guys. <insert heart emoji>

So that’s one day. But it told me everything I needed to know about this group of kids and where we are together so far in the school year.

I’ve got a little playlist I run during passing time in late December, to fit the mood of the season. Today seemed like a good day to break it out. Some of my classes even harmonized along with Mariah.

I don’t have much of a poker face. The WSOP is not for me. But to paraphrase what an #eVillageNWI bud tweeted at me recently, “do we have the best job in the world or what?”

Yeah. Yeah we do.

 

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: Ditch That Homework (Part II)

(Part I here)

“As you will find… there is often a number of solutions to any given problem.”


 

Alice Keeler and Matt Miller propose an alternate solution to the problem of homework. In their book Ditch That Homework, they lay out their reasons for making a change:

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Via Alice Keeler

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?

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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 Matt Vaudrey (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.

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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?

DOK Infographic
Alice Keeler calls DOK a “Bloom’s Taxonomy for critical thinking.”

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.

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I’m sold.

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

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

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

Just like the rest of life, right?

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

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

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

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

I have to fix that.

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

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

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

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Image via Goodreads.

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

But they’re making their case well.

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

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

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

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

Learning has not occurred, people.

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

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


 

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

Reclaiming my time.

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

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

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