Buying The Groceries

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Coaching is a rough gig. Especially when your successor wins about a million Super Bowls. Image via Yahoo Sports.

Back a million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I still talked about sports for a living, the New England Patriots parted ways with their coach, Bill Parcells, after the team made a Super Bowl appearance. He was not super-pleased. In fact, he had a parting shot:

“If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”

I get what he’s saying: if you are holding me accountable for the performance of 53 guys, I should get to pick which guys they are. Well, teachers don’t get to pick. But in the right place, they get to pick how they teach. In one of my first conversations with my new department chair (now a district-level administrator) when I hired on, I found out that our department was moving in the direction of classroom -level autonomy. The state decides what you have to teach, yeah, but you get to decide how to do it.

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I’m a Stuck-In-The-80s loser. Sue me.

 

Use a textbook? Fine. Ditch the textbook? That’s cool too. All about Three-Act Math and Desmos Activities and WODB? You do you.

We do a lot of planning as content teams. Our main focus during this school year is detracking. Instead of offering three ability-grouped sections, there will be “Honors Algebra II”, and just-plain “Algebra II” next year. Those are the options, kid. So we’re spending a lot of time figuring how to support our struggling learners in a faster-paced environment.


Now, they’re not coming around tomorrow to make a movie. Nobody here is doing anything earth-shattering and disruptive, but it is obviously cool to have the freedom to teach in your own style.  Occasionally, monumentally cool things happen. Sometimes, it’s a smaller victory. In classic “happy accident” style, I may have stumbled across something cool this week, in terms of the order in which material is presented for maximum learning.

We’re in the midst of a (short) trig unit. Right angle trig, sine and cosine graphs, that’s about it. “Coterminal angles” and “Functions of any angle” gets a drive-by. Law of Sines and Law of Cosines get pushed back to Pre-Cal. There’s probably more emphasis on graphing. But: What if the order flip-flopped? Graph first, then tackle coterminal angles and the general definition of the functions?

Maybe with a Desmos activity?

Yeah, let’s do that.

I feel like I’ve got to lay a pretty good foundation with the graphs. Maybe, emphasize that the graph is periodical and hits the same value multiple times. I think the visual will help my students grasp the concept that there is a sine & cosine value for all of those degree measures, then we can go from there.

My 2nd hour wasn’t having it:

 

 

My 5th hour response: marginally better. Then I was out Thursday for an all-day curriculum planning meeting (coincidentally). So we’ll see. If the periodic nature of the sin/cos functions take root, I’ve set the table for Friday beautifully.


 

We quickly recapped the sin/cos graph assignment Friday at the outset of class, pointing out again how the graph of the function repeats. I’m guardedly optimistic. Let’s roll with Desmos, huh? We started with a card sort of definitions – letting the students do some word root detective work.

Desmos Trig 1

They had some mild success at matching words, images, and definitions, and we took a couple of minutes to make sure we were speaking the same language.

 

(H/T to some of my online PLN friends who helped me tweak this activity. Protip: when smart people give you advice, take it.)

After a couple more screens where we pondered the cyclical nature of the graphs, it’s time to get to the meat and potatoes.

Desmos Trig 3

Good news: pretty much everybody could sketch a 135 degree angle. Also good news: most could recall the ratios for sine and cosine. So let’s push the ball upfield. Here’s how to calculate the ratio of any angle. Go.

Desmos Trig 4

We ran out of time before we could dive deep into the idea of positive and negative values for the functions.

Ironically, this activity connected much better with my 2nd hour than with my 5th.

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But what can I say? Friday afternoon, after lunch, sun shining thru my windows….

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Hey, I recognize that guy…

At least some of them let their creativity shine thru as well.


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So, did this little tweak in the order of sections pay off? Not in a fireworks/shooting stars kind of way. I think the visual of the animated unit circle/sine graph was huge. And I think the Desmos activity was an improvement over me standing there and dishing out notes and giving a written assignment.

The bigger story is the freedom to re-arrange things in such a way that it benefits my students. Writ large, my Alg II planning group met last week to ponder some options for next year, including SBG, but we also took a hard look at the course from a power standards standpoint. We front-loaded the course with Alg II standards, pushed the trig section back to the end of the year, and flip-flopped a couple of units to get balance between 3rd and 4th quarter. Standards-Based Grading has some folks curious, and is being strongly encouraged, but individual teachers have the option whether to implement it.

Sounds to me like as seasoned chefs, a lot of us will be buying our own groceries next year. I feel a little bit like Bobby Flay already.

Bobby Flay
Image via Food Network
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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.

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“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?

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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.

 

 

The Doldrums

Current status:

The stops and starts of the second semester are killing my motivation. One of my students pointed out today was our first full school day since last Thursday. We went: Power outage –> three days of school –> Ice Day –> MLK Day –> early release due to lake effect blizzard –> two hour delay.

The doldrums of the school year are here early. And I’m dead in the water.

Doldrums
Image via The Goog.

 

That Phases Of First Year Teaching thing applies even if you’re in your 15th year.

Wise people have suggested a makeover of the school calendar:

What if we just took January off? Let’s miss all the worst parts of winter altogether.

I gotta admit, it’s tempting. It’s still butt-dark at 7:00 am these days. Cold, snow, wind, ice. Gotta build in extra time in the morning to scrape car windows and let the car heat up. Just crawling out of bed is a monumental challenge.

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It’s that time of year, even if you aren’t the praying sort:


 

All I know is: momentum is real. Inertia too. I need a push. Maybe helping my POE class learn to code will turn the tide. There are some glimmers of hope from the move to flip my instruction in Algebra II: students who have struggled are getting some small-group attention and it’s paying dividends. More than once I’ve heard a student say, leaving class, “hey, I learned something today!” I’m about to break out DIY Kahoot for a review activity. Because the one who does the work does the learning. Also, this is definitely the kind of group that keeps score. At this point, hey, anything to turn the sails.

Because just sitting here stewing and wishing ain’t gonna move the ship.

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Stock photo via Pexels.

 

 

 

Hello, 2018!

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

Hello, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not that cool.

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

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


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Image via Giphy

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

I responded:

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

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Image via Tenor

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

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

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

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

Divide and Conquer, baby. Divide and conquer.

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

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

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

Image via Women In Product

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

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

Riding The Wave

 

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

Third Coast Surf Shop, too:

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Photo via Third Coast Surf Shop IG

 

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Bor-Monster

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I can smell the refineries and the coke plant just looking at this photo. Photo cred: me.

I was back over in Lake County for a basketball game last weekend. Aside from the grounded-ness of returning (however briefly) to the Tribal Homeland, I was reminded that you haven’t really lived until you’ve barreled down an urban expressway at 75 mph boxed in between semis. For 11 years I did it daily, but it’s been awhile. It’s like riding a bike tho. Right back in the groove. Like I never left.

Back in the day I would knock out a Rosary while winding through the back roads to the Borman Expressway entrance, but I made a playlist to accompany me on the second half of the 35-minute drive: “The Bor-Monster” soundtrack. It’s made in chunks so I can pick the part that fits the mood of the day.

The opening set of Anberlin’s “Impossible”, “Walk” from the Foos, and The Ataris cover of “Boys Of Summer” is a perfect start-me-up for Mondays.

Boys of Summer – The Ataris from COAE on Vimeo.

 

The pairing of “Help Is On The Way” by Rise Against and “Seven Nation Army” is like a mental workout on a heavy bag. It’s way more productive to sing out your anger and frustrations than to punch things… like walls.

 

And every Friday I pulled into the parking lot with Soul Asylum’s “Somebody To Shove” followed by “Dare You To Move” (Switchfoot) jangling in my speakers.

I miss that drive in sometimes, and the way the tunes helped me get my head straight for the day.


So we’re in the St. Thomas More gym in Munster for my youngest son’s basketball game. While the 7th grade game was going on I was checking Teacher Twitter and stumbled across this:

OK, people having been making mixes since the days of cassette tapes, for a variety of reasons. They’re shareable and more portable now, but the concept is the same.

Still, I love the idea of a soundtrack for who I want to be. I don’t have a half-hour drive in anymore, but I could use a life soundtrack or two, custom-made.

What would go on my 2018 playlist? Sounds like something worth thinking about over Christmas Break. And worth writing about the first week of January.

Melancholy Christmas

 

If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.

I feel you, my dude.

Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.

Then there’s Christmastime at school.

Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.

I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.

The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.

But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:

Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?

But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.

I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.

We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.

Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:

Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.

But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.

I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.

Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.

That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.

Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.

Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.

 

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.”

Power Boost

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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


 

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

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

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

A small thing. But a big thing.


 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Power up.

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Can You Help A Digital Native Out?

1:1 is here. I’ve been waiting awhile to get this party started.

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Oh, the possibilities: Students creating content! Diving deep into math! Self-directed learning! Even on a Sub Day!

Happy Happy! Joy Joy!

No, that’s not what it was like at all. In reality, well, it takes students a minute to get on board with something new. I had to take a sub day on short notice on Friday, but I had fortunately planned far enough ahead that my materials were already set up in Canvas for all my PLTW classes and my Algebra II students. All they had to do was sit back, absorb some instructions and/or notes, and commence to churning out pure awesomeness. The worked out examples we do in class are embedded right inside the slides:

What I ended up with was Substitution Mass Confusion (clouds inside your head).

*Greets students on Tuesday morning*

Me: “So, how’d Friday go?”

Students: “The assignment was easy. We could do that. But we couldn’t do the notes.”

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We ended up going back over everything on Tuesday. OK, they need some guidance on this. Digital Natives or no, they need someone to teach ’em what they don’t know how.


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Image via Desmos.com

Which is how I came to be teaching them Desmos on a Tuesday morning. I had embedded a quickie Desmos activity into their practice set Friday. Problem is, I’m not sure in retrospect they know how to graph a function in Desmos. Actually, after I looked at the dashboard, I know they didn’t know how to graph a function in Desmos.

“So how many of you had a teacher who used Desmos with you last year? Wait. None?!?!? You never? Really? Well guess what: This is your lucky day, kiddies.”

Angel choirs sing, rainbows arch across the sky, unicorns prance, chocolate abounds.

So step One: How to enter a function into Desmos:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 1
Borrowed a word problem from an old textbook. Instead of making a vague, mostly useless graph by hand, we turn that part over to Mr. Desmos.
Desmos Tutorial Screen 2
That’s great, but what are we supposed to do with that vertical-looking line?

OK, so that doesn’t look like much of anything that tells us anything about this flight. But wait. You guys, does negative time or negative distance make sense in this problem? No, they tell me. Great. Let’s get rid of those portions of the coordinate plane:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 3
Light dawns. This was a low-key truly beautiful moment.

Now let’s start rubbing some brain cells together:

Desmos Tutorial Screen 4

That took us to the end of class but definitely lit a fire. I sent them home with instructions to finish the activity. Many tore into it during their study hall, because when I went back to check the dashboard on my prep the thing was lit up like a Christmas tree.

From what I’ve been able to gather from observing other 1:1 initiatives from a distance, this is a huge step. In this order: Got the teachers trained up, got some in-house tech coaches in place, now we give the students the guidance they need and we are ready to rock.

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“Uh, excuse me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the action on this keyboard.”