Month: August 2008

Total 20 Posts

Feltron Post-Mortem

a/k/a My Qualified Disaster
a/k/a The Trouble With Tech

previously on dy/dan

We started with four variables (text messages, beers per day, etc.) which we tracked for 2.5 months in quad-ruled notebooks attempting to transform the quotidian details of our lives into extraordinary infodesigns a lá Nicholas Felton.

This was a departure for me. A tech-driven, student-led, design-infused mathematical project. Things went wrong.

This is a comprehensive autopsy of our Feltron Project. I post it here, in its entirety, a) for my own review next year, b) for your criticism. If you aren’t in the mood for the full, bone-by-bone dissection, please scan down to the section headed What Really Happened. These are problems I don’t know how to solve.

The Lesson Plan

a/k/a What Was Supposed To Happen

  1. We selected variables.
  2. We discussed them, making them more interesting (disaggregating “hugs per day” into “boy hugs” and “girl hugs”) and more manageable (tracking “fast food I eat” instead of “what I eat”).
  3. We tracked them for ten weeks, checking ourselves for consistency every two weeks, and then we stopped.
  4. We spent one hour marveling over Nicholas Felton’s annual report, dissecting it for meaning, identifying the mathematical operations (average, maximum, minimum, sum) and the mathematical forms (pie chart, line graph, histogram, stacked bar graph, map) he used.
  5. We spent six hours entering our data into Excel sheets.
  6. We spent two hours teaching and deriving ten facts of our lives using average, maximum, minimum, and sum functions in Excel.
  7. We spent two hours teaching and deriving four graphs of our lives using pies, lines, and bars.
  8. Raw facts and graphs in hand, we spent thirty minutes discussing and distilling Felton’s graphic design savvy into the two principles I thought my freshmen could reproduce with crayons and paper if they had nothing else:
    1. colors, Felton uses a two-color design (shades of black, shades of blue) which, apart from distinguishing his hierarchy (titles in black, data in dark blue, accents in light blue, etc.) keeps down costs when designing for a large print run.
    2. grids, the kind your eyes can’t see but which your brain loves, the kind which imposes order on what would otherwise be a completely disordered data set, so while Felton jumps from music to movies to drinks you know where to find everything.
  9. We spent another two hours in class tying up loose ends in Excel and then a week designing our Feltron Projects.

What Really Happened

a/k/a Help.

  1. Only 55% of my students submitted the final Feltron ProjectControlling for age: 48% of freshmen and 63% of upperclassmen completed the project..
  2. Many of the other 45% stopped tracking early in the project, which meant assigning them review work, new work, or busy work while everyone else worked in Excel.
  3. Those who kept up with the project quickly staggered their progress (based on pre-existing computer ability, typing speed, and attendance) which saw me dashing between desks, explaining and re-explaining the same procedures over and over again.
  4. Our mobile computer lab a) comprised just fifteen laptops, and b) was available for check-out only once a week, c) if that.
  5. Kids lost work. I had them send their Excel files to themselves and then download the attachment the next day. Trouble was kids sent old files to themselves or they named files computer arsenic like “<<xxxx….davidsfeltronz!!!….xxxx.xls>>” which put both Excel and Gmail into simultaneous cardiac arrestFor the record, I originally sought GoogleDocs out for this project but they maxed out at something like fifty rows where we needed hundreds..
  6. I overestimated my students’ computer fluency. Name it: locating saved files, opening programs, using a trackpad, using modifier keys, sending e-mail. These tasks all required constant, patient re-explanation. Missed that mark by a country mileThere were exceptions, naturally, but Digital Immigrants™ outnumbered Natives™ at 15:1, many of which Natives one day, I have little doubt, will grow up to be edubloggers..
  7. None of them had used Excel before. Ever. Many didn’t have it at home. One triumph of this project – recognized by a lot of students – is that my kids are now somewhere in the top quintile of Excel users. This will doubtlessly prove useful again in their lives – not in the when-will-we-ever-use-this-in-real-life? sense, like they won’t be able to find food or shelter without Excel, just that it will open up a lot of interesting opportunities.

What Mattered

a/k/a Grading

  1. Faithful Tracking
  2. Interesting Findings
  3. Clear Design

Students ranked themselves on a ten-point scale across each index. Given how deeply we had immersed ourselves in exemplary work over two-and-a-half months, with only a few exceptions, I gave them exactly the grades they felt they deserved.

What I’ll Do Next Time

a/k/a If There Is A Next Time, Obviously

  1. Host screencasts online demonstrating essential Excel proceduresincl: sorting columns, using formulas (avg, min, max, sum, countif), saving/sending work, creating new sheets, filling down the date..
  2. Strengthen our analysis. A student’s text message graph plunged for a week when her parents confiscated her phone and spiked when she pulled a boyfriend in May. Students positively thrilled to see those connections but we didn’t build any of that analysis into the project grading. Should’ve.
  3. Employ a Kuropatwa-esque rubric to better inform kids what constitutes “clear design” or “faithful tracking.”
  4. Discuss design in greater depth, incl.
    1. showing them what my own Feltron would look like with rangy, mean grids or spasmodic colors;
    2. showing off the good and bad from this year’s class;
    3. comparing/constrating Khoi Vinh’s approach to grids and David Carson’s insane anti-grids;
    4. showing them Aesthetic Apparatus’ beautiful work in just three-or-fewer colors;
    5. compare 3D graphs alongside 2D hoping a lot of students will reconsider the choices they’ve made in life.
  5. Make a more obvious point of my own Feltron Project. Playing along with your students isn’t even optional here. I made sure I ran through the collection process with my students (for empathy, if nothing else) but I should’ve made a larger point of my own struggle and process.
  6. Find collaborators. This was insane. I should not have gone at this aloneAny takers?.

Students On Feltron

Just do a month.

JG, smart; we’ll multiply a month by 12 to extrapolate for a year.

Everyone should track the same thing because it’d be really cool to see which people are like you.

BP, also smart; resolved, then, that we’ll select three variables independently of the class and then select a common classroom variable for the fourth.

I like the chalang. It feels like I acopolished something hard and it made me feel good.

BS, sic sic sic; whose mother, in an IEP meeting, said of his Feltron notebook, “He carries it everywhere.”

Felton On Feltron

Nicholas Felton consented to an e-mail interview on his process which will appear in this space tomorrow.


I have installed student work – everything from awful to exemplary, but mostly exemplary – into a Flickr set.


  1. Feltron Project Outline
  2. Nicholas Felton Analysis Sheet
  3. Excel Chart Illustrations
  4. Excel Formula Sheet
  5. Map Infograph Template
  6. Final Review Sheet

To Conclude

This was a different, necessary kind of insanity for me to finish my fourth year teaching even a little eager for a fifth. The price tag was steep. To accommodate this time-sucking project-based learning, we skipped a third of our logic unit in Geometry and fully jettisoned last year’s Platonic Solids project.

If I weren’t already guzzling away at this barrel of standards-based Kool-Aid, I’d write something agitated and truly inexcusable here about curriculum narrowing or the time cost of NCLB, but I remain convinced we need to settle on a list of necessary skills and then decide horse-in-front-of-cart-style on the best tools and projects to teach themNoted here: Jay Greene’s j’accuse directed at teachers who complain that NCLB exigencies leave them with no time for fun project but who also wile away the last month of school with parties, assorted time wasters, etc. We didn’t start computer lab work with Feltron until after our round of state assessment.. I do not know if this was that.

There are twenty-four hours. No exceptions. I’m uncertain Feltron was the best use of our time.

I put Feltron to rest now, surely the weirdest assignment I’ve concocted in a four-year career. I post this here to solicit the usual gallery of critique and construction but also because, at some point in this whole blogging thing, I forgot how else to end a project if not with rigorous and public self-critique.

The Best Vodcaster Alive

I can’t tell you what an exhilarating experience this has been – writing, shooting, and editing this slate of ten vodcasts. It’s like turning over a rock and finding a new language, one which gives voice to a lot of thoughts you’ve had banging around in your head, thoughts that have been looking for an exit for a long time.

I’m still trying to navigate this new grammar, trying to avoid the film equivalent of run-on, illiterate sentences. I’m finding the equivalence between shots & edits and sentences & punctuation, finding inspiration in Hillman Curtis, who is the most literate voice in online film today, particularly if we control the selection for a certain DIY ethos. Please watch the first half, if not the whole, of his portrait of artist Lawrence Weiner.

You are in the stream of life whether you like it or not. And if you’re going to be in the stream of life then you have to accept the responsibilities. I would like a few more pleasures but there doesn’t seem to be time. – Lawrence Weiner, on what it is to be an artist.

Vodcasters like Ze Frank understand that good video is largely about compression, about sharp edits compressing the time between thoughts, events, and locations. (ie. here you’re in Belize, now you’re in Chattanooga) Hillman Curtis gets that great video – like great writing – moves to a rhythm, one which must speed and slow.

Curtis understands that, in film, as in writing, you can force the reader to slow.

And think.

And breathe.

By breaking up the text.

Or, in video, by lengthening the shots.

A third of the way through the Lawrence Weiner portrait, Hillman Curtis does just that with a long, slow tracking shot, the rails obvious beneath the camera, laying bare the mechanics of film.

The odds are 5:2 at best but I may score a video production class this upcoming school year in addition to my usual slate of Algebra, Algebra, Algebra. I couldn’t be more excited.

[BTW: didn’t score that class. life goes on.]

dy/av : 010 : the season finale

dy/av : 010 : the season finale from Dan Meyer on Vimeo.


dyav, autobiographical

iPod Edition

dy/av : 010 : the season finale (640 x 480)

Previous Episodes

dy/av : 009 : don’t be prez
dy/av : 008 : behind the scenes
dy/av : 007 : the motiongraphics episode
dy/av : 006 : carver’s classroom management
dy/av : 005 : how i work
dy/av : 004 : thank you, teaching
dy/av : 003 : on the office
dy/av : 002 : the next-gen lecturer
dy/av : 001 : earn the medium

The Teacher Your Students Want

[BTW: Hm. A bit of a reach here with this one. Which is to say, I’ve been overly prescriptive. Surely there are as many good ways to interact with students as there are students.]

I’ll receive kids in a week, which means it’s time to figure this out.

With more experience I have become more intimidated by the first day of school. I know what it implies, and it implies far worse than “no second chance to make a first impression,” a maxim best applied to amiable strangers.

Because your kids are not amiable strangers. The older they are, the more you must account for the carelessness of their past teachers. By high school, many students are only curious if you’re one of the teachers who likes them or one who hates themThe same goes for parents of students, to a lesser extent.. They aren’t inclined to consider the shades of gray between the two extremes or that, for many teachers, liking or hating students simply isn’t part of the equation.

Worse, many would prefer to find out you hate them. It is easier for these students to spend a year sparring with an antagonist than confronting the vastness of What They Don’t Know with an ally. These students will assess any curt correction or brusque manner as antagonism.

Clearly, you must construct your initial teaching profile carefully.

The Ideal Teacher Profile

In two sentences, here is the teacher profile that will do you the most good with the most students. Your students want:

a teacher who is capable of unkindness but who chooses instead to be kind, a teacher who is capable of severity but who chooses levity instead.

They don’t want a cruel teacher, obviously, but neither do students appreciate a teacher made of soft edges and kittens, someone wholly unfamiliar with the unkindness they must endure on a day-to-day basis.

Similarly, few students appreciate a morose bore, but neither do they appreciate a chuckling clown, someone who never quite graduated from a desk yet somehow made it to the lectern. They want someone who understands both masks.

You Have Three Seconds To Stop Hiccuping

The best way to find that median is to treat subjective silliness with as much dour objectivity as you possibly can, for as long as you possibly can, without cracking. Take it easy on the heavy stuff and go hard on the light stuff. Keep a loose grip on your rules but angle severe eyebrows at anyone who’d suggest The Jonas Brothers aren’t the best summer band of all time, etc.

This makes you slippery, like Teflon to kids who’d like to pin you down as a hater. It buys you time to show them you c*re. Whatever credibility four years teaching has endowed me, I’ll invest it in this: this is the ideal way to start the school year.

It isn’t a bad way to do the rest of the year either.

[BTW: I got one today. A kid came in clowning hard, looking to assert real fast what he was about, looking to find out what I was about. He has obviously rattled other teachers in the past.

I’m not saying I know how this is going to end but I know how I wasn’t going to let it begin. Out of twenty-four students in class, his was the only name I knew. Yet when I was running down the roster taking role, I asked his name just like any other. I wasn’t going to give him any celebrity. I wasn’t going to let him know his circus-act even registered.]

We Need Fewer Heroes

Eduwonkette is in top form today, first, taking the stuffing out of the hottest, gap-closingest new charter school in New York, one which manages to cherrypick students while still representing itself as “unscreened”:

To apply to be part of the first entering class at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics, students were asked to provide their most recent report card and two letters of recommendation, one from an 8th grade teacher and one from a guidance counselor, principal, or assistant principal.

Second, she calls down fire on movies like Freedom Writers and Lean on Me for promoting the idea that a successful teacher must mortgage her entire life, divorcing anything and everything unrelated to her job.

Not Unrelatedly

  1. Classroom Distinctions, which takes Freedom Writers to task in several thousand fewer words than I did back when.
  2. Teaching and Shortcuts, in which Chris Lehmann leaps off dy/av : 008 and wonders what teaching looks like as a sustainable career, particularly for us rookies. Few answers there. Mine would probably involve some salary multiplier but then I probably also need to realign my priorities. Sorry, self-sacrificing teacher buds.