Friday, February 28, 2014

princess crankypants speaks...

February may be the shortest month of the year, but I gotta tell you, it's overstayed it's welcome.  I don't know what it is, but even though there's plenty of good that happened this month, I can't say I'm sad to see it end. 

More than anything else, I think that its the cycle of the school year that makes February seem to last forever.  January zips by in the post holiday madness.  March signals the end of 3rd quarter and spring break, and April and May are filled with end-of-year field trips, sporting events, prom, awards assemblies, exams, and graduation. 

Our school's February was jam-packed with Valentine's Day, a long 5-day weekend, and the Sadie Hawkin's Dance.  We had several guests including a visiting alum and helicopter pilot, teachers from a school in Nigeria, and 40 Headmasters in town for the NAIS conference.  I personally took a quick trip down to Key West, watched my children play sports, went to two plays, celebrated two family birthdays, and nursed my whole family through a long bout of lingering viral infections. 

I am sure that you have a similar list of activities and obligations.  I know I ought to be grateful, but mostly I'm just exhausted and looking forward to spring break.  Maybe you are too. 

So long February.  Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye.  Until next year...   

Thursday, February 27, 2014

how parents can help their children succeed in school

So it's happened.  Your wonderful, happy child earned a less-than-stellar grade in school. Whether this happens in 1st grade or late in high school, only once or many times, it can be a really stressful time.  Parents want their children to succeed and love school.  Students want school to be fun, social, and interesting.  Teachers need to prepare students for high stakes tests or to advance to the next level.  Can you see how the three parties involved in education sometimes have different and even competing interests? 

I think it's wonderful when parents want to get involved in the educational process and help their children succeed.  There's a clear set of steps to follow and by doing so, the three sides of the educational triangle have the best chance of success. 

Step 1:  Talk to your child.  You don't need to yell.  Just ask questions. 
  1. Why do you think you didn't do well?
  2. What did you do to prepare?
  3. Did you complete all the required and review assignments and readings? 
  4. Did you take and study your notes?
  5. Did you ask the teacher for help during class and/or after school?
  6. What did the teacher suggest you do?  Did you complete the suggestions?

The answers might be great, but may also include comments like, "Everyone did poorly," "The teacher hates me," "There was too much work," or "It took too long." 

As the parent, you have to ignore at least some of this.  It is unlikely that everyone did poorly.  More likely your child and perhaps a couple of friends did poorly, but if everyone did poorly, there would be remediation. 

"The teacher hates me" is most often projection.  Students both want to be liked and hate getting bad grades and often the negativity of poor performance gets mixed up in personal feelings.  As a 27 year teaching veteran, I can honestly say that it's hard to hate a child.  It's easy to hate their behaviors and so it's best for everyone to try to remove all the emotional baggage from the conversation and focus on these behaviors. 

The last two student comments are critical places for the parent to step in.  Most students want to spend the least amount of time possible on homework.  It's in their nature.  Work is not always fun and so it makes sense to do the minimum, especially if things have been going well for a while.  What students need to understand is that when a class becomes difficult, they need to spend more time on it.  Their inclination is to actually spend less because they don't like it or it's hard, and this creates a feedback loop that doesn't take long to spiral into failure.  Time is often a challenge for our over-scheduled students, but parents who help their children set aside additional time for homework and reprioritize activities have the best chance of helping their children turn things around. 

Parents often also want to help their children with the work and this is great if you can do it without yelling, but there are some important guidelines. 
  • Don't do the work for them.  (Only your child should be holding the pencil or typing the words.)
  • Stay within your levels of expertise.  (If you don't speak Spanish, don't try to help.)
  • Accept that at some point you can no longer help because your child has surpassed your knowledge. (This is a good thing) .
  • Limit your efforts to 30 minute sessions. (You'll both feel better if you do something different after 30 minutes.  You can come back later if needed.)

It is possible that even after you take all these steps, the progress you seek doesn't happen.  Even if your student is spending more time on the work, completing all assignments, and following teacher suggestions, the grades might not improve as quickly or as far as you'd like.  Time for Step 2.

Step 2:  Contact the teacher and express your concerns and expectations.  You don't need to yell.  Just ask questions.
  1. Is my child doing his/her part?
  2. Is there something he/she should do differently or in addition?
  3. Is there something we can do at home to help?
  4. Can the teacher or a tutor help after school?
  5. What are the actionable steps and checks we can complete to measure progress?

Write everything down.  Make sure you understand.  Ideally your child is in the conference, but if not, you need to be able to explain the plan.

Implement the plan.  Follow through with your child.  Accept no excuses.  Check work, monitor study time, review flashcards together, do whatever you decided was the plan.  Check in with the teacher about classroom progress and behavior. 

It is possible that even after you take all these steps, the progress you seek still doesn't happen.  This is frustrating, but not the end of the world.  Sometimes your expectations for progress are not realistic for your child or the discipline.  Sometimes intellectual processing and maturation takes longer than a week or two.  Don't panic.  Run through Step 1 again.  Ask those questions.  Run through Step 2 again.  Contact the teacher.  Make sure you and your child have done everything you said you would.  Develop another plan.  Keep working on it.  (If you think all this is too much effort, then maybe you should reconsider your expectations.)

When you reach the point where you feel you and your child have done everything possible, then and only then should you implement Step 3. 

Step 3:  Contact someone else in the school. 

I think it's easy to start at the top, to speak to a principal or department chair and express your grievances.  But the reality is, the administrator will have to turn around and discuss the situation with the teacher, so in a lot of cases you are simply putting someone in the middle of a situation that will resolve itself in exactly the same way. 

I would never suggest that there aren't poor teachers and problems that can only be resolved by administrators. But more often than not, these are the exceptions.  Most issues can be handled through communication between parents, students, and teachers.  It's also important to remember that we all face challenges and problems that are difficult.  Teaching your children how to work through these problems is an important part of growing up and the responsibility of both schools and parents. 

There are a lot of hard realities that we parents have to face in dealing with our children's setbacks.  We must accept that our children are not the smartest in the class or equally able in every subject.  Not every child will get an A in a particular class and most children do not get A's in every subject.  Many schools have various tracks so that the pace of the learning meets the developmental progress of the children.  This means that not every child will nor should be in the advanced track.  Just because a parent is an engineer or a poet doesn't say anything about a child's abilities or interests.  

Whether a student's challenges come in geometry, history, chemistry, English, or French is actually pretty unimportant.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Learning to leverage the strengths and improve the weak areas is the key to success.  That's what schools and parents must teach. 

In the end, we are all on the same team, the one in which students create their own successes and understanding in school.  The parent and the teacher are there to guide and assist, but it is the student that must do the work and learn from the consequences of actions.  In school and in life, everyone falls down.  What we do next says everything about us.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

TEDTuesday: the best stats you've ever seen

This talk from Hans Rosling is one of my all time favorites.  I always use it in my Leadership and Service course when we talk about service projects in the developing world.  But it is truly a beautiful illustration of statistical data.  It simply turns what could be a complicated set of numbers into a fabulous explanation of change over time.  Truly incredible! 

Monday, February 24, 2014

pants on fire

Consider this gallop poll from October, 2012, just a few weeks before the election.  What conclusions would you draw from looking at the graphic?  Does it seem like Romney has a good lead?  Does it seem Romney is pulling ahead?  There's a lot of unanswerable questions in this graphic that are really important if you want to understand what the data is telling you.

First what is the sample size?  Is it 20 people or 1000?   
How were people polled? Registered voters, likely voters, random folks?
How sure are you of your results?  What if I said the pollsters were 80% confident?  What if they were 99% confident?

All of these questions are important and because you don't know the answers, the pollsters can draw whatever conclusion they want from the data.

Here's what I mean.  What if the accompanying text told you  that 1000 random registered voters were surveyed.  I hope that would make you more confident than if 20 people in Chicago were selected.  It is Gallop, so let's assume those 1000 random, registered voters are guaranteed. 

What if you knew that the margin of error was plus or minus 4%?  What conclusion would you draw about the October 15 poll?  I hope you can see that if the error could be 4%, then the October 15 poll was pretty much a statistical dead heat.  What if I told you the margin of error was plus or minus 2%?  Then you might conclude that Romney was ahead on October 15. 

The sneaky part is that Gallop and anyone using this poll can actually make both of those claims by manipulating how confident they are with the result.  If they are 99% sure of the result, then the margin of error is a whopping 4%.  If they are only 80% confident, then Romney takes the lead.  And the average reader will never know the difference.

So why am I talking about these ideas?  Well, I am teaching my statistics students this information right now, but more importantly, in these kind of political scenarios, where races are fairly close, it is possible to make the numbers say anything you want them to simply by manipulating the sample size and the level of confidence you prefer.  This means that a particular media source can literally call a winner in any close race simply by bending the statistics.  And this explains why two polls can have completely different results. 

I'd like to think that the media is acting with integrity when they report on polls, but to be fair, recent events lead me to believe otherwise.  If you really want to use mathematics to call political races, I would lean toward Nate Silver's blog, FiveThirtyEight.  The man is a statistical genius (yes I have a mad crush on him), and he correctly predicted nearly every race in the 2012 election.  For the sake of harmony in my own life, I'm going to head there during the next election and consider his efforts the most credible source for predicting results.  Then I can skip all the hot arguments on Facebook. 

Friday, February 21, 2014


So a spambot has latched onto one of the posts at this blog and has tried to comment literally hundreds of times.  I am happy to report the spam filter has blocked them all, but I am going to try to shut this down by changing the means by which you can comment at this blog, making it a little more difficult. 

I plan to return the settings to open, anonymous comments on Monday to see if repeated failure caused the bot to move on. 

In the meantime, I hope you all get some rest.  I know my northern readers have had a very snowy, challenging winter.  I have an interesting post planned for Monday, a discussion on why you can't trust political polls.  See you then. 

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

on teaching, technology, and baseball

Our school is in the process of implementing a one-to-one computer program for our students.  We started with just the 8th grade, but the second year we added 9-12 and now the 7th grade teachers are pushing to be added to the mix. 

There are obvious challenges, from ensuring student supervision, to using technology effectively and appropriately, to implementing online textbooks and homework. 

One thing is clear to everyone involved in the process.  Technology is a lot more challenging for the teachers than it is for the students. 

I think it would be easy to dismiss this graphic shown here as a joke, to laugh at the teachers and move on.  But if we want to be successful, if we want to foster true growth in our school communities, we'd better start to understand WHY this graphic contains seeds of truth.

A lot of us got into the profession because we were passionate about our disciplines, teaching, or helping children.  Doing our jobs well was the initial focus, one that consumed our days and evenings in the early years, turning short school days into 60 hour weeks.  We didn't mind.  Learning to become a good teacher was fun.  And a lot of us got good at what we did.  We mastered our content and created compelling and innovative lessons. 

But at some point learning became work and technology that was supposed to make everything better became just one more thing to learn.  What made us good at teaching 20 years ago doesn't seem to be worth much any more, and the challenge for experienced teachers is that expectations and children have changed.  It turns out that today's students, weaned on technology, don't learn the same way.  New teachers, more familiar with technology, adapt lessons quickly and deliver content effectively using these new tools.  Teachers that do not find technology intuitive are discovering that their abilities and expertise are increasingly under fire.  

For example, calculus hasn't changed much since 1680.  I have been teaching calculus on and off since 1990, first with no calculators, then with graphing calculators, then with computers, and now with online texts and homework.  I still have the same notes I made in 1990.  I've tweaked them a bit, but they're in a beat up binder that I've kept for 20 years.  I mastered the content years ago, but every year I must reevaluate my delivery.

I use plenty of technology in my classroom from state-of-the-art Nspire calculators and digital textbooks, to the latest in online study tools such as quizlet, padlet, socrative, prezi, but students tell me every year that their favorite lesson is the one where we create 3-dimensional models with play-dough.  There's no technology, just trial and error.  Could I do it better?  Maybe.  Could I do it with technology?  Definitely.   Should I change this lesson?  I think about it every year, and I'm still not sure. 

What we need to understand is the fact that technology asks teachers to change a proven lesson for something unknown.  It's a lot like baseball.  Most teachers can hit a single most days, use a proven, consistent lesson that will do the job pretty well.  Using technology is more like swinging for the fences.  Hitting homers takes a lot of training and practice. 

When kids play with technology, a strikeout is just part of the learning process.  They get to hit again because they're only playing for themselves.  But when teachers strike out, they're not the only ones that lose.  Our kids are on the line, and it's not really a game anymore.   

Maybe the key to getting teachers to try new technology is convincing them that they don't have to hit a home run every time to be awesome, but settling for singles is not enough.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TEDTuesday: math class needs a makeover

This week's TEDTuesday talk is from Dan Meyer and is a deep criticism of math education.  Some quotes for your consideration.
  • I sell a product to a market that doesn't want it but is forced by law to buy it.
  • The way our math textbooks teach math reasoning and patient problem solving is functionally equivalent to turning on "Two-and-a-Half Men," and calling it a day. 
  • The math serves the conversation.  The conversation doesn't serve the math. 
  • Math makes sense of the world.  Math is the vocabulary for your own intuition.

In our school we are in the middle of a curriculum review, a comprehensive look at what it is we teach and when we teach it.  We are bound by a lot of constraints, including, but not limited to traditional models, standardized testing, textbook availability, teacher expertise, and time.  It is a good conversation, one I think all schools should have on a regular basis.

But what I love about this conversation is what comes next.  Once a school truly decides exactly what needs teaching and when, teachers are free to start thinking about content delivery, to consider the questions of HOW content is taught rather than simply what. 

It's an exciting time to be a teacher with new apps being developed all the time, every present, readily available technology, and open source materials. 

There's a lot to talk about in Dan Meyer's talk, but perhaps there's even more to discuss in your own school.  What are YOU doing to give your classroom and mathematics a makeover? 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

YOU are a leader!

I thought I would share this TEDTalk that is one of my favorites.  Perhaps I should regularly feature talks on TEDTuesday.  There are so many wonderful choices! 

What I love about Drew Dudley's talk is that everything and anything we do can make a difference.  We never know when something small, something we've forgotten, will make a difference in someone's life. 

Today, some motivation to live, speak, and act with a little more kindness.  Enjoy! 

Monday, February 10, 2014

let's play!

Last week I was feeling poorly most of the week and missed a couple of days.  The illness couldn't have come at a better time for my College Algebra class, as we were taking a break from the textbook to work on a project. 

The project required students to work in groups to design a board game that was fun, creative, and implemented math.  The project was actually the brainchild of my colleague, Jen Baselice, and I was happy to give it a shot.

Students had about a week to design a game board, create rules, gather or make all pieces, integrate some mathematics, and play the games.  The results were mixed, with some students focused on making sure there was plenty of math, others working hard to create a pleasing design, and a third group determined to implement "fun" features.  

On the final day I had students evaluate their group members as well as the games themselves.  My focus was on the math, but it turns out the students most appreciated good designs, clear instructions, and fun features.

In a couple of games there were humorous thematic cards designed to enhance the fun.  In "Cap'n Jalen's Quest for the Booty," players were asked which food was Jalen's favorite, with correct answers leading to advances.  In "Boo" cards told players they had morphed into a werewolf and could move forward 3 spaces.  And in "Reality Land," two players landing on the same square resulted in an arm-wrestling match for control of the square.

All in all, it was a welcome break from the winter doldrums and still helped students review important math skills.  If you would like a copy of the instructions and grading rubric, please email me at

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

sick days...

In case you were missing me ... not sure when I'll be back ... that's literally all I can do...

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