Friday, December 19, 2014

Thanks to Forward Together - Green Energy Initiative, Solar

Forward Together just put together a little PR video about the grant that allowed Juda to install Phase 2 of their solar array (all project management done by students).  The applicant has to be a teacher on the grant so I was too much of a main character, when the students should have been, but it came out great (outside of how old I look).

Again - every school, every student should experience this during their K-12 schooling -- it can be done.  It is problem solving, it is real world.  It is just selecting great projects over good curriculum.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Hour of Code

So there are times where you just take advantage of opportunities and this week there is the Hour of Code.  And since my school doesn't have a Computer Science Teacher I try integrate those skills into our math curriculum  - and this week makes an easy start.  In the past I have had units using Alice and it has always been a good project -- but the Hour of Code seems to be a much better way to start.

Programming is a chance to apply our problem solving skills that we continually work on in math.  I think it is great fit with Algebra through Pre-Calculus.  And curriculum-wise I am willing to trade a couple of topics for the students to have this skill.

It is not too late to be part - just go to\learn.  It is worth an hour of time from the math curriculum.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Teaching with technology versus using technology to teach

Was at the WTI conference today, it was a good day -- a good PD day.  It really made me think how I use and need to use technology for creating students ready for the world.  My prior belief was reaffirmed --- the device is not important, the project is.  Devices are simply tools - it is the set up of the project and direction (or in my case lack of direction - I like making students decide their project's fate) of the work.

The keynote, Kristen Swanson, spoke about what learning really is.  Students doing problems in class then on a test is not learning; the point of education is "transfer" and that is what I need to continue to locate for my students.  A way to use the math, the problem solving on real world projects.  To take the skills and use them in a context outside my classroom.

A really good problem, with a really messy answer and a chance for students to attack and learn.  Empower students to be persistent and let them own their project.  That is the goal I am walking away with - get the problem and give them the tech.

Use the tech to focus on instant access, to find real authentic audiences -- that empowers the students to work on the problem to show persistence, to do - which all means to learn.

I feel re-energized to find ways to take the math to the world.  Because I want to make sure my students are able to use their skills in the world.  I want them to be problem solvers, so I want that transfer (I also want them to be ready for college math - so again it is a blend).

Finally the keynote spoke about unleashing student's superpowers, which made me think what is mine - and I think mine is my commitment to finding the messy problems, leaving it open ended with multiple solutions.  The problems and projects that stretch students.  My students would call it Captain Annoying most likely at first - but in the end it makes them (and me) better.

Again, overall a good PD day.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Best Algebra 2 course

So I have been putting a lot of thought into what makes a great Algebra 2 course (or maybe just a better course than we currently offer).  How it aligns to standards but more importantly how it makes sure students are ready for secondary math and career.

My school has the sequence of Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2 -- an important fact when reading what I am considering/debating/generally thinking about.  Also they may be named by the "college admission's math Triforce names" but it really is more of a Math 1, 2, 3 - integrating Algebra and Geometry in each course.

My courses proceed more slowly and have a greater emphasis on understanding than a lot of syllabuses I have reviewed.  That coupled with high expectations of learning material once and using often means my year begins with very little review ---- cause what they have done they know and relearning (re reviewing) does not need to happen.

And this year after 6 weeks - I am already about ~40% completed with our Algebra 2 text (because it simply has so much review).  This pace did not happen all at once, it happened slowly.  This process has taken 6 years (when I started nine years ago - this material took nearly 6 months).  Now when we do a topic/subject in Algebra 1 or Geometry we commit to learning it deeply (and thus slowly).  We learn, understand something once and then use it recursively.  And now I don't re-teach Algebra 1 or basic Geometry or Trig in Algebra 2 and that raises the question - what should I be doing now?

Hind sight is always 20/20 -- and I could have easily done the material covered in Algebra 2 in less time - but now I am getting the exciting thoughts of other things I can do.  Now in the past my Math 1,2,3 sequence has just covered the basics of statistics and probability.  Which my text does a poor job with too.

Like a lot of Algebra 2 texts there is review of exponents, elimination/substitution/graphing -- what I really want to add is real life stats and probability (more than the odds of pulling a red ball out of a urn).   So now I am searching for materials to integrate....

And as I find materials - I will start making changes, because it is just part of the long term mission to improve each course each year - by just a little (2% better every year is my mantra).  Because true improvement in curriculum takes years not months.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Projects or matrices

So I spent 12 years working as an Engineer - designing packaging equipment, doing projects, managing people -- high level responsibility - pay matched.   And guess what?  I never did matrices - not one single one.  Yet it is a requirement for high school now in most Algebra 2 courses?  Does that make your typical Algebra 2 student better that they know Cramer's rule?  Or are we (teachers) just making ourselves feel good by having students pump and dump (memorize and forget) one more thing.

Don't get me wrong - I think it has a place in high school - PreCalculus, a class for students who want a STEM career but if I have to really make students understand matrices in Algebra 2- that will take at least 5 class periods - nearly 3% of my year.

I can teach about stocks and its math, loans or how to use math to solve open ended problems - but that takes time. So....  how valuable are matrices?  Because choices need to be made, and as a group we are picking matrices.

So are matrices more important than stocks (401k 403b anyone?) or loans (buying a house and car is a little more common than matrices)?  The point is we have a limited commodity - time!

There is simply not enough time.  And if I hear one more expert answer my question of how we are supposed to do it all - say "When you have a unified K-12 curriculum it will happen."  - I may seriously crap myself.

I love matrices- there is really vision for programming and problem solving with Cramer'r Rule.  Looking for patterns - using to simplify repetitive problems - but if you do it in 5 days in Algebra 2 do you make it to the level of discovery and struggle students need for growth as learners?

I keep thinking the experts forgot we have only 180 days when planning my curriculum  - which I lose at least 15 a year to trips, etc.  (and those trips need to happen).  So in 165 days in 4 years I have to teach and lead student's discovery of math's interconnections and uses - a standard every few days.  Ugh.

Now common core haters should not be smiling - we need a national set of standards and math does need multiple solutions not just memorization of algorithms.   We just need to make sure what was published in 2010 is not written in stone.  We need to allow for creativity and paradigm shifting thoughts -- they should be reviewed and revised every few years.  That is real progress.

When I was in industry my simple goal was slow constant sustainable growth - I never said lets be 15% better next year.  We moved for 2-3% growth year after year - and once you do that you get long term amazing results.  There is too much change too quickly - half the initiatives I have seen in my limited time of 9 years never got the chance to work - not enough time or belief by anyone that they would work.

So there - projects or matrices --  it is really the question of how we make problem solvers.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Organization -- Not enough, or too much?

Statement of fact - I am not the most "organized" teacher.  Maybe I could be - but time is a limited commodity, and I do not like trading teaching time for neat piles.  I also don't trade teaching time for homework checking time (on a daily basis), a type of "neat pile."  I now check homework once every few days; I used to work hard at checking the work but the longer I have taught - the less I check and the better my students do.

Some of that is simply gaining some experience - I look back and know I do better in year 3 than year 1.  But it is more than that too.  The experience between year 7 and year 9 is not nearly as dramatic.  So student performance is definitely effected by teacher experience but there is point where it does not have a substantial impact.  It then becomes how you the teacher lead the class - your expectations, what you demand of them.

In industry you only give power for decisions to those you trust - and then you manage.  It is the same in school - a 16 year old cannot be allowed to decide to not be part of school or do school.  It is a young person's job, and if they cannot handle the decision to "do school" - then the educator (the senior manager) needs to take over and push.  And that is a ton of work - 10% of my students take 75% of my time.

I may not be  "organized" but homework is not a cornerstone of what we do (in my math room).  We work bell to bell like it is our job.  It is non-traditional, but I do not worry about what my class should "look like" either.

We do math from beginning to end.  A student is given a plethora of chances to show mastery - but no one is allowed to sit idle.  I joke, kid, mentally push them to be part of the class - just being quiet will not save you.  And thus everyday, every student has to do math for 44 minutes.

It allows me to ignore the routine of other rooms.  It allows me to use homework as practice but not learning.  It allows me to push students to mastery - so passing means a student who can succeed mathematically in the world.

And that is powerful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More thans....

I have been putting a lot of thought into the impact teachers have on their students,  positive and negative, especially at high school level.  We are charged with teaching young adults in math, but we are really teaching them persistence and problem solving skills.   We are looking out for their future - arming them with the skills to succeed.

So every week when I am planning lessons for my courses -- I sit back and remind myself that teachers are more than:
   Spitters of facts
   Demanders of facts
   Discipline junkies
   Responsibility demanders.

I work for the students (not the 16 year old but the 27 year old future adult) -- and what my time machine tells me is the 27 year old wants to make the 16 year old ready for the world.

That is why I talk truly about the skills the world needs.   I worked for over a decade in a STEM capacity and never did Cramer's rule, simplified gigantic exponent expressions or graphed a hyperbola.  But the skills of thinking and researching how to find an answer to a problem I did do.  The skills of thinking and finding an answer I did use to graph a hyperbola.

So the what I am doing is important, but I am careful not to end on the slippery slope of saying Algebra 2 is real life skills by itself, for most students it is simply not true.  That is why I am stuck on the "more than" thought today -- I am prepping students for more than ACT or college math with Algebra 2.  I am making students who are able to not only do the basic facts to be successful in college math but also making them work on projects to make them prepared for their future.

More than....

Monday, September 1, 2014

End of pencil & paper homework?? Not yet......

So school starts in 2 days, volleyball is in a two day lull and I am reflecting on finishing touches for the school year.  And what I keep focusing on is how little homework seems to help students understand mathematics long term.  I see how they can quickly internalize a procedure and how rote practice can imprint a procedure but I wonder how to make homework a real learning and understanding tool.

I remember myself in High School - I was not interested in learning, I did the absolute minimum to get the grade I wanted, no care for understanding.  I know I am not the typical teacher, I did not like to play school.  But I was a pretty typical student for my class with respect to homework and caring how much I learned.  If I could take the first number divided by the end number in a word problem to get a correct answer that is what I did.  So why would I expect different from my students, that's why it is on me as the teacher.

On me?  I mean my homework and lessons must set the bar high enough that real understanding happens.  And that has meant less topics done longer, it has meant changing my grading so a D in Algebra 1 results in a student who can do Algebra 2.  Prior to my epiphany a D student was someone who did their homework and reworked tests, and that used to show on ACT tests (not college math ready).

Now I demand students can repeat and understand why, and homework is not much help in that goal.  So it has gone from 1 thru 59 odds (30 problems) to 4 to 8 targeted review problems - and I am seriously questioning the value of those.  I am going to assign 2 days of Khan this year - they have done some updating and I received a Morgridge Family Foundation grant for 10 ChromeBooks to help.  I like that better because it lets student's work at their level and makes them get the correct answer!  (It seems like every time I check assignments the students are just giving me any answer, even though I always provide the correct solutions for homework!)

So here I sit, here I ponder, here I wonder if homework should go yonder (ugh - sorry for that).   It is a bridge too far today, but I am going from 4 days per week to 2 days and that is progress.  And I will keep a firm grip on the my metrics - especially ACT score - to judge if this move is successful. 

Because that is my job to adjust and improve making every day better than the previous and to deliver the best education to my students.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Curriculum Improvement is slow work, Just going one step at a time....

So another nice day out, and I am making boards about Algebra 1 and Calculus.  These are the two classes out of the seven I teach that I am trying to flip.  It simply taking steps during summer to be slightly better each year - just 2% each year I joke and next thing you know you are making real substantial progress.

School in-service starts in 2 days - and I have done a lot of reflecting and working this summer on curriculum.  But I will admit the ugly truth - I have not made the best lessons and videos I could have.  That's because there is never enough time, I am always delivering less than my best (it is my best for the time available).   (Note - I know I read about this ugly truth in another article or blog  - but cannot locate it to cite - but I am joining that author and admitting the ugly truth.)

And sometimes that can be a weight on me.  I want to do the best - not just the best I can within my workload, or the best I can in some amount of time.  But that is not truly possible and something I rarely discuss - I talk about working hard, and making choices that maintain sanity.  I cannot spend 4 hours prepping a 45 min lesson - cause I have 7 different ones that day (7*4>24).

So another nice day - and I worked on curriculum - not all day, but part of my summer day and that is the best.

Friday, August 22, 2014

No more paper/pencil homework --- Using Donors Choose: Post thoughts, find solutions

Like many teachers the ideas I have do not match the budget of our school.  And when the story becomes interesting - I tend to chase the projects  -- one of the places I use is Donors Choose.

I have just used it again to help fund four Chrome Books for my room.  This is not the first time I have used the site - it is the third.  It helps close the gap between what the school can supply and things I want to do.

And now the Gates Foundation is matching funds - so all projects are "half-off."   And like so many things in this world it just takes promotion to cause motion - I think the project has real possibilities in making my class different.

My plan is to use the Chrome Books as a workstation with Khan Academy versus traditional homework.  The station is to get students to practice concepts and ideas correctly that are targeted to that student's current level -- allowing brave students to get ahead and helping others be secure in their concepts.  And I remember being one of those students who really did not care if I got the right answer - just that I had one -- Khan does not allow that (and what hypocrite I am too!).

So if you have parents/community/businesses who will support your school and you have a good idea & story try Donors Choose.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ed Camp - PD done differently

So Wednesday I went to Ed Camp for professional development in Oshkosh, WI -- a one day "un-conference" where all the sessions were figured out at the beginning of the day - no experts, all presentations by the participants.  A networking and sharing day.  As a rookie it was hard to follow at first - but as we gathered in one large group things started taking shape.  About 150 of us received instructions and started setting the sessions for the day.

So the sessions were a blank grid - 20 rooms - 4 sessions during the day -- so 80 blanks to fill in.  The plan seemed too big to work at first - but it was well-thought out and UW-Oshkosh Sage Hall was great.  They handed out post it notes and people wrote what they wanted to learn or what they could show.  They filled in the grid and the session titles into a google doc.  Then what would ensued was at the will of the people in the room.

For me personally it meant two good sessions and two that just did not work.  Sometimes ideas or problems were posed for a session and if no one knew the answer or an expert did not come the session would not flow well.   And that might be too polite - the session really just would not go -- the problem or open-ended idea really would die a death (like a fish on land flapping around).

So I picked up some flipping and homework ideas - but not 100% sure how to apply into my class.  So a okay event but the drive made it too little return for the hours invested, 5 hours of driving for me that day.  I need more items to put in the classroom things from my PD, more structure in the deep thinking sessions.  If it were closer and had just a few "bedrock" sessions  (Bedrock meaning having some experts to help, some session topics set prior to the day for attendees to "pre-reflect" on)  I think it would fit me better - but I also know it worked for some - just not me.

Just like a real classroom - everyone needs something different.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

CCSS in jeopardy in Wisconsin

So Scott Walker has called on the legislature to repeal the CCSS, and put in its place our own rigorous standards, "set by the people of Wisconsin." A politcal move - perhaps/surely, a move for the good of education - doubtful, a move we should make - I don't think so.

To be clear I am not a CCSS fan - there are too many standards in high school and we drive down too much math too soon in middle school.  We are not training teachers properly and it is causing problems.  But....

We need to realize, that Wisconsin is not single nation but a state in this nation which is a collection of states that make a republic, a democracy.  And it is the populate that makes that democracy - an educated populate.

And we, the teachers in all states, need to have a guideline that we run to - that is the CCSS.  Now am I hoping for version 2.0  (we should have 2.0 done already and should be looking for 3.0).  But just calling on Wisconsin to remove themselves from the CCSS is not the solution -- we have made 3 years of investment, we should be tweaking - not throwing it out.

Personally - it is hardest for me when I get the emails saying "see, another program started and not finished."   And they may be correct.  Heck, we did not even get to testing (not that standardized tests prove anything). 

And here we are quickly moving down the path of making the ROD teachers correct (ROD = Retired-On-Duty).  The "We have seen this before" gang - no need to change it will go away.  No need to use data or worry about improving.  [Lucky my school is void of RODs]

It is a sad for education, it is sad for our political system -- we are making children's education a pawn of politics.  We need to stop having new documents and programs and just have continous improvement on what is there.  We need standards - but they should be living - not cut in stone.

But here we go again...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Solar - Big Business Tries To Bite Back

The front page article for Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal was Wisconsin utility companies take aim against solar power.  The article reported on two Wisconsin electric suppliers requesting major changes in how they charge changing the economics of solar.

The major electric suppliers rate proposal is an all out war on solar by changing the structure on how power is billed.  By moving away from kilowatt per hour charge with a reasonable connection fee, charging mainly on usage, to a large grid connection charge with negligible kW/hr charges the electric suppliers want to change how power will be created and consumed.

The proposal wants to move away from kilowatt per hour charge with a small connection fee (charging mainly on usage) to a large grid connection charge (with negligible kW/hr charges).  They actually proposed lowering kw/hr charges from 15 cents to 4.5 cents but moving connection charges from roughly $10 to nearly $50!

Low kW/hr charges do not motivate people to conserve but to use.  Saving some does not equal much money and thus people will be less inclined to conserve.

That does not help move our dependance from fossil fuels but makes us more of addict.

This proposal is not about the people's or the world's good but a simple attempt to shut down competition - solar competition.   It is simply a proposal to guarantee coal and natural gas power plants remain the electricity leaders -- it is hiding the cost of power in a connection fee versus the usage.

Most damaging - solar project’s pay back disappears.  This is not good for Wisconsin, the USA or the world.

I hope the board fights this proposal.  We need to have a system that charges by the kW hour and rewards conservation and innovation -- not a move that protects profits and status quo.

Read more:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Homework questions & dilemmas --- reflections on Cathy Vatterott's Rethinking Homework

A teacher/friend/co-worker of mine is reading "Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs" by Cathy Vatterott for a class and was asked to get some people to answer some questions for her.  I have read the book and it is one of many that has moved me from being a believer that homework is mandatory to learn math, to the idea that it is an assistance (when done in the right context), but not a necessity.

The questions are bold - my reply follows.

What is your philosophy of homework?  What do you consider the role/purpose of homework? 
It is practice.  In a perfect world it should be individualized and time based versus number of problems based.  Meaning strugglers do less problems, different problems, "easier" problems.

I also believe new material should not be practiced at home - it needs to be done under the expert (the teacher).    (Comparing homework to my previous life -- homework is low level paperwork)

At the HS level I don't think homework teaches responsibility at all (I doubt it for all grade levels), it may teach a little about consequences (And again in the real world you are not punished for skipping some "homework" - skipping some low level work can be important, and for me personally it resulted in promotion -- skip good, do great)
And finally - if homework is low level - how much time should I or my students put into it?  Until you reach a high level of math - my answer is not much.  At high level classes with a quicker pace, it is needed that students do some learning on their own (sort of like college) but for the traditional K-8, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 sequence I don't think asking students to learn "themselves" is a good idea.

What are your struggles with homework?
If I assign homework - I should look at it (theoretically) but that is impossible (20 problems, 100 students is 2000 problems per day, at 8 seconds per problem is over 4 hours!).  Not checking homework is my largest struggle, but checking it in class is a waste; you know 5 students watch (who got them all) and 25 are in the twilight zone.   I know there is only so much of me and it is impossible to do it all - homework's return on my investment is simply not enough.  I also struggle to do good differentiation on homework assignments -- that is why I am looking into more computer based practice programs (see below).

What do you think about grading or not grading homework?
I feel practice should not be graded for a score (I give a couple of points for "completed" work, which ends up being only about 1% of the student's grade).  But as the teacher it is important for me to know that students are learning from their mistakes and correcting when doing homework.  That is why with paper and pencil homework I always provide the solutions, which a lot of students still don't check! (Ha!)  That is why I am pushing towards more on-line, have to be correct to move on type of homework.  My plan is to use Khan Academy heavily this coming school year.  But errors must be okay and homework is where they should occur.

What do you think?  Homework is one of the hardest parts of being a math teacher - go ahead and write me a comment, or a drop me a note.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tyrant of OR

Tyrant of OR is an interesting article that was passed along to me, and has gotten me thinking quite a bit. It is the belief that we often feel we have to make a choice between things – that one thing wins and one thing loses. For example problem solving and computation but in reality often we don't have to make a choice. You can do both – it is little counter-intuitive but I like the idea.

At my school we wanted higher ACT scores and more students taking the test.   And the single answer has been rigor.  I have pushed rigor, which is not just more homework (for me it has been less).   And as I pushed rigor, I have also pushed the idea that all students can be college math ready.  So even though math grades did drop at my school, our ACT scores and percentage of students have both gone up.

And to get scores to increase we did not lean the pool of test takers, we increased the count -- challenged more students to see how ACT would rank their college readiness.  Pushing hard on students to take the test and do well.  We have seen our college math placement scores go up AND more taking it -- from 20ish to 22.5ish for score and less 50% to nearly 75% taking it.  Definitely not a tyrannt of OR  -- would those results be the expectation?

Would you expect students to take more math with increased rigor? More students to take the ACT? Cause they are, when I started only a handful of students would take math as a senior – now nearly all the students do. When I started not even half of the students took the ACT test for college placement. This year over ¾ of the graduating class took the test.

Why? Because high rigor raises student performance AND student expectations of themselves. The students know they can perform at high level and that college or secondary schooling are within reach. Not everyone has to, but the problem solving ability, ability to learn are skills that serve students well for a lifetime.

OR does not have to be choice, I am taking AND. 

Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning. - See more at:

Monday, July 7, 2014

82% Fail Algebra 1 Final

Saw this video -- where in Montgomery County, Maryland, "which is considered a well-off suburb of Washington, D.C." -- 82% of students failed their Algebra I final.  And the video asks why - to me the video felt like they were searching for blame - and there is plenty of it to go around.

Lets start with a system of standardized testing that pushes too far too fast.   If you do not take time for students to really understand the concepts & interconnections and have recursive practice students simply memorize to pass a unit test, then, they are doomed on any really understanding.  This lack of understanding in turn dooms them on a final.

Teachers feel pressure to show what is on the standardized tests, but if a student is not ready - and they need more practice on "lesser" material - then that must happen.  Yet the CCSS are demanding and there is a pressure there (which I think we teachers need to balance -- College Readiness is number one).

Also - the amount of material is a question.  See the review final from there website.  The amount of material covered is impressive, but are the students getting a deeper understanding - is it possible to push a very young adult through the amount of material on the practice final and have them truly understand?  I always remind myself the students will always do the minimum - so they memorized during the semester, the minimum, and then are ill-prepared for the final (and college math - again somewhere around 30-40% are not college ready).

And I am careful not to criticize the teachers there - perhaps they have a K-12 math program where this is what Algebra 1 learns, but at my school - nearly half of their final is Algebra II.   The challenge is not to look at any one course like Algebra I and ask what they need, but to look at the HS graduate with 3 years of math and ask if they have the skills.  If you don't get deep into parabolas in Algebra I then save them for Algebra II, and spend time doing more projects, recursive practice, etc.  It does mean trading away something in Algebra II - perhaps come conics, or some imaginary number graphing - that can go to PreCalc.  I know we need to trade there too then, but that is our job to decide what is most important for the time we have - and if we make the curriculum manageable then the fail rate will fall.

Finally I don't blame the students - I believe that finals always fall one letter grade.  And unless 82% of the students got a D or F mark for the 4th quarter - then there is something awry.  Systems for grading need to be designed that ensure success - but if that system is impossible when overloaded with topics.  For the record I only test what we have mastered on a final, my final changes based on the topics covered each year.  (FYI - I have about 12% failure rate)

In the end - teachers need to take control.  Set a curriculum that prepares the students for two places in their lives.  Point 1 -- being college ready, and point 2 -- having the problem solving skills & basic math to be successful at 27 years of age.  I often joke that I work for the students, the 27 year old student.  And at 27 they want to be skilled at problem solving, and do not want to have flunked out of college because of math (skills or because of fear).

If we remember our accountability is not to a predetermined curriculum plan, or to politicians or to administrators - not really even to parents  - but to students (it's their life!), then we are doing our job.  Then we will be preparing the 27 year old for their challenges.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

I pledge to not allow "Pump & Dump" - You should too

 So I was doing some reading on education and ran across an article on terrible learning habits (3 Terrible Learning Habits You Probably Picked Up In School)  and it discussed 3 ways that are poor ways to learn new concepts.  It discussed re-reading, cramming and catering to your "learning style."  Instead of arguing about if they are or are not "good" I found myself really thinking about why these methods are prevalent.  Why are students just rote memorizing, dotting i's and crossing t's, not really learning and understanding.

Because students do what is required.  They are trying to survive and when educators allow ways for students to "get-by" without learning material but simply by regurgitating it - that is what they typically do.  And it is not the student's fault, but the teachers'.  And the simple fact is many educators feel that is the job of teaching - making drones able to spew facts with no idea of what they mean or how to use them.  Because it is not what you say as teacher, but what your students can do.

I often talk about how when I was a student that I simply cleared the bar, as a young man I did whatever the minimum required was to make the grade.  I was not interested in knowledge or being prepared for the world, I was interested in just completing the course and moving on.

When teachers raised the bar, I raised my performance.  If I was allowed to memorize - I did - which I now affectionately call "Pump & Dump."  And I talk often about the fact that we do not "Pump & Dump" in my room, we study, learn and use.  We do not turn math into 4,000 rules to memorize but talk the language of math and its interconnections.  We do not use it once and forget it, but have recursive practice on all math concepts they have learned.

We do projects, write and struggle - not as much as I want, but it is part of what we do where I teach.  

I often joke there needs to be changes on how we teach and our expectations, that I work for the student; the 27 year old student not the 15 year old student in my room now.  And that I just talked to the student's future self and they want me to be tougher, to make them into tenacious problem solvers.   

I also joke that we are learning how to learn and problem solve, not memorize math.  Actually there are only a couple of rules in math -- all expressions must remain equivalent and that all equations need balance.  That's it.  So when I hear of students memorizing rules and formulas I wonder what bar they are hopping over, and how high is it?  Are they better problem solvers because of it?  

Unfortunately hopping over the bar sometimes makes them better students -- but rarely better problem solvers.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teaching for Sustainability through Green Initiatives

Note: This draft was submitted to Community Works Journal  ---  See edited story here!

The job of educators is to prepare students for the world, so they can have a real impact.  Yet we rarely practice those skills in high school.  The true passion, problem solving and perseverance are often vacant from the assignments we do with our young adults in high school.

But it does not have to be that way! Project based learning offers a variety of ways for students to have a true impact in their community and their world.  That impact is often not constrained by the students but by educators and administration.  What happens when student are posed the assignment - complete a project that helps the school and community AND that project needs to have a true global impact?

Amazing things happen.

The assignment started in the fall of 2011 with my thought that my Physics students needed more exposure to real world problem solving. Problems where you must persevere, where there is no correct right answer, but the thought of what it should be and how to assess what was accomplished seems daunting – until you tell them “Select a project that will help the school/community and the world and make it happen.  I don't want a report or essays or papers, I want steel and concrete – I want tangible results.”

And then I sat back and watched the students struggle, some sat around waiting for orders. But I kept repeating to come up with a plan – it quickly led to true brainstorming and the idea that we could reduce Juda's carbon footprint thus reducing our energy cost! Daunting project, you bet; time consuming in class, sure; but the learning was amazing.
There are many avenues, many ideas, and many methods to making that goal. So the students made teams and defined deliverables (I had some input there – if you work you deliver). They did research. They contact vendors, suppliers, talked with staff, thought, reflected, thought of ideas, checked their ideas – failed – and tried again. But they were learning that a dead-end was simply a step to the solution, they were not guided by a predetermined lesson plan. They were working only with the constraints of a real world project – payback, ROI and need.

And all of that is more important than the results, but results are what were assigned – or should we say demand; demanded by the students – because it becomes their goal and project. All of sudden you don't need to make assignments – you simply need weekly update meetings. You don't have to hold students accountable their peers do – because it is their project.
Results happen because students are given the latitude to accomplish their goal!

At Juda, students chose green energy as the method to meet the goal and divided into solar and wind research teams. Researching ways to install either a turbine or panels, doing the bids, the Return-On-Investment (ROI), the financing – calculating how, why, what and where.

So where did my first team of students get to in 9 months, September 2011 to May 2012 – from inception of their idea to the end of the school year is not very long. The students had done all the research, competitively bid solar and wind, selected a preferred solar supplier, obtained permits, discuss the project with administration and our school board, worked on achieving ROI – and that is where the first group left the project. Now often it would end there with a bid, but the key to PBL is to continue the previous before starting the new!  So this became a legacy project -- because that is what the world does!  It reassigns projects - moves around team members.  This was just a pause in the project versus its end.

One problem initially with my rural school is that Physics is offered every other year.  So a team of students who had taken Physics the previous school year watched on grants and financing outside of an 'assigned class' during the 2012-2013 school year.  

 Then Wisconsin Focus-On-Energy money became available in the summer of 2013, and this was the last piece of the puzzle for the first project.  We had worked on financing, discussed finding business partners and this Focus on Energy grant with other local business support allowed the project to proceed. It then became the Physics class of 2013 job to do the install, and starting in September 2013 Juda was generating over 5 kW of electricity for our school . Meeting the original goal of positive community impact along with a global impact – but that was not enough. Because as that assignment was completed, it was now 2013's Physics class turn - you complete the prior project, now start yours! 

That is how project based learning comes to be a cultural change, the learning becomes perpetual.  The students not only want to be part of the team on the previous project but literally demand their own project.  

 The 2013-2014 Physics class's project is to make 10% of the school's total power be generated greenly on school property, really ambitious when the 5 kW solar system is only 4% of the schools power.   They have already installed another 12 panels increasing the systems capacity by 50% to 7.5 kW.  They have started conservation projects, such as lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).  

And now this project is being moved onto to the next team in the next school year. Plenty has been accomplished – nearly 7% of the school’s power is green now.  And I feel confident that the next class will get to 10%.   But that was not enough for the previous class they also want to roll out the PBL Green Initiative model to other schools – every school should have students working on a 5 kW green energy system – even if you already have a solar array or a wind turbine!  This story is my part of their project.

We want you to take on a green initiative with you and your students.  We are offering ourselves as guides, myself and my students - take the plunge. We want contact with you, email, call, snail-mail, even by carrier pigeon.  Let the chaos ensue – let the real learning occur!
Tap the resources in your school that is before you, make your students your workers - and watch them practice and acquire the skills the world wants from schools – passion persistent problem solvers!

It takes a certain level of courage as educator – you must be willing to pick great projects over good material.  You need the belief that covering an allotted number of chapters does not create problem solvers. Problem solvers are created through real problems and practice (and textbooks & e-books rarely have problems, they're filled with exercises).

And as the students reflect on their accomplishments, this project is truly one of the most memorable, permanent things which they have done.  It shows them what persistence, research and resilience can do.

So when you think about how and what you teach, know this is one of the things that I consider untouchable. 

Submissions should be sent by email, as an attachment. Most word processing formats are acceptable. Minimal formatting is suggested. Word count maximum is generally 1,600 words. Please contact us if this is a problem. In some cases we will edit for length with the author's request. An exception to word maximum may be the inclusion of information on a resource of significance to the article.
The author's name and email must be included.
Community Works Journal
PO Box 6968  l Los Angeles, CA 90602 l 909-480-3966

- See more at:
Submissions should be sent by email, as an attachment. Most word processing formats are acceptable. Minimal formatting is suggested. Word count maximum is generally 1,600 words. Please contact us if this is a problem. In some cases we will edit for length with the author's request. An exception to word maximum may be the inclusion of information on a resource of significance to the article.
The author's name and email must be included.
Community Works Journal
PO Box 6968  l Los Angeles, CA 90602 l 909-480-3966

- See more at:
Dr. Cathleen Becnel Richard is an Assistant Professor at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. She earned her doctorate in 2010 from Northcentral University in E-Learning and Teaching Online. Her research interests include academic advising, distance learning, reflective learning, and service learning. - See more at:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Homework - How much does it matter?

So it is final exam time at my school, we are coming into summer, so it is summative assessment time!  So I will start grading finals shortly (or my student teacher will) and it will indicate how Juda is doing with respect to math education - according to the world (I measure myself and my students by a whole different set of metrics - basically performance following HS.)

When I started teaching eight years ago, I taught how I was taught.  We reviewed homework, graded homework, introduced a concept and started homework.  I was the boss, it was their job.  And what they could recall for final was typically not good.  But that was teaching, then - now.... 

Now I never take homework problems in class, no grading, no chasing - homework has minimal value.  And if I gave 2014 finals to my students of yesteryear only a few would pass.

I get over 7000 minutes per year to teach math to a student (42 minutes/class * 170 classes).  How much time is needed to teach Algebra or Geometry?  Some practice must occur outside of class but how much?  Is 10% enough - that would be only 5 minutes per class period of homework, maybe 30% - that is only 15 minutes.  So when I hear of an hour of homework I think about how brilliant of students they must be.

But it is the summer that shows what the student has really learned, what they really know.  The first assessment on "old skills" in September with little to no review shows what they truly know and understand.

And what do they know after a summer off?

My old students doing lots of homework needed lots of review -- basically an entire quarter.  The students where I started bell-to-bell teaching, extremely limited homework and time outside of class is doing projects (essays, powerpoints, etc) - get just a couple of weeks.   And they perform well.

So I am sitting at the end of year and the start of summer of curriculum planning where I must reflect on the question "How much does homework help students?"

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Commencement Speech 2014

This year I had the honor of being asked by the graduating class of 2014 to give their commencement speech. And the "techie, progressive" math teacher did not record it.  (Hopefully someone with forward me a copy and I will get it on youtube).

But I think it would be good to capture the highlights of the quick speech.  And the easiest way is to give the major ideas,  I speak from an outline, so there is no speech to post.

I welcomed the class and audience and joked about being memorable - which is difficult because I don't remember who spoke at mine or what was talked about.  Heck, I spoke at my HS graduation and I don't remember what I said!

I talked about change being a good thing and this success, their graduation, was just the start of something else, but this is only change to them - others have done the "change."  And they were ready, mostly, and more important than book skills - they knew how to tackle projects and could do stuff - through three Ps -- Passion, Problem Solving & Perseverance.

I spoke about those skills and honing them and not accepting the status quo.  I requested them to be "Law abiding, Good Mannered, High Character, Golden Rule Following Troublemakers."  I want them to cause trouble to the status quo.  I want them to make real change in the world.

Moving on - that is a change, but I want them to shake the foundations of the status quo and make real changes.  We talked about Juda's green initiative, talked about not accepting - questioning.  I explained that my request was difficult, but ended on a quote from Archimedes.

I explained that Juda Community and school has given them a fulcum --  their education, abilities and the 3Ps.  And that the graduates were lever. And as Archimedes said: 

               "Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum and I shall move the world."

I ended with "You can too."