Bottle of Dreams

Last fall I wrote a post for my school’s blog, West Hills Stories.  It’s about endings. And beginnings. Here it is:

Every once in a while I create an experience for my students that is cool and even surprises me. My “Farewell Address” is one such activity. Several years back I decided to define an end-of-the-year moment of closure with each class. I wanted a time to celebrate our year together, to reminisce, to toast the wide-open futures of each student in the room.  I wanted more than the perfunctory collecting of books, doling out of grades, and ticking down of the clock that seems to define intervals of learning.

Here’s how it works. I advertise my farewell address as a “do not miss” moment. I commandeer the last ten minutes or so of class. I bring in bottles of water, one for each student. I tell each student to grab a bottle and crack the lid but not to open it.  Many guess that a toast is coming. And they’re right. But I embellish the farewell address with thoughts, advice, challenges and requests. I recognized there’s a good probability this might be the last time we ever speak, so it needs to be meaningful. The moment is bittersweet.  Each year I make small tweaks to how I do it, what I say, and what I request. Some years make me tear up. Last year was one of them.

The students are aware that the toast is really a sip of bottled water. But for some I transform their vision of it from just being ordinary water to being a “bottle of dreams.” Most think it’s funny, but buy into it. They can look at the water for what it is, or they can visualize it being whatever they want it to be. It’s about belief. It’s about the power of their minds to pretend for the sake of silliness that it’s a potent non-alcoholic elixir that marks the start of new beginnings, especially for seniors. The moment is simultaneously deep and light-hearted. I ask them to keep it as a reminder of the farewell address.

During this year’s graduation procession, as students were leaving the field, I had several of them tell me that they still had their bottle of dreams. Students saved an empty water bottle for years because of the meaning we attached to it! How cool is that?  My farewell address has become one my classroom traditions, and will only get better.

The Professional Chicken Sexer

A day-old chick

A day-old chick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A statistics gem to tweet about and use in math class:

“In the 1960s, one hatchery paid its sexers a penny for each correctly sexed chick and deducted 35 cents for each one they got wrong.  The best in the business can sex 1,200 chicks an hour with 98 to 99 percent accuracy.”

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (p. 51) by Joshua Foer

What’s a chicken sexer? Never thought I’d learn about such a subject, until…well, I read Foer’s book. Here’s the rub. Male chickens are not as desirable on a chicken ranch as their female counterparts, but it takes roughly four to six weeks to identify the sex of a newly hatched chick.  This is a costly problem on a chicken ranch.

In the 1920s, veterinarians from Japan figured out a way to tell the males from the females of day-old birds. The discovery of such a method helped ranches increase their profits.  Those who graduated from the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School were quickly employed in the agricultural world and earned celebrity status. These so-called chicken sexers turned a handsome profit, earning as much as $500 a day, in steep contrast to the scenario above.

Structure & Novelty

Last Monday I was one of four staff members who gave a 25 minute talk to the rest of the staff at West Hills High School.  The topic was student engagement. I came up with ten ideas that permeate my thought process when designing my lessons: five structures that  guide my class and five ways that I chase after novelty-embedding.

The time constraint was outrageous, the process of culling my thoughts was motivating, and the audience was inviting. A win all around.

Here’s the edited down version. It does not include video of students taking a Shot at the Glory in #6 :

My idea for the talk title was inspired by the same words @delt_dc used in a tweet recently. Thanks, David!

Electoral College Game

I created a game for my math classes that centers on the Presidential election.

Give each pair of students a blank political map of the U.S. Then take turns to initial a state, one after the other, until all 50 states have been initialed or marked up by the duo’s own system. That is, each student chooses 25 states, representing the states “won” by each candidate. Each pair then gets a map of the electoral votes by state.  Calculate the sum of their votes, and determined who wins the highest office in the land. Some poor kid will give up California, Florida, Texas, and New York right away. That same kid probably gets beat in Connect 4 with an opponent’s first four chips too.

English: Electoral college map for the 2012, 2...

English: Electoral college map for the 2012, 2016 and 2020 United States presidential elections, using apportionment data released by the US Census Bureau. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Five eighths of the fun occurs because most students can’t identify all the states and they definitely aren’t keen to how many electoral votes each state has. Knowing state locations and their ballpark populations is a huge advantage here. The big take away is that a candidate may win the popular vote and not the election.

From  start to finish, the entire game probably takes 15 minutes. It doesn’t fit my standards for today or tomorrow, nor did it when I had my students play. But it does fit my goal of having students look at the numbers behind a real-life event. I also hope it ramps up their civic interest.

This weekend I saw Ron Larson present at the California Mathematics Council South annual convention in Palm Springs. He previewed his new book, Math & YouIn it he has an extension devoted to Math & the Electoral College which is is online simulator that one can play with to show how winning the popular vote doesn’t always win the candidate the election.

Marshmallow Minute

Billy started with 14 marshmallows in his mouth before the minute began and then ate 8 marshmallows every 10 seconds. Claudia started without any marshmallows in her mouth and ate 3 more every 4 seconds. Who will eat the most in the group over the course of ONE minute? What if we uncapped the minute and went forever?

I made an activity called the MarshmallowMinute that had students working in groups to eat a given number of marshmallows every so many seconds for ONE minute. I wanted them to absorb the concept of rate of change, with more than their eyes.

The MarshmallowMinute was initially designed for students in my Intermediate Algebra class, which is a lighter form of Algebra 2. Really, this activity is a first year algebra activity that can extend deeper depending on the course.

This activity provided context, fun, eating, yelling, and a jumping off place to go from graphing linear models to linear systems. It also gave another opportunity to discuss domain and range, as well as discrete (LiteBrite) vs. continuous (Etch-a-Sketch) graphs. 

Beware: one student did not understand he was supposed to EAT the marshmallows. At the end of his minute, he found a home for them in the trashcan. Poor kid.

Frustration alert! Finding fresh marshmallows that don’t stick together is more difficult than one might think. I’d actually consider making it the “Skittles Sixty Seconds” or “Popcorn Pandemonium” on my next go around.

ISTE 2012

A month has gone by and I’ve been meaning to list all the sessions I attended at this year’s International Society for Technology in Education. I saw so much in such a short time that I don’t want to forget it all. More important than remembering though, is actually using my newfound nuggets of educational wisdom.  ISTE ran June 24-27 in my hometown of San Diego. Here they are:


  • Flip Teaching Secondary Mathematics-Best Practices in Action with Jason Roy (awesome meeting him)
  • Couldn’t get in to see the kickoff keynote with Sir Ken Robinson! The venue was closed due to being at capacity.



  • EduTecher’s Web Tools Will Make Your Classroom Rock! with Adam Bellow
  • Revolutionize Teaching and Learning with QR Codes with Derek Kaufman
  • Technology and Mathematics: The Right Angle with Frank Sobierajski


  • PBL Meets STEM: Delicious Main Course of Resources and Ideas with Michael Gorman
  • Data Reveals Stories: How Students Can Use Data for Learning with Ewan McIntosh

I’m very grateful for my district footing the bill for me to attend. I also know I have a long way to become the teacher I want to be.

My Letter to a New Teacher

Bowman Dickson is doing a solid for some friends who’ll be new to teaching this coming school year and put out this call:

“Please help the first year teachers in the world by writing a letter to a new teacher.”

Over twenty educators chimed in with their letters.

Here’s mine:

Dear New Teacher,

You’ve chosen a challenging and noble profession. I’ve distilled some thoughts into six   categories you might find useful.

The content will be the least of your worries.

Hard to believe, but your subject matter won’t consume your creative energies. More than likely you have a degree in the subject or have passed through the gauntlet of nasty state tests to prove your mettle. You’ll be fine with the challenge of teaching the content.  Your daily battles will be with how to motivate the unmotivated, how to satisfy the billion add-on requirements of new teachers that your department, district and state deem necessary, and how to deal with the human issues inherent to a group of hundreds, if not thousands, of students. Suicide, fights, gossip, hunger, poverty, and other distracting “real” issues will show up from time to time, unannounced, and beg for your time and talents.

 Don’t take things personally.

(This might sound like break-up talk, it’s not. )

When a student doesn’t do her homework, it’s not you.

When a student doesn’t want to share his answer out loud, it’s not you.

When a student is habitually tardy to class, it’s not you.

When a student drops out of school, it’s not you.

When a student is quarrelsome, it’s not you.

When a student graffitis your new poster, it’s not you.

These behaviors are usually the symptoms of an aversion to school. There’s probably something much deeper going on in his life than keeping on top of the demands of your class. Your class is just another item to check off in the daily drudgery that is his schedule. If it weren’t you, it’d be some other teacher receiving the same apathy, poor behavior, or mean looks. I haven’t met a teacher yet who can rally all students to do all things asked of them, and I’m in the company of some amazing teachers. It’s not you. Don’t take it personally.

Build a network of support.

3-D people: Seek out at least one member in your department who has your back, who you can go to with questions large and small, who won’t judge you. Be sure to let them know that they are a valuable resource to you.  It’ll fill their cup too. If the whole department is like that, then stay in that department for a long time! Equally important, seek out colleagues outside of your discipline.  Conversations that are not necessarily about your content area help you maintain balance.

2-D people: Locate a pocket of like-minded colleagues online as well. You have to initiate this. Start with the educators who took the time to write these letters.  See who they follow and interact with on Twitter and who’s linked to on their sites.  Chances are that’s another hotbed of proactive teachers who can offer guidance. Remember, these are the teachers who enjoy professional development as a hobby! You’re only a click away.

Focus on the learner.

There will be many tug-o-wars for your brain power. You must prioritize. If you keep your focus on what’s best for the student, many of the non-essential tuggings will dissolve away.  One hundred and eighty days (or whatever your schedule) of doing the same thing can get monotonous if you look at each day as a series of do A, then B, then on to C.  Boring. Allow your students to connect with your passion for the subject. You are sometimes the very last salesperson a student will hear on your subject. Make the pitch resonate.

Age doesn’t mean better.

Age means less experience. When you’re just starting out, you’ll be in a sea of veteran teachers. They are not who you think they are. They might look like they know it all. They don’t. Resist the temptation to view yourself at the bottom of the ladder. Chronologically you are, but not pedagogically.  You’re awesome! Just because they’ve been at the craft longer than you does not mean they’re a better teacher than you. They just have had more experience and more opportunity to fail. Fail faster to succeed sooner is a motto to live by. Often times the old cronies are reinvigorated by the fresh ideas of new blood in a school. They might’ve plateaued themselves and are looking for the spark you can provide.

Take time to renew yourself.

Want to burn yourself out? Make school your life. While your union may define what your “work day” consists of, a seasoned teacher can tell you that there is an ebb and flow to the school year. All days are not created equal. Some days you’re slammed, maybe even ready to turn in your classroom keys, and some days you feel like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.  You have to pace yourself. While school life can be unpredictable, you can offer yourself the predictability of being fair to yourself.  You owe it to yourself! If you’re not treating yourself fairly, then you won’t be the best “you” to give your students. They want and need the best “you.”

Renewing yourself includes forcing yourself to take breaks, go running, get yogurt, leave papers at school occasionally, have reasonable hours, go to a non-school event on a weeknight, attend social gatherings with friends and family. This list is infinite of course, but it so often can only be found at the bottom of our unfinished to-do lists. You have to schedule the time to renew yourself.

Good luck on your journey!