It’s time to make school closures due to Covid an absolute last resort

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I’ve been working on this post for the better part of a week, trying to decide if it was worth posting. Then yesterday a New York Times headline came across my phone and it nudged me to hit “Publish.”

“India’s Lost Generation: Lengthy pandemic shutdowns have led to young people leaving school altogether, dimming the prospects for the country’s economic future”

As some epidemiologists, who I’ll come back to later, warned us about in fall of 2020, lockdown policies have have had a devastating impact on young people and it’s time to take that policy decision, school closures due to Covid, off the table.

I should start by saying that I’m not on any of the popular teams. I’m not on team Blue or team Red. I wasn’t on team Lockdown or team Open Everything. I’m not on team This Isn’t Even As Bad As The Flu or team It’s Gonna Kill Everyone. I’m not on team The Vaccine Will Fix Everything or team The Vaccines Are Worse Than The Disease.

I’m just trying to figure out what is true, regardless of who said it or what I’m supposed to think. Given the current situation with Covid and what we’ve learned over the last two years, I think we should be done with much of the health theater in our schools, including mask mandates, disinfecting surfaces constantly, and especially school closures with remote learning.

Let’s start with the policy that probably creates and has created the most harm to our kids – closing schools and subsequently switching to remote learning. I suspect the vast majority of schools in the 20-21 school year closed at some point and switched to remote learning. Some schools never opened for in-person learning last year. Policymakers and school leaders had a wide range of considerations to balance when making the decision to got to remote learning, among them the health of the students, the students’ families, the teachers, and the community at large. At the time there was no vaccine and the consensus was that schools could be places where the virus would proliferate, driving community spread. (I say “consensus”, because there were health experts pointing out that this did not seem to be the case. Even recent research found schools being open either didn’t drive hospitalizations or, in counties where there was already substantial spread, it was inconclusive.) This combination of factors and fear of the virus drove schools to err on the side of preventing Covid transmission at all costs.

The lack of a vaccine or other treatment meant that the fear many felt was understandable. Nobody wanted to see a teacher get severely ill or die because a student brought it into their classroom. Nobody wanted to see a student pass it to another student and have the latter student’s parents get severely ill. Nobody wanted to see a kid get sick and die. The probability of these things happening was probably low, but again, I can understand concerns and the decisions that followed. I’m not saying that I would’ve chose differently had I been given the power to make those decisions.

However, the decision was not without real costs. Switching to remote learning or hybrid learning put huge amounts of pressure on the teachers to radically change their approach to instruction. Many teachers did this poorly. (I don’t mean to demean the teachers that did it poorly. It would be like yelling a kid for not being able to read well when you’ve only taught him half of the alphabet. It’s not their fault.) Many administrators left the profession. Many teachers left the profession. A profession that already had a high burnout rate had gasoline poured onto the fire. It wreaked havoc with the mental health of educators and put strain on their families. Ask any teacher and you’ll find near universal agreement that last year was hell.

But we did it. We did it because we were told that it was required for our safety and the safety of our communities, even if it might be hard on our students (and their parents, and us, and so on). What I saw teachers go through last year was nothing short of heroic.

And the costs obvious don’t stop with the impact on teachers.

Most importantly the switch to remote learning hurt all kids and it hurt the most disadvantaged kids the most. The kids who only eat meals at school. The kids without access to internet. The kids with broken families. The kids with many siblings who had to provide childcare for the younger siblings. The kids with parents who were essential workers and couldn’t work from their laptops (not that working from your laptop and helping your kids get through school was that easy either). The kids that got addicted to video games or pornography or Tik Tok. The kids that were abused and it was never reported because a teacher never saw any signs to report. The kids that didn’t have access to after school programs or or other services that helped keep them out of trouble. The kids that missed out on extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, homecoming, prom, graduation ceremonies, etc. I could go on, but you can see how at some level every kid was harmed by these policies.

Oh! And many didn’t learn that much.

Some people don’t like the term “lost learning”. They bristle at the suggestion that we just fill brains like buckets and what – we didn’t put as much in the buckets last year? Fine. Call skipping over a year of education and whatever is typically gained from that year whatever you want to call it. The irony is that many of the teachers that quibble over the term “lost learning” are the ones that will make arguments like “it’s not what or how much students learn, it’s all the other things that students get from school that are important.” Well, students lost out on that stuff too. Regardless of what we name it, we will be reckoning with the consequences as a society for years to come.

As I mentioned, it’s not as if the “well-off kids” got out of this unscathed. Depression and anxiety were on the rise before the pandemic. I remember having many conversations with counselors about it in the years leading up to March of 2020. The school closures accelerated anxiety and depression for many students and initiated it for many others who had not previously struggled with their mental health. (Which, remember, is physical health. Sometimes in the conversations around policy we forget that. As if Covid is a real health problem and depression isn’t. As if Covid is the only thing that kills people or causes suffering.) For example, Kooper Davis was a high school senior from New Mexico, with no history of depression, and committed suicide in late 2020 in large part do to the downward spiral caused by the disruption to school and football. In the summer of 2020 the mental health of young people became so bad that one in four people aged 18-24 had seriously considered suicide. In December of 2020 in Massachusetts, emergency departments saw four times more children in psychiatric crisis. The data demonstrate a massive uptick in young people struggling with mental health, but that’s only the slice of suffering that can be turned into a data point. For example, it doesn’t account for the parents’ suffering as they watch their child suffer.

The decision is not weighing “public health” versus “students’ lost learning.”

It’s “public health” versus “students’ health + lost learning.”

The most frustrating thing is that we knew this in the summer of 2020. However, anyone that thought that schools should stay open because of all the benefits schools provide were written off as people who weren’t taking the virus seriously and didn’t care if people died. And it wasn’t just your MAGA-hat-wearing-election-was-a-fraud-and-Obama-wasn’t-born-in-the-US uncle who thought schools should stay open. In October 2020 epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued against locking down society and for a model called “focused protection”. In this model schools would generally not close. They were immediately labeled as fringe epidemiologists and accused of wanting the virus to “rip” through society. None of this was true. In fact, a recent email leak revealed that the head of the NIH said as much in an email to Dr. Fauci. He called the authors “fringe epidemiologists” and called for a “quick and devastating public take down of its premises.”

I digress. But my point is that throughout this pandemic one approach has been sanctioned and adopted as if there were no other alternatives worth considering because all “serious” people supported the sanctioned approach. This simply isn’t true. And hindsight shows us that we did real damage with these policies.

But we can change our approach going forward. Nearly anyone that wants to be vaccinated, including kids, can be vaccinated. We are much closer to herd immunity. Kids, thank god, continue to be unlikely to suffer severe illness. While we educators are not doctors, we still might consider adopting the principle of “First, do no harm.” If we do that then I think shutting down schools and remote learning should be a thing of the past.

The arguments for continuing with the policy of shut downs based on community transmission are exceedingly far-fetched. Given that the vaccines are very effective at preventing severe disease and death we are left with wild hypotheticals as justification for closing schools. For example, maybe a student will catch Covid at school, bring it home to their parents, they might be unable to get vaccinated because they’re immunosuppressed, and they’ll get a severe case of Covid. Or maybe a student will pass the virus to another student, he or she will visit a grandparent in a nursing home, the vaccinated grandparent might still be at high risk because of their age, they’ll get sick, and then spread it through the nursing home. Or maybe leaving schools open will be the thing that nudges hospital capacity over the edge.

I will grant that things like this might happen. Actually, if the numbers are large enough, they will happen. But we must remember the following:

By shutting down schools we are imparting certain harm on our students in exchange for prevention of an exceedingly unlikely possible harm on others.

There is one exception to this. If the number of staff absent reaches a critical level then schools may need to temporarily close. Likewise, if the number of students in attendance drops to a threshold that the day no longer “counts” then closing may be the only option. This would be similar to situations in the past in which flu has spread through a school or district, forcing a closure. These two situations are distinctly different from using a metric like community spread. The former situation could also be alleviated to an extent if state health departments adopted the five-day quarantine guideline instead of a ten-day quarantine, given the CDC’s updated guidance, or even allowing teachers back when they have a negative antigen test. And they don’t require a switch to remote learning. We must keep in mind that for many kids there’s no difference between remote learning and a day off – except that one has academic consequences.

I recognize that leaders have difficult, often impossible, decisions in which there is no good answer. I don’t mean to criticize them. I just hope that they have the humility to consider what I’ve laid out above and change course if they find it compelling. We need to have grace with each other, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique the decisions of decision makers and implore to make different ones. We can do this without being rude, ungrateful, or antagonistic. In fact, if we truly hope to change anyone’s mind, we must.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Part 3)

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The first two parts of this series were created using Adobe Spark Page. I found while creating this third part that most of what was in it was text, and that a more stable place to host it was probably my blog. Hence, here it is. I’d encourage you to check out Part 1 and Part 2, if only briefly, before reading this part. 


We see in the last few chapters of Part I of the book that System 1 is a story teller. This system helps you make a coherent narrative of the world. This, like most things, has positive and negative aspects. I think the shortcomings of this tendency are important to understand.

The first problem with System one is that it’s relatively easy to manipulate it, especially since so much of it happens automatically. Take the following example from the book. Read the two words below.

Bananas

Vomit

In the second or two it took you to read those words and immediately following reading them you had a reaction. Some of it was physical, like the hair on your arms probably stood, your sweat glands were activated, your heart rate went up a bit. But you also likely sketched out a story that involved bananas causing the vomit (or in some other way being connected to the vomit). You did this automatically as system one is attempting to fit the input into a coherent story.

This, like most things, has positive and negative repercussions. It means that we are likely to seek out and find information that fits with the story system one is telling us. “Sally is lazy.” “James is smart.” “Maria is a hard worker.” Once we’ve put these narratives in our mind, system one tries to find information that fits the narrative. And while system two should be the hero here, always evaluating the assumptions of system one, it turns out that system two is a bit lazy. It’s much easier for system two to just go with the narrative. It takes cognitive work to constantly be evaluating everything system one is telling you, so often times that work is avoided by system two.

The key here is that we are aware of the narratives and stories we have in our minds. We need to be on the look out for information that both confirms our narrative (to be sure it does in fact confirm the narrative and that we aren’t overlooking something) and negates the narrative (so that we can change the narrative in our minds to better represent reality).

One major theme of the associative machine is this: when there is some sort of external input to your brain you’re not consciously aware of what’s going on in your brain. When you see an object or hear a sound or experience a feeling, you’re flooded with ideas which in turn activates more ideas. Only a few will pop up in consciousness and this flood of ideas is largely out of your control.

What does this mean for teaching?

When we deal with students we have to remember that fact. Much of the time they (and we, whether we care to admit it or not) are at the mercy of system one. Actions that you take or that other students take in the classroom can set off chain reactions in a student’s brain. The result could be positive or negative. You can imagine starting a lesson with some sort of introduction that primes students for learning, giving them some ideas that ignite other ideas (you might call this engaging prior knowledge) or put them in a positive mood. The latter idea is from Eric Jensen and is also described in the book and that is that being in a good mood helps your brain be prepared to understanding new concepts. You could also imagine taking some action that results in an unwanted behavior. The key to dealing with these behaviors is figuring out what the underlying cause of the behavior is. What is triggering their associative machine to result in the behavior?

The last note I want to make here is that we need to help students understand what’s going on in their brain. Just as I encourage anyone reading this to try to keep a check on the automaticity of system one, we should find ways to help students do this as well. I think doing activities that encourage metacognition is a critical step in that direction, but that’s a topic for another day.


Image is “Thinking” by Lee Thatcher. The original work can be found here.

The Absurdity of One-to-One Initiatives

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As comes up every year, someone in our department suggested we go one-to-one. Of course, this sparked lively debate. So much so that do to the frequency of these debates and the cycle of outrage I invariably go through after each one, I’m motivated to write out the multitude of reasons that going one-to-one with textbooks is an absurd idea.

First, let’s talk about costs. A good textbook costs close to $100. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on how many you buy. If a kid has five classes, that means it’s going to cost roughly $500 dollars per student to go one-to-one textbooks. And it’s not just $500 one time. Of course not, because in a few years much of what’s inside the books will be dated. They will need to be updated and some of them will be so obsolete they’ll need to be replaced entirely. Do we want to go through the up front costs and then the future costs to update and replace them?

Second, let’s talk about letting teenagers carry around several hundred dollars in textbooks. Have you seen the average teenager’s bedroom? Of course not! There’s too much stuff on the horizontal surfaces (and maybe even the vertical surfaces) to actually see any substantial part of the room. Are we going to let kids, who can hardly get a dirty tissue to the trash can across the room, be responsible for hundreds of dollars worth of school property? I think this is a nightmare that no administrator or teacher wants to deal with.

Third, I’d ask you if the cost is worth the benefit. Sure, textbooks have lot’s of knowledge in them. Give students books corresponding to the subjects they’re learning allows them to easily and quickly look up information, helpful diagrams, maps, and other media, but don’t we have teachers for that? Teachers have much of this knowledge, and if they don’t, then they can look it up in their book and deliver it to the students. What’s the point of a teacher if all the information is easily available to the students? Sure, the best teachers might use the books in coordination with their teaching ability to create near sublime learning experiences, but this would surely only be the most motivated of teachers, not the norm.

Fourth, it would be a logistical nightmare. Suppose your high school has 1000 students. Then we are talking about THOUSANDS of textbooks to keep track of. Not just keep track of, but record those that go missing and those that are damaged. Then schools have to make determinations about how much the damages cost. Then who pays for it? The students? What if it’s an accident? What if the student can’t afford it? What if they get lost in a house fire? Who’s on the hook for the bill then? And who does this burden of tracking fall upon? The library? The administrators? The teachers? There’s no good options. And then, who fixes them? Do we offload this responsibility on the already short staffed library personnel? We’d probably have to hire somebody to spend part of their day repairing textbooks, so tack that on to the bottom line.

It seems clear that the costs of trying to put the these resources into the hands of each student almost certainly outweigh the benefits. But this fight will never die. Year after year we’ll continue to hear how we should “give students access to the tools they’ll be using when they leave us”. Given what I’ve outlined above, I can’t see the logic that results in this being a good idea.

Update: I should make something clear. This is purely satire. I am simply trying to make the argument that when it comes to discussions of 1 to 1 technology I think the problems that are brought up are often ones that we have solved in other contexts. This situation never came up in my department. And even if it had, I would never throw them under the bus like this publicly. Once again, this is purely satire.

We should always be learning something new

Last week I started auditing a class on Hapkido, which is a Korean martial art. A friend asked if I’d be interested in attending the once-a-week class with him and I said I would. Having never done any martial art at any time in my life (I don’t even think I’ve watched any of the Karate Kid movies in their entirety), I was nervous. However, partway through the class I realized that there is clear value in learning something completely new.

I want to list a few feelings I had, as I think they reminded me of what it’s like to be a learner, as an adult or a teenager.

  • I didn’t want to make any mistakes. When the instructor demonstrated something, I wanted to do it perfectly. This notion is ridiculous because, as the instructor also pointed out, it takes thousands of repetitions before something becomes muscle memory. For as much as I preach the importance of mistakes in learning, I was shocked at how somewhere in my guts I still didn’t want to make them.
  • I didn’t want the instructor to come by me. Or at least if he did I wanted to be working on my right side (which I thought I was better at). I was afraid he’d find something I was doing wrong. Which I consciously knew would not be bad as it would get corrected and then I’d improve.
  • I compared myself to the people around me, unconsciously ranking myself. Better than that person, worse than those two, etc.
  • Frustration. I’ve never been particularly coordinated and I was consistently frustrated at knowing in my mind what I wanted my body to do, but struggling to make my body do it.

I walked off the mat at the end of class and my mind was reeling.


“Now I know why students are apprehensive to ask questions.”

“Now I understand better why a student might get uncomfortable while I hover over them watching them work out a problem.”

“I have to constantly remind myself to embrace the difficulty. That’s where growth comes from, but it’s difficult to do in practice.”

“Having an instructor that recognized we were all learning was incredibly helpful. He created an atmosphere where mistakes were not viewed as setbacks, but part of the process.”


My main takeaway was that these are feelings I need to constantly grapple with. I need to try to put myself in situations in which I’m the learner, with relative frequency. It helps me better understand where my students are coming from and I think will ultimately help me become a better teacher.

Also, here’s one more thought that has popped in my head recently and probably doesn’t need an entire blog post, but fits with the theme in this one. I’m in my fifth year teaching precalculus, AP calculus, and algebra II and I can feel myself having less empathy with my students, with people learning the concepts for the first time. The first year I taught these courses I think I had a better understanding of their struggles as I was solidifying my understanding of the concepts prior to teaching them as well. I’m not entirely sure what this means for my teaching now, but I think awareness of it is important.

My Brain on Lesson Planning

Okay. I’ve a got a few minutes. Where is what I did last year? Ah, that’s right. We did that activity, with some direct instruction following. Seems like I didn’t quite the point across when I closed the lesson. Like the kids still struggled with parts of this on the quiz. Maybe I should change it. Maybe I should just start from scratch. Did I leave myself a note or anything?

Check Google doc for comments

Nothing. Good job me. I’ve got to do a better job of that. But sometimes it’s tough to find time. Yeah but it pays off and saves time eventually. Like it would be saving time right now. Okay. I get it. Anyway. I don’t have time to totally revamp it. How can I tweak this to make it work better? Maybe I’ll start with a more open ended question. I read that’s a more effective way to start a lesson then just with direct instruction. Okay. So what’s the question or task?

Goes on the Internet. Checks the MTBoS search engine. Writes down 4 ideas.

Well the first two are probably too much work/time. I might be able to tweak the third though. That would give students a chance to discuss some solving methods before we do the lesson. But I know Sam won’t participate. Man, what is his deal? What is my deal with him? Did I make him mad at some point? I need to talk to him and try improve that relationship. Maybe he’d be more willing to work with his peers. But, he’s doing fine in class so maybe I should just leave him alone. Ugh. I’ll sort that out tomorrow. Anyway. I think this will work. But it’s probably going to take longer than last year. Yeah it’s definitely going to take longer. I really only wanted to spend a day on this. But if they learn this better because I spent more time on it, will it pay off in the future? I don’t think so. It’s not really a topic that builds on itself. But shouldn’t we try to teach every topic really well? Even if it doesn’t get built on later? Maybe. Otherwise why am I teaching it? Well some students will get it and remember it, just fewer than if we spent more time. Okay. So let’s do it, we’ll reduce the assignment a couple of problems and carve out 5 or 10 minutes tomorrow to wrap up anything we don’t get to.

Phone rings

“Yes, I’ll send her down when she gets to class. Thanks. Bye”

She really needs to be in class today. I need to remember to make a copy of the notes for her. She won’t be able to make up the discussion we’ll be having but I guess there’s no way around that.

Glances at papers to grade next to the phone

Ugh. I guess those aren’t going to get done today. Maybe I can do those on my prep tomorrow. Dang. I need to finish that lesson. I think I’m ready to update the weekly plans. I need to make sure I can accommodate this for my autistic student. Did I write down those notes on him yesterday? Nope.

Writes down notes in observation document

Okay. I can make this work for him as well. I need to remember to go through this the morning before we do it.

Adds it to to-do list

Well that should be all set. Just need to look at my other two classes and do the same thing… I hope those don’t need revision. They probably do. I mean how can you assume that they’re in their best form? You’ve been teaching for 5 years. They may not be but they should be in good enough form. They’ll have to be because I don’t have time to rework either of them. Man I hope we have school tomorrow. If we don’t then I can just……..

What I wish I could tell my students

Here’s a list of few things I want to say to students, but am not quite sure how to do it. I’ve said of some of these in whole class contexts and variations of some to individuals. But I’ve noticed in my career that sometimes I notice things about students that are difficult to tell them directly. Maybe it’s the natural human aversion to confrontation, I’m not sure, but here’s the list:

  • You don’t have to go to a four year college if you have no idea what you want to do with your life.
  • If you don’t get into that school, your life is not over. You will get out of college what you put into it.
  • I understand that you’re a bright student. There’s no need to demonstrate that to me and your peers at every opportunity. In fact, you risk alienating some of your peers if you keep doing this.
  • Your ACT or SAT score does not define you, as important as it seems right now.
  • You’re in a controlling relationship. You deserve to be in a relationship in which you don’t feel like the thumb of power is constantly pressing on you.
  • I understand that you’re introverted. The ability to communicate well is an essential life skill. When someone says “hi” to you, you have be able to respond with, at minimum, “hi”.
  • Learning is not a competition, so when you get your quiz back, resist the urge to see how you “stack up” against your peers. (Okay, I’ve actually said this one.)
  • You can break the cycle of poverty in your family, but not unless you make some significant changes to your approach to life and the people in your life.
  • You’re addicted to your phone. Not in like a “haha, I’m trying to talk you so stop snap chatting” kind of way. More like a, “I’m really concerned about how this is going to negatively affect the rest of your life if you can’t get it under control” kind of way.
  • You’re in “regular” math class (as opposed to honors) but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an engineer, computer scientist, etc. In fact, I think you’d be a damn good one.
  • The pressure your parents are putting on you to perform is unnecessary and probably doing more harm than good. Work hard, but don’t cry over test scores, college applications, or an A-.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten some, but this is a pretty good list. Some of these are positive, but I struggle with how to explain them to students in a straightforward way. One that doesn’t sound preachy. I’m curious as to how other teachers approach situations like this with their students.

6 Reasons This is My Favorite Lesson

I want to share what might be the best lesson I’ve created and a few reasons why.

I actually wrote about this a couple years ago but since we’re doing it right now I thought it useful to reflect on and share it again.

This lesson came from the following problem I was struggling with:

I had spent a lot of time thinking about how to help students understand the connection between trig ratios on the unit circle and the graphs of trig functions on the Cartesian plane. Despite a couple activities and practice I was convinced, mainly through questioning, that they didn’t fully understand it.

My solution to this was to make a giant unit circle and cartesian plane and have students use them to work out problems. This would allow us to literally walk to specific angles and equivalent places on the cartesian plane. The hope was that this would help students solidify the connection between the two.

The details of how the activity works are in the original post and the materials are linked at the end of this post, so I want to emphasize the aspects of the lesson that really make it effective, in a convenient list.

Assessment

The activity is broken into two parts. The practice portion and the assessment portion. The assessment requires students, working in pairs, to come into the hallway and work through five problems (like these). This portion is vital for the following reasons.

Like any assessment, it helps me know what they know.

It makes students take the practice seriously. The assessment mirrors what the practice rounds were like. They take it seriously and practice until they’re confident.

Students work in pairs, sometimes disagree, and then must convince each other of their reasoning. Tremendous mathematical conversations come from this time.

It puts students in a position in which the teacher is there, but can’t help. This is true of assessments in general, but the format of this one means students must convince themselves and each other that their answer is “their final answer”.

No calculator. No notes.

On the assessment, and likewise on the practice, students cannot use a calculator, notes, their unit circle, or anything besides their brains and a whiteboard. This means students don’t have any crutches with which to rely on. These problems are not algorithmic. Each one is slightly different from the other ones. This means that the only way to be successful is to truly understand what is going on in the math.

Engagement

This is my third year doing this activity and every year there’s nearly full engagement. Now, this is precalc and while I wouldn’t say that all of these students want to be there, it is an elective. But it’s difficult for me to get this level of engagement from them.

This is, in part, because they know there’s a test coming after they’ve practiced. But I think it’s also because each problem sparks at least a little bit of curiosity. “How do we figure this out?” Initially many students don’t have a clue about how to approach something like sec(2pi/3) with only their brains and a whiteboard. But with a good understanding of trig they can figure it out.

And figuring it out is satisfying. Students are proud of themselves when they solve one of these problems correctly. I love seeing high fives in my classes, and this is one of those activities where they happen.

Embodied Cognition

I’ve written about embodied cognition before so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that it’s incredibly valuable if you can incorporate it effectively. There is something fundamentally different from paper and pencil when you can stand there with a student inside of a unit circle and discuss these problems. It’s something that is hard to describe, but once you’ve tried it you clearly see the value.

Purposeful practice without a book assignment

A few weeks ago students initially learned how to do these problems via a lesson and practice problems. If that was effective, then I wouldn’t have needed to do this activity. What ends up happening in this activity is that students end up doing a bunch of practice problems, that I never assigned! I just tell them they can do as many practice rounds as they feel they need. Then they work until they have convinced themselves they’ve mastered it.

Partners

The test and practice require students to work in pairs. This is incredibly valuable as students are constantly conversing and helping each other understand. Once again, the knowledge that there’s an assessment plays into this, but who cares? From my observations students are rarely begrudgingly woking through these problems. They seem to enjoy them.

I probably see more learning and teaching happening between the students in this activity than any other lesson I do, for any class.


I understand that without seeing it happen it might be difficult for you to implement this. I’ve included some images below to give you an idea of the set up. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have. I’d encourage you to look for opportunities to use embodied cognition in your classes as I think it can be an incredibly useful teaching tool.

Here are the resources for doing the activity

Description Sheet

Possible Problem Bank

Practice Cards

Assessment Cards (Yeah, I’m not posting these on the web. I, shockingly, sometimes have students read my blog. But if you reach out to me I would be happy to email them to you and save you the time of making them.)

Assessment Rubric

X-axis “Tick Marks”

“Everything Springs from That”

I don’t listen to many political podcasts. In fact, only one. Dan Carlin’s show, Common Sense. In his latest podcast he interviews James Burke, a science historian, documentary creator, broadcaster and all around smart dude.

This episode flirted with politics, but was more focused on how technology affects society and how the rate of change often has unforeseen ripples. It’s a fascinating interview, but the best part for me comes at the end of the interview. Dan presents Mr. Burke with a hypothetical (which I’m paraphrasing).

Suppose the leaders of the country call you up and ask for your advice. What would you tell them in regards to the absolute most important thing to focus on in the future?

“I’d say put a massive amount of effort into the educational system. Everything springs from giving people the kind of education that allows them to think more clearly and express themselves more clearly. Everything springs from that.”

I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately. I recognize that might be like pointing out that a historian has been thinking about history a lot lately. But I’m talking about the big picture of how we educate our society. With the appointment of charter school evangelist Betsy Devos to the head of the Department of Education and recent moves by the Michigan congress to weaken the teaching profession and cut funding, I worry greatly about where we are headed.

The election of Donald Trump, the proliferation of fake news, the gravitation towards soundbites, the lack of empathy, and constant decrease in social capital mean that having a society that can’t think critically could be (already is?) disastrous. If there was any time in our history that we should be focused on education, it should be now.

We can’t have a society of mindless drones that will believe the headline and first two lines of any article that comes across their news feed. We can’t have a society that can’t take another person’s perspective. We can’t have a society that fears change. We can’t have a society that doesn’t understand the value of civil discourse.

An education system that’s working on all cylinders can help prevent this.

We should be focused on how to graduate great teachers. We should be focused on how to help teachers become great. We should be looking to other education models and schools that we want to emulate. We should be focused on making teaching a profession that our best and brightest want to pursue. We should be working to get away from standardized test scores as the sole measurement of a quality education.

As Mr. Burke mentions in the podcast, if we put as much energy and money into education as we did into the Apollo project it could have countless dividends for our society.

Order – How Mathematics is Life

Humans are in a constant pursuit of order. We try to develop schemas to help us deal with frequently occurring situations. We constantly look for patterns. We try to make our lives somewhat predictable.

The brain doesn’t like to think. Thinking is hard. So the brain naturally gravitates towards pattern finding.

This is mathematics.

Mathematicians look around the world for patterns. Looking for truth. They take things they know to be true, and build on them. Constantly growing the body of patterns we know to be true.

The difference between me noticing that whenever it’s cloudy out I’m a bit gloomy and that the derivative of a parabolic function is linear, is that the latter is true always. It’s a fact that exists regardless belief, mood, perspective, or measurement.


I wrote the idea for this post down months ago, but it seemed relevant as this week I embarked on teaching my algebra II class how to factor polynomials. Something that nobody does, with the exception of math teachers and their students. (And I mean that quite literally. I went to the twittersphere and came up empty.) My advice to students was similar to other seemingly obscure content we learn in mathematics.

Treat these problems like puzzles and look for the patterns.

Because pattern finding, curiosity, and creativity in problem solving are all skills that are valuable and can be improved with practice.

Nobody does a puzzle and while they’re doing it says, “This is never going to help me in my life.” I don’t claim to be an expert on the motivation of puzzlers, but I did puzzles just to figure them out. I enjoyed the mental exercise.

This is how I want my students to approach math problems. I want them to enjoy and appreciate the pursuit of solving the problem. I know that’s abstract and might be difficult for teenagers to grab onto, but I’m not sure of any other justification for some of the concepts we teach.

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Why I wouldn’t tell my kid to become a teacher

teacher-309403_1280Right now, in the Michigan legislature, they are working to pass a bill that would gut the defined benefit retirement system for newly hired teachers, replacing it with a 401k system.

And it would cost tax payers $28–$33 billion over the next 30 years ($1.6–$3.8 billion over the next 5 years).They’ve been working on this for more than a decade, but this is a bold step in a direction that would basically finish it off.


Shortly after I hired in to my school district, in 2011, I had to choose how I wanted my retirement to work. I didn’t know anything about anything in regards to my retirement so I did about ten minutes of research and made a selection. I’m currently in the hybrid program, which is a combination of a defined benefit and 401k plan. I also

I’m fine with this. I realize that if I’d hired in ten years earlier that my retirement benefits would be significantly better, but it could be worse. For instance, I have up to 90% of my health insurance premiums covered when I retire, assuming I continue to pay 3% of my pay throughout my career.

However, if I was hired in the fall of 2012, I’d have no health insurance after I retired. Essentially all I could do would be to put money into a 401k that is designated for health insurance premiums after I retire.

Welcome to the real world!

Okay. Fine. I understand that defined benefit retirements aren’t that common. I understand that most people aren’t going to have their health insurance premiums subsidized after they retire.

However, that used to be part of the deal. A career in teaching wasn’t an awful finiancial decision because you knew that, despite dealing with a low salary for a large chunk of your career, you would be covered on the back end.

The health insurance guarantee is gone. Now the legislature is working hard to end what’s left of any defined benefit retirement for new hires.

What’s left?

I understand that you don’t go into public service to get rich. I’m fine with that. But low wages, no retirement, and no retirement health insurance makes this gig a tough sell.

Oh, I almost forgot. My out-of-pocket for health insurance tripled this year.

Tripled.

And there’s no sign of these trends reversing any time soon.

So yes, if an 18 year old kid asked me what I thought about becoming a teacher, I would say to take a long, hard look. It’s not what it once was. The legislature would be wise to pay attention to what this will do to the profession in the years and decades to come.

Finally, the burden is also on them to explain to taxpayers how this is a fiscally responsible decision for our state.