Barbie Zipline – Valpo Edition

It started so innocently:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


 

And then…

bummed Cap GIF
Source

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

 

I Hope So, Kid

I’ve been fortunate to have really strong leadership throughout my teaching career. If you are keeping tabs, 7 principals in 3 buildings across 15 years of teaching. Each had unique strengths suited to the particular school setting, and all had a commitment that kids are the reason we get out of bed in the morning.

Gavit Aftershow
Hammond sunset.

My previous assignment, in an urban district just outside Chicago, we had two guiding principles:

  • We do what’s good for kids, not what is easy or convenient for adults
  • Would what you’re doing be “good enough” for your kids at their school? If not, why are you doing it?

That’s a tough standard. I know we say we love all our students like our own kids, but let’s be honest. Blood is thicker than everything else.


The second half of summer I’ve been preparing myself for back to school, not only in the Xs & Os of planning and setting up Canvas and such, but in learning from teacher leaders online through a couple of pop-up digital summits. First was the CUE Craft #DitchSummit, hosted by Matt Miller. Next: #HiveSummit, in which Michael Matera picks the brains of some brilliant folks. (Conference closes on August 14, and all the materials go dark).

Things got a little meta last night when Miller was Matera’s guesttalking tech & pedagogy. Miller is a highly-sought-after presenter, a veteran teacher, and author of two books, Ditch That Textbook and Ditch That Homework. As of late he is focusing on helping teachers pivot from the “wow factor” of tech toys to a stronger focus on how they fit within good pedagogy. His books have always emphasized that tech use in school should exist to serve learning goals, but pedagogy was the theme of the #DitchSummit.

In a bit of a switch, my freshman-to-be son was watching over my shoulder. He heard Miller expound on all the ways teachers can use, say, Google Slides in class beyond their value as a presentation tool. Then, the nuclear weapon dropped:

Mystery Skype.

If you know Miller’s background, he was the World Language department at his rural Indiana school. One guy. Which is both frightening and thrilling. It forced him to seek new ways to engage his kids. His #DitchBook stuff isn’t theory. It was his reality. He was an early adopter of Skype in the classroom, matching his emerging Spanish learners in Indiana with English learners in Spain. They’d Skype and speak the language to each other. So cool.

Image result for knowing nod gif
Image via giphy.

And that’s just the beginning of tech’s ability to serve kids and break down barriers. Miller related a story of doing a mystery Skype with a class in Belgium where kids in both countries starting Flossing on camera.

 

Image result for floss dance gif
You know the dance. Via mlb.com.

While it was intended as a cautionary tale, my son was hooked by the concept of a classroom without worksheets, where teachers crafted engaging lessons using the tools we ask our kids to lug around in their backpack: 

“Are my Valpo teachers gonna do stuff like that?”

Record Scratch Freeze Frame. 

I hope so, kid. I really do. That crinkly sound you hear is my heart breaking in a million pieces. He didn’t have a great middle school experience. For all his teachers’ efforts, they were never really able to hook him in. He wants school to mean something, it just… hasn’t yet.


Now, keep in mind: It’s one kid in one town. Generalize at your own risk.

But still. He is not your traditional student. “Sit still” and “take notes” and “do this worksheet” is not his thing.

He needs teachers to teach different to teach him. And: There are teachers out there doing just that.

Matt Miller calls them “Maverick Teachers” – teachers who are willing to take risks to engage their students.

And now that my son knows those teachers exist, he’s not going to settle for anything less.

How many more Sams are out there? How many are on my roster this year?

How about my teacher friends rosters?

And what happens when we ignore their needs and teach them the same old traditional way?


source

Guess what: Now that we know they’re out there, we don’t have any excuse for not doing what we need to do to reach them.

Sam was born in 2004. For our incoming freshmen, there aren’t “21st Century Skills”. There’s just “Skills”. By the end of next school year, the 21st century will be 20% over. As my bishop Donald Hying told the St. Paul confirmandi last year, their class will live long enough to ring in the 22nd century, in all likelihood.

Here’s the good news though: With my online PLN (#MTBoS) and at #sselearn and #eVillageNWI and Canvas Camp, I was surrounded by teachers putting in the time over the summer to work on their craft, to stretch themselves and learn new tools and tactics. They know they need to take risks to engage their kids, on the daily. The same-old, same-old, is not going to do it. I hope my kid ends up in their class this year.

I really hope so.


 

Three 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 Blaugust2018 challenge. Check out the complete list here. While you are there, sign up to join in the fun. I’m waiting to read, learn, and grow with my Teacher Twitter people.

MTBoS Blaugust2018

Time To Buzz The Tower

Changing culture is hard. It’s difficult to do it with one class of kids. It’s a major undertaking to overhaul “the way we do things here”.  Last spring someone asked how things were going. I said I felt like I was being assimilated into the collective.

Locutus
“I am Locutus of Borg”. Via startrek.com.

When grades are king and the college pipeline is pretty well established, Doing Things Different™ can be…wearying.

I’d much rather be the guy who creates learning opportunities for my kids. I mean, I can stand and deliver with the best of them, but Photomath and Google and good old copying makes me feel like traditional worksheets and quizzes are a waste of everyone’s time. And after all of that, if I still can’t tell who knows their stuff and who just knows someone who’ll lend them their homework for five minutes, well, let’s not, OK?

giphy (12).gif
Image via Giphy

I’m sorry. There’s just better ways to do it.

“Students are under the impression that when they are stuck and confused, they are doing something wrong. Think of it this way. What if you went to the gym to work out but you didn’t get sweaty and you weren’t sore or tired? You would probably feel like you really didn’t get any exercise. The same is true for learning. Confusion is the sweat of learning.

If I just tell them the answer, that would end the struggle. What if a person was having trouble doing a pull up for exercise. Instead of giving them some other exercise, I could help them by doing the pull up for that person. Right? No, that wouldn’t actually be useful. However, if I push on the person’s feet a little bit they can still struggle and still exercise. This is what I try to do in these discussions. Instead of flat out answering the question, I often ask other questions for them to consider.”

–Rhett Allain, “Telling You The Answer Isn’t The Answer“, wired.com, October 18, 2013.


 

My guy Matt Miller of Ditch That Textbook fame keynoted at CUE last week. I was able to follow along from a distance via my PLN. He definitely got people’s attention:

Maverick, huh?. For guys of a certain age….


 

I stumbled across my teaching portfolio the other day, filled with evidence of my progression as a teacher, tools and tactics gleaned from the #MTBoSlessons that had migrated from pencil & paper to Desmos activities. There’s a question that stands out to me from the interview process, coming from one of my assistant superintendents. He asked me: “Do you teach math like you teach PLTW?” He meant, do you give students a chance to get hands on, to discover, do you use unorthodox methods to create learning opportunities? Yes. Yes I do. As often as I can. But sometimes I feel like I’m trying to undo 10 years of student habits. Jump through hoops, give the teacher what they want, put the right squiggles on a piece of paper (even if they don’t know what those squiggles mean), get the grade.

Doing it their way has to be easier, right? Less pushback for sure.

This is the best way. I know it in my bones. But it’s a total square peg/round hole situation. Kids want a worksheet they can Photomath and call it a day. Gimme my points.

I want them to think and struggle and learn.

A lot of them are in for a rude awakening next year. We’re in the process of de-tracking our math classes. Everything next year is gonna be faster and more in-depth. If they don’t have a decent math foundation and the ability to think their way through a problem, it’s gonna be a long year next year. I’m a little scared for them.

It is my job to help them build that foundation and learn those skills. But they’re not gonna get either one by mindlessly copying symbols off a phone screen or someone else’s paper. I think they know by now I’m gonna stand my ground. My Twitter bio doesn’t say “stubborn jackass” for nothing. I’m priming them for Desmos Conic Section Art right now. Nothing mindless there. At all.

On the positive, the kids coming up through grade school and middle school are being trained up to think. They will have been 1:1 for half their school careers by the time they get to me, creating and collaborating and knocking down walls. I see what my fellow district teachers are sharing on social. By the time we do algebra together, the kids will have been pushing the envelope for a while. And then, let’s ride.