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:

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.


It Is…. Alive!

Subtitle: Making A Franken-Teacher, One Piece At A Time.

Image in the Public Domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Nobody asked me, but if you want my Mt. Rushmore of Broadcasting, here it is:

Harry Caray. Pat Foley. Wayne Larrivee. Scott Ferrall.

These were the guys I loved to listen to as a sports fan, and as a young broadcaster. Caray and Foley are members of the Broadcast Wing of the Halls of Fame for their respective sports, Larrivee will be an HOFer too, and Farrell, well, he’s Farrell. Nobody worth his credential intentionally tries to copy another broadcaster’s style. It would sound phony and fake and derivative. But I’d be lying if I said these guys haven’t seeped into my consciousness. Listen to me call a game sometime, you’ll hear a little bit of each sprinkled in my style.

Last week I was keeping a eye on the #INeLearn twitter chat while doing my prep work for my football broadcast the next night. Truly, I was trying to prioritize my time and just follow along with the brilliant Indiana teachers who hang out together and share ideas on Thursday nights. Mrs. Dull already thinks I have an unhealthy addiction to Teacher Twitter.

She’s probably right.

So the subject last week was “Leading and Reflecting”, and the topic turned to blogs.

I don’t think I had given the answer to this question a lot of thought before, but with the chips on the table, there it was. Then I sat back and thought for a minute (latent beer/music hipster BS coming next….) wait a minute. Doesn’t everybody already know these guys (and girl)? I mean, shouldn’t I bring something new and fresh to the table?  Then: wait another minute. Like 4% of the Internet is on Twitter. I don’t know what percent of teachers read blogs about their practice, but based on my experience it’s probably not a huge number. So maybe people do need to know this group of teachers. I sure did.

So: Why those five?

I realized, I was looking at pieces of the teacher I’m trying to be. Again, I didn’t set out to copy anybody. One of my mentor teachers, Rod Vollan at Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas, used to say that you need to find your “charism” – to figure out your thing as a teacher. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I couldn’t be him. And not in a bad way, just that I had to let my own personality shine through in the classroom.

So maybe some confirmation bias is at play here. I knew the things I thought I needed to do to make this teaching thing work out, and in my travels as I encountered people on the same journey, I tended to gravitate back to their blogs and to adopt their methods. Not that it went all that smoothly at first:

My early attempts at Three-Act Math tasks were kind of rocky. But I’ve gotten better. Due in no small part to the fact that a guy who has ignited NCTM and been featured on Good Morning America and has 41000 twitter followers took time to respond to my tweet with some simple advice.

It was the living definition of a low barrier to entry. It’s Meyer’s teaching style in a nutshell: create perplexity, hit them in the curiosity gland with a question that students beg you to have answered; then let them do the figuring to get the answer. Provide some guidance, and let them find their way.

Not long afterwards, I was co-teaching a class that had a high population of students with IEPs. We decided we needed to be much more student-centered if we were going to have any chance of creating an atmosphere where learning could occur. Fortunately, I had been reading the f(t) blog faithfully for a while. (Suggested sub-title: “From Inside The Powerhouse Mind Of Kate Nowak”). I’d used review methods such as Speed Dating, (see above) and the great Spiky Door Project in geometry, but where things really started to cook is when I started making my own openers for lessons. The inspiration was pure k8. I’d already decided that discovery had to be a huge part of whatever we did, and here was a teacher who had pretty much raised it to an art form, and was reflective about it, to boot.


Meyer won instant credibility with me because he taught kids who hate math and hate school. My People. A few years later, I stumbled across a tweet from another guy who probably would find himself right at home if he wandered into my classroom.

Justin Aion is in his third year of blogging every single day about his teaching. Pretty much the Mike Royko of the #MTBoS. When you blog every single day, you can’t hide anything. Your class is an open book. The good and the bad is all right there in front of God and neighborhood. If it’s not, what’s the point of writing it? Here’s a guy who is upfront when everything crashes and burns.

But Aion has learned something that it took me years of frustration to finally figure out: Getting frustrated with teenagers doing teenager things is pretty much part of the job description, but being a jerk back to a 15-year-old is definitely optional. Aion sees his students as human beings first, and treats them that way. Even when they punch every button on the control panel.


Turkey Run State Park. Stunningly Beautiful. You really had no idea that part of Indiana looks like this right? Also, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Image via Indiana DNR.

Imagine you are the only world language teacher in your small rural high school. You could punch a clock every day, pick up a textbook, hand out worksheets, and shrug your shoulders.

Or you could knock down some walls. That’s Matt Miller in a nutshell. He blogs at Ditch That Textbook, authored a book of the same name, and presents around the country. With tech tools ubiquitous, Miller saw that he could completely re-imagine the way he taught his class in a way that would engage his students. This always sounded like a fantastic idea to me. I wanted to expand the world for my students, I was just never sure where to start. And not working in a 1:1 technology school, I wasn’t sure I had the tools.  Sometimes, I just need somebody to explain it me like I’m ten years old. With examples.

Plus, he’s a Google Certified Teacher willing to share and help.

Bonus in my book.

The other teacher tagged in that tweet is doing cool things at 1000 mph.

He’s young enough to have a built-in advantage at engaging with his students, but that’s also just his personality. One of my students called me a Man-Child the other day. I think it was supposed to be a compliment. We had just started our Friday Fun with “Friday” and “Never Gonna Give You Up” while they did a Self-Assessment for the week, and I think some of my students still aren’t sure how to take that, coming from someone as, um, old as I am.

So he’s having fun in class, and it spills over into lessons that are so flippin’ cool I swear the kids don’t even know what hit ’em until they look up and found out they learned something.

We did Big Shark in Algebra 1A one day. One of my students actually said, “That’s a big-ass shark.” My finest moment. I was ready to retire on the spot.

So, yeah, the people I hang out with online (some would say “stalk” –  such an ugly term) are having an effect on me. And on my teaching.

Low Barrier To Entry. Discovery. Treating Kids Like Human Beings. Busting Down Walls. Having Fun.

One of these days, I might actually be good at this job. But only because I learn from people who are already good at this job.