A Review Session Worth Keeping

Posted: February 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

On Monday of this week, my students took a test. It didn’t go too well. It’s a pretty important concept (solving equations and inequalities), so it was more than worth it for us to take the week to review and cement some of the skills we needed. There were a lot of absences over the past couple weeks, including a day by me and 2 snow days, so this also served as a great chance to fill in some of the gaps individual students missed.

Tomorrow, we re-test. After 4 class periods of work, we’re ready. But that’s not what this post is about. That’s just teaching; it’s not blog post worthy.

This post is about our last class today.

We often do review activities before our unit assessments. We’ve done jeopardy-style games, practice tests, journaling. . .really anything we can do to review what we’ve learned and prepare to show what we know. Today’s last class was our review.

But today, I tried something different.

To start with, we put problems to solve on the walls. 20 in all. And they were all over the room.

Next, we had to equip ourselves. Calculators, paper and pencils, and our clickers.

Here were the rules:

  • Everyone answers every question, in any order they wish
  • When a student has answered all the questions, they are to see Mr. Wyzlic to see how they did
  • If they didn’t get them all correct, they are to go back and fix their mistakes


That’s still nothing worth blogging about. But there were more rules.

  • When a student gets all 20 questions right, they earn 2 points
  • They then are to go and help others
  • Everyone who helps another student earns a point
  • Everyone who accepts help from another student earns a point
  • Anyone who just “gives” an answer (even an incorrect one) loses a point
  • No students can earn points for helping until they’re finished


The person who gets the most points gets…I dunno, something. I think I actually said this in class. Then I said maybe candy or an extra credit point or something. We actually didn’t agree on a reward. Turns out we didn’t need one.

We talked about how to approach someone to help them, and how to accept the help. They were wonderful in practice. Then, it was time to let them loose.

It took a little bit, but once someone got all 20 right, they started falling like dominoes. Soon, I became busier than I thought I would be. I kept having students come up to me to see how they did, and then others coming up saying “Mariah helped me on two problems,” or “I helped Carson and Naomi.” Other things I overheard:

  • “This is easy!” — a student who often gives up before starting (it wasn’t as easy as he made it sound — he was just prepared, and it was a non-threatening environment)
  • “Finally!” — a student who all week was very vocal about not being able to do this, when she finished all 20 problems. Let that one sink in. She was so caught up in doing the work properly, that she was excited that she was finished. Getting all 20 correct was an after thought, like she expected to eventually get them all.
  • “Who needs help?”
  • “I need help!”
  • “James just helped Shelby, and Karli helped Trevor.”
  • Only mentioned once: “who has the most points?” They didn’t seem to care.

By the way, by the end of the hour, my 41 students had answered the questions at an 81% success rate. That’s over 30% better than they did on Monday. I’m excited for them to take this test tomorrow. But more than that, I’m excited for the culture of my classroom. We help each other. We build each other up. We’re in this together, and we’re here for one another. I could not be more proud of my 7th graders than I was today. Though I’m excited to see what they’ll show me next.

When Awesome Goes Wrong

Posted: February 24, 2014 in Uncategorized

You may have seen this video. You may not have. Watch it. It’s pretty awesome.


How cool is that? This guy is not only passionate about his job, but also about his family. He loves both to the point where he had to put himself on the line for the benefit of himself, his family, and his audience.

But. . .did you catch it? The moment where it all goes horribly wrong? Watch it again. Here; I’ll even link it again. Be sure to watch it all the way through.


This man puts himself out there in a very difficult way. He’s doing something that is different, potentially embarrassing, but also no doubt a lot of fun to do. And then he’s done. His work has been shown, and those of us who are not him are left to react.

And his coworkers, oh, they react.

“I’ve gotta ask — what’s wrong with you?”

Well, I’m sure that makes him feel good about what he did. But that’s the sports guy. He’s supposed to represent some macho, I’m-not-going-to-sing-and-make-fun-of-those-who-display-passion-for-not-sports stereotypical guy, right? Surely the anchors will do better, right?

“Aunt Helen would look right you in the eye and say ‘there’s something wrong with that boy.’”

Laughter. Laughter. Laughter.

Even the weatherman gets in on the act, saying that his son looked at him with shame upon hearing the audio track. Because what position is he in to defend himself, when his coworkers are poking fun of him on the air? Of course he’s going to join in. It’s what we humans do if we put ourselves out there and are mocked. We join in on the mocking, so we are making fun of that thing we did, and detaching ourselves from it. “Look at that silly thing I did — good thing I’m not really like that, right guys?”

Did you catch what was lost in all this? You may not have heard it — I completely missed it the first time I watched.

“So good.”

Two simple words of praise, swept aside by the tornado of laughing mockery. It’s a lot easier to laugh and ask what is wrong with someone when they do something awesome and different than it is to offer your support. It’s even harder when the support is laughed under the table.


So why do I blog about this here, on the blog of a teacher? Surely the connection isn’t hard for you to make.

How often do we see this take place in our schools? How often does one student put himself or herself out there in a way that makes them feel good, but is clearly different from the norm? A student decides to sing his or her presentation. The football star is also in the marching band. The actor decides to try a spring sport instead of the spring musical. A typically low-achieving student does well on a test. Someone reads a book — and likes it.

What do we hear?

“Well that was strange.” “Look at the nerd!” “You did well — must have been a fluke!” A lot of laughter.

What do these things say?

“Don’t be different.” “Don’t try new things.” “Don’t ever do that again.” “You’re stupid.”

What are we, as teachers, doing to stop this in our hallways, in our classrooms, and perhaps from our own mouths? I don’t have the answer, but I do know we sure as hell can’t allow it to happen, even once, even in a small amount.

Because, let’s face it: the world needs more singing weathermen.

Why I Keep My Door Open

Posted: February 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

In my school, the first bell of the day rings at 8:05, and the first class begins at 8:10. Breakfast begins around 7:30, and most students are in and around the cafeteria or milling around the halls by 7:45. Our administrators are usually in the halls around 7:50, and a few teachers are out, keeping an eye on the students. However, most teachers are in their rooms, doors locked, prepping for the day. Many of our teachers have no prep hour, so their time before school is precious to them.

But the students, for those 20 minutes, don’t really have a place to be.

So my door: it’s open.

It was slow at first. A few 7th graders popped their heads in when they arrived, saying hi and talking for a few minutes before they went to the cafeteria to wait for their friends to arrive.

Then they stayed in my room for a little bit longer, and their friends met them in my room before they went off to eat breakfast.

After all, my door: it’s open.

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been moving in my classroom library. This has required some student help schlepping boxes into the room in the morning. It’s been easy to ask a few students to come out to my car and help out. After all, they were in the room to begin with, and they grabbed some friends from the halls on the way out.

I barely even had to ask for help. After all, my door: it’s open.

Last week, even more students have been coming in my room before school starts. They help out: changing the dates on my board and straightening up the desks. Some have taken it upon themselves to take the chairs down from the night before.

And then the magic started happening. The 7th grade girls have decided to make my room their place to hang out. A couple boys tried to come in, and they said “No boys allowed!” To which I reminded them that I’m a boy, and I’m also in charge of my classroom, and they cannot ban anyone. So the boys came in. And they started talking. And, of course, I gave my input where it was appropriate. The students have come to respect me in ways other than as their math teacher.

Here’s the best part: while the students were talking in my room which at that point was set up for the day (despite that I hadn’t had to lift a finger), some students came by my desk to let me know of some things going on in their lives. I’ll respect their privacy here and not share the details, but it’s not things that would just come out during class. The students needed a safe zone. And now I have a greater rapport with them than I ever could have otherwise. I teach 40+ of them at once, which doesn’t leave a lot of space for building that student-teacher relationship. But I know that tomorrow, I will have bands to talk about with some students, parents to talk about with some students, and a safe place to extend to all students.

And that’s why my door: it’s open.

I happened upon a Facebook post this morning that included one reader’s comment that she was the “only person on the planet who really disliked that series.” That got me thinking of books that I find myself seeming to be the only person not to like them. Others soon chimed in with titles they felt alone in not liking, and we also quickly realized that we are not alone in our dislikes.

The idea was sparked, then: how can we bring this to the classroom? Should we have our students, perhaps, share the books they didn’t like that everyone else loved? Should we help them find that they’re not alone?

This made me think of my reading last night. I’ve been making my way through Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild (I like to read professional books over break when I can really digest them). I’m in the middle of Chapter 2: Wild Readers Self-Select Reading Material. Without giving away everything that happens (as you really should read the book for yourself), Donalyn gives us a story of a time in her classroom when she abandoned a book that it seemed like everyone else had loved. What she does next, though, is brilliant. She turns it into a challenge to see who will try the book so that she has someone to talk to about it. Of course, her students follow her lead, and she has many students sign up to read it, and eventually, it finds its proper home (Miller 58-60).

There are things I think are right about the way Donalyn Miller does it that we might find ourselves neglecting if we try another way. The conversation clearly includes a reader’s right to not finish (from Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights), yet — and this is the key – stays positive about books and reading. When inviting others to try a book you didn’t like, you’re communicating to them “this book was not for me, but I’d like to know who it’s right for. Maybe it’s right for you. Would you like to try it?” And it becomes a gauntlet thrown down, in a way, for someone to read the book and like it. And eventually, someone will.

Now, the Facebook thread was just fine for us, because just about everyone who commented was a teacher or librarian, or at the very least an adult reader. We know and understand that just because we didn’t like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, and it doesn’t mean anything negative about those who do like the book. Our students don’t necessarily realize this. I think it’s vital that we spin the conversation away from “what books did you not like that everyone else did?” and more towards “who is the right reader for this book that you didn’t like?” It keeps the reading environment a positive one, reinforces the right for every book to exist, and supports those who feel in the minority — both those who like and those who dislike books.

So, even though I’m a math teacher this year, this is what I would do were I teaching English. Perhaps you English teachers could humor me and try this out, eh?

  • Upon returning from break, I’d share with my students a book I recently read (or abandoned) that I didn’t enjoy, even though it was highly recommended for me.
  • I’d ask them to create a short list (no more than 3 books) that they didn’t like that everyone else seemed to love.
  • For each book, I’d want them to list specifically what didn’t work for them.
  • For each book, I’d want them to think of who would like this book. If someone were to like this book, what other books would they probably like? Are there any specific people in the classroom who they think would like the book, even though they didn’t? Why?
  • We would share. And we’d try to match readers to books. We would foster the “I didn’t like this book, but I think you might” conversation.
  • And then, of course, we’d read.

What other ideas do you have with the “Just Me, Really?” phenomenon and how to use it in the classroom?

Curveballs, Part Two

Posted: December 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

In my most recent post, I talked about a few major curveballs in my life. Of course, there have been more than I discussed and there will certainly be more to come. Part of the beauty of curveballs is that we don’t know when they’re coming, so we just have to react as soon as we seen them. There’s really no way to prepare.

Or is there?

Though we cannot prepare for the changes life throws at us, we can prepare — mentally, emotionally, and physically — for change. This isn’t a case of “expecting the unexpected.” This just means that we need to be able to have the things we think we rely on and take for granted taken away from us or altered in some way, and still be able to come out the other side. And we can do this without demeaning the wonderful things we have in our lives. We can love our families with our whole hearts, yet still carry on — eventually — if someone dies. We can put all of our creative passion into our jobs, yet still move on if that job is no longer there. We can love running, yet still manage to get by if we lose our legs.

These are grand examples, obviously, but things happen, and we need to find ways to keep moving forward.


What are we doing these days to help our students with this? What are we doing to prepare them for the unforseen changes they’re going to encounter?

Are we providing them with a structured daily routine they crave because of its security, or are we shaking things up every now and then so they will learn to react to such changes?

Are we providing them all the steps necessary to solve a problem, and then giving them a problem, or are we asking them to find a solution on their own with the tools they have?

Are we teaching them the things that the CCSS says are important to them, or are we teaching them the things that we think are important to them, or are we helping them with the things they know are important to them?

We cannot, and must not, just produce a bunch of students who can snooze through the same thing day in and day out, fill out some bubble sheets for questions we’ve already provided the answers for, and pretend we’re helping out the future of the world. The public has invested in education because it is better to have an educated populace than an uneducated one. But what’s better yet is to have a generation which is able to handle the curveballs thrown at them. Because we can’t see what’s coming. Neither can they. So how can we possibly prepare them for it?

We can do it by training them to be comfortable with change.

So, what curveballs have you given your students lately? I’ll start off. Instead of giving my 7th graders a traditional test on percents, markup/discount, and interest, I gave them a problem in which they are opening a school store and had to use those skills to come up with a solution. They were prepared from a math perspective, but it was a different sort of assessment for them. They struggled. Some of them struggled mightily. But I believe they are better off for having a curveball thrown at them.


Posted: December 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

Sometimes, you find yourself working on a Tuesday night and realize that you haven’t blogged in a while. And if you happen to be me, that happened tonight. Now, I have a few things I’d like to blog about, and I will. But blogging has sort of taken a back seat to planning out lessons and assessments for the three levels of math I haven’t taught before. Side note, because I think this is kind of interesting: I have now taught math at every level my 6-12 certification allows me to teach. But I like this blog, and people are apparently still stopping by, so I ought to give them something to read.

Tonight’s thought: curveballs.

I was thinking I should blog about NCTE, my first time presenting at a national conference, and all kinds of good things from that. But then that got me thinking about my first NCTE. And I realized that I need to talk about curveballs.

You see, the first NCTE I attended was in 2012. It was awesome. I wrote about it here. But the first NCTE that affected me directly was in 2011. I did not attend. I asked my principal if there was money to send me, and she said no, there was not. I was bummed. I was getting into Twitter and had high hopes of collaborating with people in person. I knew if I wasn’t there, I’d be missing out on something. She suggested I attend MRA, the Michigan Reading Association conference, instead.


I was disappointed and upset. I didn’t want to go to a literacy conference. I was a literature teacher! Seriously, I actually said that to my teaching partner. I’ve since recanted. And I decided I should check out MRA. I stumbled upon a grant to attend, was awarded the grant, and was able to go.

While I was there, I met people who are still, to this day, changing my life. You see, MRA was in March 2012. The Nerdy Book Club was started in December 2011. Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp, and many Michigan/Indiana/Illinois Nerdies were in attendance. I remember meeting Donalyn and Colby. I was walking with one of the other grant winners after the opening session. I saw them ahead of me and actually forgot to speak. I said something along the lines of “it’s…hey…buh…mahjongiternuh” to the person I had up to that point actually been saying intelligible things to. She wisely left me to myself, and I approached Colby and Donalyn, who were probably in the middle of hatching some plan to save the readers of the world (sorry for ruining that for everyone). When I shook their hands (and there was probably an embrace involved — I mean, who doesn’t Donalyn hug?), I remember saying their names to them. As if I needed to remind them of their names instead of introducing myself. Later on, I met many other Nerdy Book Club members, and remembered to give my name. I don’t remember everything I learned that weekend, but I do remember the connections that are still changing my life. I am a better teacher because of everyone I met at MRA. All because I was unable to find funding to go to NCTE.

Fast forward a couple months. I saw a Twitter conversation about something called Teachers Write! This was a summer writing project directed at teachers, especially those who are looking to write their own books. I decided to get involved, and it developed me tons as a writer and as a teacher of writing. I built relationships through this that led to me presenting with the organizers at NCTE this year. Did I intend for this to happen? Absolutely not. Am I glad it did and better off for it? Absolutely.


Fast forward…well, our timeline isn’t really in one piece right now, as we’re both in late spring of 2012 and in late fall of 2013, but fast forward/rewind to early fall of 2013. I find myself needing to leave one job, and I fortunately find another. I expected to teach high school English this year, and now I’m teaching middle school math.

Another curveball.

There are plenty of curveballs I’ve been thrown over my fairly young life, and they all have sent me to where I am now. But as I look back on them, I find that relationships are at the heart of them all. I don’t remember everything I learned. I don’t remember all the emotions. What has lasted for me are the relationships I’ve found and the community I have built around me. I can’t imagine my life without MRA. It would be far worse than it is. I can’t imagine my life without Teachers Write! and presenting at NCTE. Those are experiences I will always have to build upon, and have already been adding to my professional life. While it’s early in my time as a math teacher at Hale, I am excited about what this curveball will bring. Where will these relationships take me?


Coming up, which I’m posting here to get people thinking about it and to remind myself to blog about it: in what ways do curveballs affect our students?

Several weeks ago, Mr. Colby Sharp began a weekly tradition of posting 5 things he loved about the previous week. I don’t know if he started this or got it from someone else, but he is where I first found it. I love the idea. I’m joining in.

1. It’s Official!

If you read my last blog post, you know that I’ve been a bit in limbo as far as my teaching career is concerned. Well, Monday night, the Hale Area School Board approved my hiring as a middle school and high school math teacher. I am employed! Go Hale Eagles!

2. It’s Official, Part Two!

This one is a bit more personal. My girlfriend — whom I’ve been dating for a while now — and I decided to make our relationship “Facebook official.” That’s apparently a big deal. I don’t really get why that makes it big, but regardless, it makes me happy when I open up Facebook and see her name and mine linked :-)

3. Good Friends

I have been very fortunate, as I began working in Hale, to have friends about half an hour away who opened their house to me and gave me a place to stay. I don’t know if I could have taken the job without their assistance, so that has been invaluable to me. A big thanks to them (and their cats)!

4. New Place

On that note, though, I did find a place to live that provides me with the ability to live within driving distance of my job. I am very glad this was available, and that it worked out for me.

5. Students

I said in my last post that I am a teacher. However, what is a teacher without students? It’d be like a speaker with no audience or a book with no readers. But I have students once again. And I feel at home with them, as I always do. Best moment of the week:

On Friday, I took some time to introduce myself more in-depth than I had on day one. I told the students I would make readers out of them (mind you, I’m telling this to a math class). Their reaction was one of disbelief. CHALLENGE ACCEPTED, students! Later in the conversation, as the students were beginning to piece together the type of person I am, a student asked “Are you a nerd?” The way she phrased it was not as an insult, but more of a “hey, a nerd is a thing some people are. Is that you?” I responded by reading to them the following John Green quote:

“Saying ‘I notice you’re a nerd’ is like saying, ‘Hey, I notice that you’d rather be intelligent than be stupid, that you’d rather be thoughtful than be vapid, that you believe that there are things that matter more than the arrest record of Lindsay Lohan. Why is that?’ In fact, it seems to me that most contemporary insults are pretty lame. Even ‘lame’ is kind of lame. Saying ‘You’re lame’ is like saying ‘You walk with a limp.’ Yeah, whatever, so does 50 Cent, and he’s done all right for himself.”

I then said “I am a nerd, and I’m proud of it.” A few of the students actually applauded. I think it’s going to be a good year :-)