You Suck

Soaking Up The Sun At Sox Park
Only at Sox Park does a Brooklyn Dodgers hat almost start a fight.

Took my oldest son to a White Sox game this weekend, to celebrate his 21st birthday. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and great seats for him to watch his favorite team. I’m a Cubs guy, but I like baseball just in general. And I love my son. So we go to Sox games together. With seats on the third-base side I knew we were sitting in the sun for a day game at Comiskey, so I broke out my Brooklyn Dodgers hat to keep the sun off my head. Can’t be heading back to school on Monday with a sunburned dome, right? A few innings in, walking back from the restroom to my seat, I hear a voice from behind me: “Look at that guy wearing the queer Cubbie blue hat. And the queer Dodger blue hat.”

Really? That’s the best you can do? “Queer?” I mean, aside from being an unacceptable slur, it’s just… lazy.


My students. They are passionate, but not always about math. At my previous school their NBA discussions sounded like the barbershop boxing scene (NSFW, obvi) from “Coming To America”.

“Awww, LaBron sucks.” “No, Kobe sucks.”

These are 2 of the top probably 10 best players in the history of the NBA. Which means they are 2 of probably 10 of the best at the game in the history of man walking upright and drawing breath.

But yeah, the guy that’s not your guy “sucks”. OK.

This frustrates me to no end. Make an argument, and back it up. Or: Shut Up. Because you sound stupid.


The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years.

Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, page eight

The Standards of Mathematical Practice. They are the linchpin of almost everything I’m trying to get done with my students in class. I try to create opportunities for them to persist in problem solving, to model with mathematics, to attend to precision, to reason abstractly and quantitatively, and to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. All sound like important skills, right?

We hit a couple of the SMPs every day with our bellringers. As an example, the Would You Rather task from last Thursday:

Would You Rather Brownies
Image via That’s a website put together by John Stevens, co-author of The Classroom Chef.  

Is that a silly question? Sure. Any one could guess A or B. They’d have a 50-50 chance of being right. And that would be a very large waste of instructional time. But the real payoff comes when we get factions of class arguing against each other for their position (Math Fight!). That is an excellent use of our time.

To come up with an answer and justify it, they had to model the remaining portion of brownies (probably with a fraction), calculate what portion of the whole pan would each friend get in each scenario (more fraction operations), and convert to a decimal to compare amounts. A lot of work. A lot of persistence, actually. And right now we’re in that place where all they want is 1) to be told how to do the problem, 2) the homework, and 3) gimme my points. Right now, they want to dump out of the bellringers altogether. They feel it takes too much time away from the lesson presentation. I feel the skills they are building are just as important as the mechanics of working the skills practice, and will help them power through the practice work when they get stuck.

I am very stubborn. The bellringers stay. They are building a problem-solving toolkit that my students will need way after they’ve forgotten my name.

When are my kids gonna have to solve a log equation after high school? Hell, I don’t know. Probably never. But I guarantee you they’re gonna have to take a stand sometime and convince somebody of their position. Or at least not sound like a fool while they try.

Let’s give it a shot, shall we? I’ll help.

Playing Favorites

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Mrs. Dull and I serve on the Marriage Prep team at our parish. If you are Catholic you are probably familiar with what used to be called Pre-Cana classes. Back in the day it was a weekend-long session with multiple speakers, several opportunities for table discussions, lunch with your betrothed and several other couples, and at the end: a certificate.

These days it’s a 9-to-5, one-day event, designed to facilitate opportunities for the couples to examine their attitudes and opinions toward several key aspects of a healthy, long-term marriage. With a certificate. And a champagne toast at the end.

Two couples facilitate the sessions. Last time we ran the prep class, the husband of our co-hosting couple prefaced his session on Money by talking about Playing The Long Game, in particular having the discipline to start saving for an emergency fund, major purchases, and retirement while still relatively young. The trick is to recognize that you are planning for years and decades, not just the days and weeks until the next paycheck.

"Let me put these rumors to rest. They are true." Image via
“Let me put these rumors to rest. They are true.” Image via

As a teaching philosophy, I’m a big fan of the Long Game. How can you not be? Even the Movie Teachers don’t win over their hard cases overnight. My Las Vegas algebra coach was fond of reminding us that after 9 or 10 years of school, no student was going to instantly love math because they had one of us as a teacher. There is no magic wand or secret ingredient.

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Image via quickmeme.

Taking a cue from one of my Twitter follows I’ve been using themed bellringers this year. The rotation goes:

Monday – Estimation 180, Tuesday – Which One Doesn’t Belong?, Wednesday – Any Questions?, Thursday – Would You Rather?

The intent was to get my math-averse (let’s be honest, “school-averse”) students talking about math, thinking and writing and reasoning, to notice and wonder, even if it took a while. Hey, I’m a Cub fan. I’m used to waiting.

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Image via Rick Kaempfer’s blog.

Beautiful thing is, it’s starting to pay dividends. The other day, working through Solving Systems of Equations by Elimination, I showed them the following system:

x+y=12; x-y=2

I asked them to copy it into their notes, and to write down “What Do I Notice?” and “What Do I Wonder?” then to answer those questions in their notes.

About half were able to put down something like “I notice the y has a positive in one equation and a negative in the other”. (This sounds promising). For those who were stuck, I said, “Hey, you guys have been training yourselves to Notice and Wonder all year long. Tuesday’s bellringer, Which One Doesn’t Belong? – you guys are noticing how the images are the same or different. On Wednesdays, you are Wondering like mad when you come up with a question out of a picture I show you.”

Now we’re pushing the ball forward a little bit. These days I get way more legit observations and fewer questions like “What kind of shoes is that guy wearing?” or “Why are you asking us about basketball?”

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“How tall IS that guy?!?!”…. Yep, now we’re talking Questions.

Early on this semester, one of my students asked me, “Why do you teach us like this?”

I didn’t answer him, just went on with the activity, but I’m banking on some of them buying into Math being more than just memorizing facts and making the right squiggles to get a silly letter on a piece of paper.

But: is it helping?

This week one of my students told her aide (ASL translator, actually) that WODB is her favorite bellringer of the week. Why? It turns out she really enjoys finding out what her classmates are thinking when they decide which image or expression doesn’t belong.

Later that night I was on the #connectedtl Twitter chat. It’s fast-paced, loaded with powerhouse minds. I just try to keep up. Here was question 4:

And here’s me:

Which led to a side convo:

So why the themed bellringers? Why ask the kids to think and reason instead of giving them a couple of practice equations they’ll ignore, or copy, or both?
Here’s why. Over the long haul, the students that buy in are building real critical thinking skills. More than ever before, we are attending to mathematical precision, in our language and in our work. We are making arguments and defending our arguments to others. We are reasoning. We are SMPing ourselves senseless.

Is it paying off?

At least for that one student, on that one day.  “My favorite bellringer”. Seriously.

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Today, I’ll take it.