The Presentation

[Updated: Here’s the narration and slidedeck of my presentation. QuickTime movie. 20 MB.]

I was the second segment. The longest. My department head laughed on his way in and called me a sucker. Under different circumstances he would’ve been right. But I knew why I was there.

I got up in front of the teachers and gave this intro:

As long as I’ve been a teacher, I swore I’d never talk in front of teachers. I’ve done the department meetings, the staff meetings, the new teacher meetings. And inevitably … in every single one … there would come this moment where my eyes would slowly tilt somewhere above the speaker’s head … usually at some piece of stage lighting … and I’d pray silently: Please, God. Let that fall.

All in all, not the opener I thought it was. The line about swearing never to talk in front of teachers got a bigger laugh than the joke proper. Always the pessimist, though, I was ready for the flop. I came without cue cards, but if I had them, I wouldn’t have written “wait for laughter to die down” after that joke. I told them the only reason I had doubled back on a strong resolution was for the opportunity to talk about my favorite part of teaching, the part that gets me up in the morning. And what kind of person resists that call?

The important part of all this, and I’m pretty sure this was clear to my colleagues, is that I am a teacher and I have sat through some of the most crushingly awful presentations at staff meetings ever. I have endured the motionless presenters, the monotonous voices, the frozen faces, and the inexpressive hands. I have lived through dim overhead bulbs projecting too-small text in a way way too brightly-lit room. I’ve been there during the computer presentations with slides saturated with text that numb the viewer into submission. Oh my word those are probably the worst.

So the point of my intro and that first slide there wasn’t that I will improve your practice and help you change your students’ lives. It was, I’m one of you and so help me this won’t be another one of those presentations.

And it wasn’t.

I was rehearsed but not so much that it showed. I held myself tall. I walked purposefully to various parts of the room. I made eye contact. I spoke much slower than I wanted to. I cracked a few other jokes, one about whiskey, each of which was received better than my first. I clicked through slides without looking at the screen, knowing exactly where I was. The audience knew that effort had been expended for their sake and gave some appreciation for it.

There was the guy who wore shades and balanced his head heavily on his chin, whose head listed to the side now and then and whose mouth wore flecks of drool. He wasn’t really with me. There was PB, over twice my age, almost fifteen times my years of experience, who graded papers without distraction through the presentation.

But those were the easy cases. With those teachers, at least I knew where I stood. The rest of the teachers all watched me intently but I knew that some majority percentage of them was watching and waiting only for one moment. They were waiting for the one phrase or condition or fragment that would allow them to write the whole idea off. They wanted the excuse to say, “That wouldn’t fly in my class.” I resolved early-on I wouldn’t be boring. I also resolved I wouldn’t give them that license.

So I made frequent nods to all subject areas, at one point singling out English and History, the teachers with the best excuse for skepticism and told them this would work for them. At the very least, I made it clear that the classic model of assessment, the school of thought that says, test the student once and if she fails the test but later learns the material, well that’s too bad, she should’ve learned it faster the first time, is why students are scared of being assessed.

And then as my talk wound down, I called them on it. I called my presentation a fool’s errand. I said that trying to teach teachers was one of the most pointless tasks anyone should feel called to. I pointed the gun at myself too. Even two years into teaching, I said, I was so comfortable, cocky, and sure of my methods I would find any way to dismiss a good suggestion. (Note to keynote speakers and session presenters: the best way to ensure your dismissal is by being really really dull.) I told them that even if I was up there to tell them they were all getting raises they would harrumph, glance at their watches, and continue grading papers.

I asked them, then, out of respect for the impossibility of my situation, to put down their pens, and papers, and grading, and give me ten final seconds.

Please honestly ask yourselves this: when was the last time you walked into your classroom … cancelled a test … and your students were angry with you?

The effect was powerful. The mood was unsettled across the room. And just like with my wobbly opener, I knew exactly where to go.

I have second prep, fourth prep, I’m free before school, during lunch, and after school. I believe in this system so much. My e-mail handle around here is “dmeyer.” I’d love to sit down and talk to you about this anytime you want.

I said thanks, hit a button on the remote, and faded the screen on the best lesson I ever delivered to a room of deaf people.


There was still more to the staff meeting but I just sat there, kind of flat. Usually after these sort of talks I’ll be shaking. I felt wasted, though. Even with pictures and words, I hadn’t been able to express how much teachers are botching the whole assessment thing. It was obvious that the crowd had been entertained and if my purpose up there had been only to amuse them, I would’ve been charged up. I tried.

Teachers came forward as I packed up my projector and laptop. Each gave me some variation on “great presentation.” Obviously this was gratifying but I knew what they meant, though only a cocky first-year teacher was tactless enough to put it in words: “it was the least boring staff meeting presentation I’ve ever seen.”

I mean, gosh, thanks, but … Sarah came into my class yesterday complaining that you won’t let her retake the unit test. Don’t you and I have something more to talk about?

It was a bummer.

Then things brightened. One teacher, I don’t even know her name, came up and wanted to talk about it. I agreed to meet her after school on the rally day. I’m so excited about that.

My Geometry students told me that one of their teachers was going to try my methods out in their science class, which is so exciting.

Then the next day I bumped into one of the first-year teachers, an English teacher for the love, who came at me with a familiar righteous indignation and wanted to know how to make this work for her English class. I swear, if she and I can tool this to work in the abstract subject areas, I’m taking my Keynote presentation on the road.

If every teacher assessed like I do, I wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Kids love my class because, in some cases for the first time in twelve years, math treats them fairly. But I’d gladly trade my popularity if all our students felt as empowered as mine do.

[Update: check out the comprehensive resource.]

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Dan,

    Looks amazing, and I love your manifesto. (Although, I’d ask where project-based learning can fit into your scenario, too.)

    One thing… I read the whole entry and then went to watch the narration and slide deck, only to discover that the link doesn’t work! Can you let me know when the link is fixed? I’d love to watch it.

    — Chris

  2. Good looking out on that link. It’s fixed now.

    At some point, I’m going to have to reconcile my love of inquiry- and project-based learning with this assessment strategy that empowers me and my kids better than any other I’ve field tested. Doubtlessly, SLA needs assessments that jive with its project-based ethos.

    My current compromise is this: I’ll take my kids through a week-long unit — say The Lion and the Ranger, an intro to parametric graphing.

    They’ll investigate.

    The artists will draw pictures.

    They’ll make a portfolio.

    They’ll do everything that makes project-based learning fun.

    But as crude as this may sound, when it comes time to assign a grade for their understanding of parametrics, I don’t care nearly as much about their ability to work through a five-day workshop as I do the question: can you solve a set of parametric equations?

    I need some column in my gradebook that ranks their facility for parametrics on a four-point scale.

    It needs to be accurate, so I can scan a gradebook and tell my principal, my department head, or a parent, exactly where my students are most deficient.

    It needs to be fluid, so that my students at any point can ask to be re-assessed for parametrics (or fractions or parabolas or any of forty concepts over a year) and receive a commensurate grade nudge for an increase in comprehension.

    I guess the real philosophical question is how large to make the carrots? Mine are 70/30 in favor of assessment but with my remedial schedule, I have to play it standards-based. Maybe your teachers would flip that in favor of portfolios, investigations, and oral presentation … I don’t know. I just know that this one column in my gradebook is somehow driving my development as a teacher.

  3. I realize this comment is a little late, but I have only recently stumbled onto your blog and am now reading through all the old posts.

    I love the underlying idea and the presentation was inspiring. I agree that this method is fairer. Ideologically it seems in line with the skills mastery school of thought. However, I believe there are some unanswered questions from the presentation. Perhaps you have heard them before and have prepared answers, but I wonder:

    1.) As each test progresses to the next skill and drops the oldest skill, aren’t there certain skills sets that are covered more times? The chart below illustrates what I am imagining might be a flaw if the method is used literally as you described it in the presentation.

    Test 1 Test 2 Test 3 Test 4 Test 5 Total
    Skill 1 1 0 0 0 0 1
    Skill 2 1 2 0 0 0 2
    Skill 3 1 2 3 0 0 3
    Skill 4 0 1 2 3 0 3
    Skill 5 0 0 1 2 3 3
    Skill 6 0 0 0 1 2 2
    Skill 7 0 0 0 0 1 1

    At either end of the spectrum, certain skill sets receive fewer attempts for mastery. This means students are given attempts for mastery on an unequally distributed basis. The skills then, which are tested in the middle of the year, are more likely to result in mastery than those skills assessed at the beginning or end. At least that is what I perceive to occur, based on what you presented. Perhaps this is something for which you have already identified a solution. Perhaps you spiral in older material or offer comprehensive exams. Nevertheless, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

    2.) When a student needs to make another (make-up) attempt at mastery, how do you retest aside from subsequent tests, which may not cover the older material again? Do you create multiple version tests, and offer make-ups of previous exams after school or otherwise during “your” time? Only offer chances when the tests are given out in class?

    3.) When a student is determined to have met the mastery level, and can now opt out of future assessments, how do you account for retention of skills?

    4.) Finally, what are your thoughts on applying this testing dynamic to subjects whose standards are content rather than skills based. History comes to mind. I don’t mean to say there are not skills that need to be assessed in history, rather I mean that the standards as they stand now focus on retention of facts and answers not on mastery of skills.

    I commented on the comprehensive resource post page as well. I realize your argument is not that this is how ALL subjects should assess. You very clearly stated this is how MATH must assess. However, I see real merit in this system and am intrigued by the possibilities for improved assessment that it offers.

    I’m in your neck of the woods if you ever want to meet up and collaborate on anything. I’m in Oakland, but it’s not really that far from Santa Cruz. I am currently working on a method of improving students’ ability to take notes efficiently and effectively. If that’s something you’re interested in maybe we can swap some ideas.

  4. Hi Dan, great questions, and good food for my thought, especially as the school year kicks up again this month:

    1) You are mostly correct. Skills at either end of the semester are assessed less though they receive the same duration and intensity of instruction as anything else. To mitigate this inevitable outcome of the school calendar, I sort out and re-assess our “least mastered” concepts at the semester’s end.

    2) Students are also welcome to retake tests before school, at lunchtime, or after school. I create these from scratch, from a stack of blank half-sheets, based on a student’s previous score (ie. a 1/4 means I give her the softer question; if this is a student’s sixth pass at a concept, I’m throwing every picky contingency at her; sometimes, I say, take a break, come back in a week).

    3) Issues of retention are addressed here.

    4) My assessment methods are a tough sell in other content areas, I admit. Some time ago I wondered what I would do if forced at gunpoint to teach another subject. I’d scrap the particulars of this assessment strategy, I decided, but two foundational principals remained. I wrote about those here.

    Sorry to delegate some of these responses to other posts, but time constraints, you know? If they don’t satisfy your curiosity, feel free to punch holes in the walls here or there. This is always useful to me.