Oh NOW I get it.

Also: Why Crash Isn’t As Good As You Think It Is

A few weeks ago I posted this diptych, the only intent of which was to illustrate my gripping inability to see left and right from my students’ perspective.

A commenter hinted at a metaphor beneath the surface, one which eluded me until coupla days ago when Christian Long literalized it substantially.

Christian takes Creative Commons to Threat Level Midnight, completely remixing my original point and launching those photos on a faraway journey to School 2.0 land, where one of largest predators is the one-way dynamic between teacher and student. Christian holds my diptych up as an example of this kind of passive learning (he means no offense and none is taken; it’s a selective look at my practice) and asks what the future of learning would look like if similarly put to photographs.

It’s an evenhanded critique of traditional education, so evenhanded, in fact, I have to seize the moment to point out how other School 2.0-ists prop up their agenda by slinging mud at the traditional speaker-audience model.

It happens anytime I write on proper PowerPoint practices or the habits of speakers who don’t bore me. Someone writes an e-mail or a comment decrying PowerPoint and public speaking as nefarious tools of self-absorbed teachers who subjugate their students into learning comas. There are usually omniscient quotes like this one in the original post, “sit passively and absorb all my knowledge,” or, from a linked post by the same zealous commenter, “I know everything. You know nothing.”

Some School 2.0-ists saw those photos and then leaped to the worst conclusions about my class environment:

It’s a dishonest and annoying approach to a multi-faceted problem, one which ignores the many shades of gray between hardcore constructivism and hardcore direct instruction.

Likewise, with Crash, the best justice Paul Haggis could do to the complexities of racism in America today was a white cop violating a black woman at a roadside stop. In Crash‘s universe, nothing less than the same white cop pulling the same black woman from a flaming SUV could constitute racial reconciliation.

I was in college when Crash lowered the bar on racism to somewhere around shin level for me and my classmates. And so it was that many students I knew, students who indulged in subtler forms of discrimination like the racism of lowered expectations, walked right over that bar and concluded, “I’m alright ’cause I’m not that pervert racist cop.”

So if you’re serious about this School 2.0 thing (or anything else, really; a lot of anti-NCLB rhetoric leaps to mind) you’ve gotta dodge the lame caricatures. Their dishonesty irritates the people most likely to get behind you and then gives the people who most need what you’re selling a free pass to ignore you.

“I’ve never told my class to sit passively and absorb my knowledge,” they’ll read you and say. “So reckon I’m doin’ alright.”


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. For the record, Christian’s metaphor wasn’t the one I was necessarily shooting for. Mine was much simpler — we don’t necessarily see things the way they do. This can be the root cause of much of the disconnection between teachers and students, regardless of pedagogy.

    In the end, my point was simpler — we all do better when we try to remember the other person’s point of view.

  2. Ah … now I really get it. See what happens when you get all cryptic with a literal fella such as myself?

  3. To me, Dan, it’s not the whole standing-up-in-front-of-the-room-and-gesticulating thing that gives me pause when I read your blog. It’s that you seem to believe that the only way to succeed in a classroom is to spend a pretty ridiculous amount of time preparing each lesson.

    Far be it from me to tell you how you should be spending your weekends and your out-of-school time. I’ve got a couple more years of classroom experience than you do (if my math is right) and I’m concerned that you’re going to burn yourself out before you can get in and make the kind of impact that I know you want to. 18 hours on a 45 minute lesson is NUTS, my friend, and though I know you and TMAO are all about the “bring it hard every minute of the day” approach, to which I say: respect. But we’re going to lose you guys to frustration, to exhaustion, to all the side effects of slamming your head into the wall to entertain adolescents who’d much rather be anywhere else, no matter how much they like (or you think they like) you and your class.

    I almost left the profession entirely after my first year. I was teaching 8th grade English and US History (for which I had no training) at a really demanding suburban school. I came in every day with 120 minutes of prepared activities, lectures, games, etc. I thought I was the man. And it’s a total cliche to say it (in fact, it hurts to write it) but it wasn’t until I found myself in the hospital for the second time that winter that I realized how nice it was to have some time to myself. When I went back to work I couldn’t believe how much better my classes went when I wasn’t a sleep-deprived stress case.

    Do what you feel is right, but I just want to warn you, as one young teacher to another, that you need to be careful.

  4. Dan,

    Well done. A mash-up of a mash-up. Squared, right? I’m an ex-English teacher, so the Hollywood part I grasp, but the mathematical inference I may be a bit rusty on.

    Curious. Do I get a medal of honor for my recent “threat level midnight” School 2.0 mash-up of the P.O.V. dyptich of a teacher pointing one way as students sense a different directional equivalent? (he smiles) I’m guessing with the allusion to “Crash” and the Hollywood send-up’s, this is where Dorothy 2.0 notices a pair of feet sticking out from under a tornado-strewn home pulled from the past? (he smiles again)

    Mmmm. Not sure I sensed my blog post intent nor wording to have earned the following, Dan, but perhaps between the lines you have the privilege of suggesting I am yet another over-indulgent 2.0 ranter. Have I also earned the following badge of distinction as you wrote in the same post? — “It’s a dishonest and annoying approach to a multi-faceted problem, one which ignores the many shades of gray between hardcore constructivism and hardcore direct instruction.” Just curious.

    I also recall stating in the very same post you linked back to, and used to argue the opposite point, saying without hesitation the following:

    “Dan has a gift. Asking tough questions, pushing conversations, being brutally transparent about his own development as an educator, embracing/attacking both the ironies and realities of 2.0 everything. Additionally, a gift of weaving story-telling, graphics, video, and a myriad of multi-media sensibilities into the traditional foundation columns of mathematics and public education. A (gasp) teacher 2.0 version of Malcolm X: “By whatever means necessary.” A gift to the field that is only beginning to gain momentum as his 3rd year comes to an end (his suggestions that he’s on fumes aside, he’s still pulling significant weight and inspiring both colleagues and kiddo alike).”

    Perhaps that isn’t “A Convenient Truth” if we’re going to split the proverbial Hollywood hair with such precision, trying to force folks to one side or another, rather than wonder collectively about new possibilities along the way.

    No worries. I’m still equally comfortable holding up the dyptich as a healthy example for all of us — including my own teaching CV, my friend — as we face forward. We have a fairly healthy quantity of academic centuries filled with ‘proof’ demonstrating that the classic relationship between teacher and student will ‘work’. Given such confidence, why spend so much energy defending it? Why worry about the errant web voices climbing over the ramparts? Why ever worry about the pesky 2.0 buzzing at the end of the day?

    If I were of such a mind, I’d take the extra time from defending educational history and put it back into lesson planning, or at least steal a decent weekend to catch up with old friends that were of similar mind, enjoy a good bottle of vino, and smile with confidence that ‘those other guys’ will go the way of the open-plan classroom and “new math”.

    But forget me. My blog posts are a distraction.

    I would take a much more experienced and wiser Jeff Wasserman’s question to heart re: the length of time in prepping for classes vs. what it takes to let the kids move at the speed of their own learning. This is not 2.0 rhetoric. This is about all of our ability to stay in the teaching game without the threat of burn-out. And if you don’t see it looming on the horizon, keep an eye out. It’s waiting.

    Dan, ALL of us as young teachers (passionately attacking the opportunities with fever) proved that we could spend as many hours outside of the classroom (as inside it) prepping and constructing lessons that demonstrated OUR ‘gift of teaching’. Fear and excitement does that to a guy. So does ego. Just like a young varsity coach still believes she/he has to be able to one-up every one of his/her players to prove they ‘still got game’, whereas experienced coaches aren’t breaking a sweat or worried about their 4/40 split on the sidelines.

    The monster-lesson-plan-and-following-day-event game is the rite of initiation, Dan. Every young teacher has been there, done that. Ultimately, it’s one that you have to face — better early on than later — as you gaze upon the very steep learning curve as a young professional educator. Year three is a break-through year, but the next few are harder in ways you have only begun to imagine…because early talent is different from long-term wisdom. The transition to ‘master’ teacher takes place much later when you begin to wonder why that very same energy/effort isn’t being expected of the kids’ themselves, carried on their shoulders in fact. When you begin to wonder why you’re still trying to prove you can be the creative learning hero and master expert of the classroom, you can’t focus on them. Simply impossible.

    The kids get it — you know more than they do.
    The kids get it — you love the subject more than they do.
    The kids get it — you are able to research and plan and all the rest harder than they can.
    The kids get it — you’re the teacher.

    All good, but limited. Ultimately, it is about what the kids learn, what they master, what they internalize that matters. Esp. when we get to that pesky hard-to-pin down part of their future.

    As an educator, however, the gift that will take you the distance over the length of profound teaching career isn’t called 2.0 anything. Nor is it threatened by such a metaphor. It is, however, about focusing that energy so that your students are empowered to figure it out. And this may just preserve your fuel tank in the process.

    Imagine back to a recent post-about-a-lesson of yours, for instance, if you had asked the kids to make their own graphing relationship movies (et al) first…maybe you’d do it alongside them…and then watched to see what happened as you ‘both’ learned from the other side along the way. Your expertise/instinct would have been ahead of them, to be sure, but the ‘process’ would have been centered on learning, not on the teacher’s performance or presentation.

    Like good TV audiences watching good shows, they most likely loved your talent. But if the game is for them to become producers of great shows themselves over time, perhaps there’s a different path that a) gives you back your nights and b) focuses on their horizon lines.

    And perhaps that is the ultimate irony no matter which side of the educational dyptich you prefer. I call it 2.0. A long time ago, they called it ‘master’ teacher. Call it what you will.

    I’m still curious of you can imagine the DIY Math Film Festival. Or perhaps it’s only a 1-man show. (he smiles)


  5. So much for metaphors. I’ll stick to literal. :)

    But… allow me to echo the other voices here, Dan, and say that I do worry about burn out when I read your stuff. I’ve read about how much you work, and I think to myself, “What happens when this guy has a kid?”

    Now, the teaching gig does get a little easier, and you do learn how to borrow from stuff you’ve done before. But teaching has to be a sustainable life, and 70 hours a week is too much. I know my teachers have a lot of weeks that top out around 60 hours, and I know that around the end of the semester or around narrative report card time, that number does push over 60 hours, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable pace if it stays over it.

    I’m pretty driven, and I’ve learned that I cannot ask everone else to work as hard as I do, and even I found that I topped out around 65-70 hours a week. (And I can’t do that from the admin chair, I’ve found.)

    But even if it *is* sustainable for you, Dan, here’s the larger view, we are never going to be able to build a national teaching core of people who want to and can work that hard and that long. So even if you and TMAO are the rare teachers who can sustain that pace over time (and hey, I did, so it is possible), it’s not realistic to think we can build a national policy around that expectation.

  6. Geez, it’s like I have three more Father’s Day cards to send out next month.

    Anyway, you all clearly possess the best of intentions but I feel misunderstood enough, and I worry enough that my new teacher readers are misunderstanding me, that I’m gonna pull these out of the comments (partially) into the light. Don’t feel like I’m quibbling too much. Good food, fellas.

    P.S. Someone tell me how Christian finds the time to play CEO and daddy and blog/comment/e-mail the equivalent of a novella daily.

  7. Hm. A coupla things I won’t be pulling out from the comments.

    Christian, I’m (again) losing myself amidst the metaphor so let me clarify, I was tossing your critique out as the right way (by my standards) to go about things criticism. I think I called it “evenhanded.” I tried to be clear, anyway, that I hadn’t taken offense from your post and didn’t mean offense with mine. *sigh*

    Nor was I trying to force people to their separate camps. I thought I was explicitly against that kind of extremism. *double sigh*

  8. Geez, it’s like I have three more Father’s Day cards to send out next month.

    Jays, no, I’m 29. Though if it helps my students thought I was in my mid-30s, while the young ladies I occasionally meet think I’m 25.

  9. No joke meant here. And definitely NOT a metaphor.

    A decent fire built under the stars, someone with a decent guitar lick, and a chance to just kick back and talk about the moments where students changed our life for the better would do this entire conversation a world of good. Fortunately, I’ve had a number of such nights over the years as a teacher, coach, camp counselor, and several other edu-roles, and came to realize that intellect and debate carried you only so far at a certain point. Some older teaching mentors screwed my head on straight years ago when I was running too hard on thin tracks. Funny. They’re still showing up well into their 3rd (even 4th) decades of teaching. Might suggest something to both of us.

    Sometimes everyone at the conversational table needs to enjoy their colleagues off-the-clock and speak to the true ‘standards’ of the profession. Maybe even a bit of Frisbee before the fire is lit (right, Chris?) to work out some of the left-over energy that needs to be burned away.

    As for Fathers Day cards? No need. I have an 8 month old that is dying to play with markers, so we’re covered there. But something tells me that if you put your video/graphics skills to the test, you might put together one of the finest cards around.

    BTW, can’t answer the P.S. question of yours above. Typing fast isn’t the answer you want; probably not the coffee refills, either, I suspect. Flip it over: I’d like to know where you found the time to do 18 hours of filming/planning for one lesson. I had to mow the lawn this weekend, not to mention run errands with my better half and kiddo. That alone would have made your schedule impossible for me to live up to!