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I wrote that. In all sincerity. On June 8, 2004. In an essay for my credentialing school entitled — of all things — "How Students Learn Math."

This gobsmacked, gross-feeling moment is what I get for digitally cataloging every essay, handout, and lesson I have written since high school.

I am grateful, I suppose, that it only took me six years to go from "the best learning begins with a good worksheet" to the kind of instructional design that — for whatever good it does my students — has me excited to wake up in the morning, has me constantly double-checking my front pocket for a camera, has me excited to walk around and encounter math in my daily life. I'm grateful because I'm positive there exists another timeline, equally plausible to this one, where I'm still that enthusiastic about worksheets after six years, or ten years. Or an entire career. I hear that happens.

I'll speculate twice here:

  1. I don't think any of the other ten members of my UC Davis cohort ever wrote anything as stupid as "the best learning begins with a good worksheet."
  2. I don't think any of the other ten members of my UC Davis cohort has failed as fast, as often, or as productively as I have in the six years since we graduated.

My first post at dy/dan was four years ago today.

I am extremely grateful to a lot of different folks who have patronized my work over those four years, folks like Chris Lehmann, who threw some shine on my assessment writing in my first week of blogging; folks like Kathy Sierra, Tim O'Reilly, Nat Torkington, and my other patrons at O'Reilly Media, but especially Nat, whose promotion on the Radar got my grocery line post moving, whose invitation onto the terrifying Ignite stage at OSCON 2009 got me introduced to Brian Fitzpatrick who helped me score a job at Google where I met Maggie Johnson who helped me get into Stanford. And a lot of other folks. Especially those who stuck around during those those first two years when I was basically angry all the time. All six of you.

I have blogged behind password encryption for an audience of zero and, more recently, for an audience of 6,000 subscribers. Both kinds of blogging have worked certain wonders on my teaching practice.

I'll say this about the second kind — perhaps just as a reflection but perhaps also as a recommendation to those in the math edublogosphere who are working hard and picking up a lot of deserved press: use more readers as an excuse to fail faster, more often, and more productively.

The closer I track this blog to the theme "what I will do differently next time," the more I draw readers who introduce me to new ideas, who offer me their time and energy to field-test my latest harebrained schemes, readers who have helped me pinball quickly from failure to success.

For the last four years.

There are worse forms of professional development than blogging.

a/k/a SLV Scav


So recall that I snapped back in September. I would show my students videos of someone doing something awesome (for instance) and if that thing required more than seven minutes of sustained effort, my students would slag the person for "having no life" or "having too much much time on her hands." Those remarks burned me pretty bad. I took personal offense but, more than that, I really wanted my students to become the sort of people who would put hard work into interesting tasks.

At the same time, I had some of the previous year's students wandering back into my room like migratory butterflies. They were bored. I missed them. One lunch period I said, "I'm thinking of a senior who's taking yearbook class and has five siblings. Who can find that student first?"

It took London twenty-two minutes.

I stepped my game up. "How many yes/no questions would it take to carve the entire campus down to one student?" I put a student in my head. It took London fourteen questions. Sandy took thirteen. These kids were unreal.

I taped an index card to the bottom of a bus seat and gave them a photo.

It took Sandy two weeks (following one near miss) to track down the bus and retrieve the card.

This went on for a month or two until I asked London and Sandy and Wayne to help me take this thing — whatever it was — to the entire campus.

The Goal

David Milch:

I'm doing what I can to tell stories which engage those issues in ways which can engage the imagination so that people don't feel threatened by it.

This seems dead on to me. Imagination can be threatening and scary if you aren't accustomed to doing something with it. It seemed necessary to trigger the imagination of my students slowly, with progressively harder challenges, so that they'd reach the hardest challenge with confidence and competence, thinking to themselves three things:

  1. Oh my word, I'm awesome.
  2. Oh my word, the people I go to school with are awesome.
  3. Oh my word, the place where I live is awesome.

I wanted to see two hundred students register for the first challenge (approximately 25% of the student body) and one hundred finish the final challenge.

The Process

We conducted covert board meetings in Gmail. We shared a spreadsheet in Docs. We brainstormed and whittled thirty challenges down to twelve over five months. We involved nobody else except Andy Schmitz, who did a fantastic job translating my Photoshop mockups into a functioning website. Someone hire him for something that pays.

We marketed each challenge with an audio bulletin in the morning announcements and with twenty-five handbills posted around campus. We also had a Facebook group. Naturally.

Grand Prize

None. This was subject to a lot of debate early in the planning process. Ultimately, we wanted to see contestants doing interesting things for little more incentive than the thrill of doing interesting things.

We did assign points to challenges and we kept a running scoreboard for both individuals and classes (ie. "Are the freshmen beating the seniors?" etc.). Andy rigged the scoreboard to track ranking movement a lá Billboard's music charts. (ie. "Marco Polo rose 17 rankings in the charts today.") These efforts were all well received by the contestants.

The Twelve Challenges

We gave students between two and five days for each challenge. In sum, the challenges lasted the month of May.

1. Do You Know Your Twins

We took photos of all the twins on campus and asked the contestants to tell them apart.

2. When You Were Young

London and Sandy tracked down yearbooks from the elementary school. We posted the third grade photo for a boy and a girl from each high school class and asked the contestants to identify them.

3. The Day The Teachers Disappeared

Taking a page out of the Filmwise playbook, we asked ten teachers for a personal photo and then I disappeared them using a lot of detailed brushwork in Photoshop. (There isn't an easy way to do this one.)

4. Name That Student Schedule

We posted the class schedule for one student from every class and had contestants identify the students. This one led to some disruption, I'm told, with NB bursting into a first period world history class to interrogate students en masse. Sorry, teacher buds.

5. They Did WHAT?!

We solicited a single strange biographical fact from ten teachers and had contestants match teachers to facts.

6. Name That Student Venn

"Name the student who has the most common last name on campus, who also throws the discus, and who also plays in the jazz band." Ten items like that. We tripped up certain frontrunners by including complements in the Venn diagrams.

7. SLV Snipe Hunt

We gave out ten yellow shirts to members of the study body and teaching faculty. We labeled each of the shirts with a letter from A through J. Contestants had two days to hunt the snipes down. We intensified the hunt by giving credit only to the first twenty people to bag a snipe. After that, the snipe was useless to the contestant.

8. Debrief

Pause for breath. A brief survey with questions about the scav, questions about who you were friends with as a little kid, and one bit where we asked students to design their ideal school schedule full of electives taught by anybody from anywhere in the world. ("Do they have to be alive?" a contestant asked via e-mail.)

Here are a few examples:

  • Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson
  • Dance, Chris Brown
  • Drama, Taylor Lautner
  • How to Make Awesome 80s Movies, John Hughes
  • Egyptology, Dr. Zahi Hawass
  • Marine Biology, Craig Carlson (PhD)
  • Potions, Snape
  • Drumming 101, Neil Peart
  • Writing Like Terry Pratchett, Terry Pratchett
  • Photography, Astrid Kirchherr

9. Name That Student Survey

Andy built this one out so that one contestant would receive another contestant's survey from the previous challenge, now anonymous, and have to determine that contestant's identity. They could do this for as many surveys as were submitted in the last challenge, but you couldn't ever change your answer once you submitted it so be careful.

10. Points For Pints

At this point, we figured we had a certain crowd of students hooked on the competition and we wanted to turn them out for the benefit of humanity. Contestants could either donate blood in the school blood drive (nice timing, administrator buds) or they could tell us a story and attach a photo describing something amazing and awesome and kind that they did for someone they didn't know.

11. Photo Bomb

Contestants could photo bomb select students, teachers, district officials, and county representatives, with points awarded on a sliding scale of difficulty. The points maxed out with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and I was convinced two particular contestants had designs to team up and take him down.

12. Olde SLV

I went to the university library and secured some vintage photos of our school's rural town. We found some old-timey photos of our school, also, like before they chopped down that enormous oak to make room for the new library. That sort of thing. Contestants had to take a modern picture from the same angle and location for points. Only one contestant answered this challenge.

Data & Analysis

  • 179 users registered. 112 students completed the first challenge. 1 student completed the last challenge. So there you go.
  • The median contestant completed two challenges.
  • 7 of my 46 students signed up. One of them completed four challenges; the rest were one-offs.
  • This chart describes the number of students completing each of the twelve challenges:
  • There were two males in the top twenty contestants. There were none in the top ten. (My campus is 52% male, by comparison.) I have no idea what to make of that right there.
  • This chart describes the final class ranking.

Faculty Reaction

Surprisingly low key. The heat I thought I'd take over student privacy (it's a website after all! ooga booga!) never materialized. If it had, I would have pointed out that a student ID was required to access the site, which meant the whole thing was locked down at least as tightly as the school yearbook.

Obvious Blunders

  • Maybe this was poorly timed at the end of the school year. I don't know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
  • We offered a referral credit on the second challenge. Get someone new to sign on. If they put your name down as a referral, you both scored 50 extra points. We should have had that offer running the entire time.
  • We didn't do anything to build a community out of the competitors. Apart from submitting a response and checking your score, there wasn't any reason to visit the site. We should have released every student answer after each individual challenge ended. We should have added comments also.
  • We should have had better, more inspiring challenges, but what can you do, right?

Less Obvious Blunders

  • I'm sure you can help me out with this.


I'm obliged to:

I'm really glad we did this. We fell way short of my expectations, but it's hard to reconcile that fact with the wide grin on my face when I think back on the whole thing.

BTW: Andy Schmitz has posted a technical rundown of the site alongside generous samples of code.

I asked them to pull out their notes and write down "New Hampshire." They did. Then I told them to write down five more state names.

I should have ratched this up to fifteen but five was annoying enough for most. They grumbled and I gave them permission to abbreviate the names in whatever way made sense to them.

Most students balked at "Mississippi." They abbreviated every state name but that one. "Too many states start with 'MI,'" they said. We talked about how tricky it is to decide on a rule for abbreviating, how it can lead to confusion later.

You see where this is going, right?

I had them write down the number "5,449,203,159,204,210," which they did. Then I had them write down more numbers and I gave them permission to abbreviate again.

The next part happened quickly but required a lot of encouragement because students have been trained to treat numbers like so many sacred little statues. ("Do not touch the numbers! Do not feed the numbers!") We asked ourselves, "which is the most important digit here?" After that, students started coming up with variations on the same theme:

5, 15

From there it was a really quick shuffle step to 5.45 x 1015 through this slide here.

Too many of my students have decided that math is a weird irrelevant game with arbitrary rules that are known only to strange old people whose hands are stained by dry-erase marker. From my experience, nothing works quite as well to disabuse them of that impression than putting them in a place to accidentally invent that game themselves.

Kyle, re OK Go's latest: "Somebody has too much time on their hands."

Laronn: "Shut up, Kyle. What do you do? You go home and play Counter-Strike all day."

In Defense Of Busy Work

Yesterday's opener question:

Count the circles.

Several students tallied the left half of the pyramid, doubled it, and then added the middle column. One student not only counted the circles one-by-freaking-one but kept a current tally inside each circle.

There are 324.

He was somewhere in the low hundreds when I drew his attention to the numbers at the end of each row: 1, 4, 9, 16 ….

"What do you notice? How can we use that to save ourselves time?"

The tedium of busy work can motivate student invention.

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