Gone In A Few Thousand Seconds

In December, a student gave me a gift card to a nearby sandwich shop. It was used. He didn’t care about the balance and neither did I. It was an irreverent Christmas gift, a tiny act of care from a student too cool for caring. I appreciated the gesture, naturally, but had no idea what to do with it until a few days ago.

It was lunchtime and I put it on a shelf somewhere just off the beaten classroom path. I circled my lunchtime crowd and asked them, “how do long do you think it’ll last before someone takes it?” We took bets, bragging rights for stakesFor the record, I take bets on everything. During our dimensional analysis unit, I’ll tell ’em Randy Moss ran the 40 yard dash in 4.25 seconds and take five bets on how fast that is in miles per hour. Easy, superficial, easy method for pumping them up for the work. Did I mention easy?.

If you guessed 24 hours, you’d have every reason to crow.

It kind of kills me how slippery my stuff is around here. Students take everything. Compasses, calculators, and rulers, in particular, have a shorter shelf life than whole milk.

That fact wedges me awkwardly between two competing interests. On the one hand, I want my stuff to remain my stuff for maybe a semester or two.

On the other hand, the obvious solution here (some kind of check-out system) is completely antithetical to my classroom game. My classroom is the place that it is, in large part, because I keep time-hogging administrative details to a few minutes daily and, as much as possible, I keep them out of my students’ line of sight.


I don’t dedicate a regular time slot to attendance. I don’t dedicate a regular time slot to homework review. I rarely pass back work – just assessments and only while they’re occupied by something interesting.

I feel strange wasting even small units of time. I draw up the next day’s highlighted problems the night before in Keynote and have them ready to go at a click of my remote.

Total time saved: maybe thirty seconds per problem, but all these measures taken as a sum make me, like, the richest teacher I know.


If I want to host a classroom spitball session on strategies for surviving a 47-story fall, or show Vampire Weekend’s awesome little music video, or mention in passing last year’s most popular baby names, or all three in the same period, I don’t worry about falling behind my colleagues or missing year-end benchmarks. I have hours in the bank.

I can’t speak with much precision for how my students feel about all this but I try to imagine this classroom from their perspective, a classroom which actively excludes boring self-sustaining details and instead pushes engaging moments into all available space, even the margins.

I’m working hard at it. I want this class to be the best paced and most engaging math class they’ve ever taken, even if it’s really, really poorly stocked.

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. What about a check-out system that’s integrated into the hand-out procedure for equipment? Numbered compasses corresponding to numbered desks? Place a student ID card into the calculator pocket when taking the calculator out? I dunno.

    Are these items walking away because students really want to possess them? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. If they’re taking the stuff to be obnoxious or just to get away with it, that’s different.

    My approach (when I had, like, physical stuff to hand out instead of doing everything on computers) was just to buy extras of the small stuff like rulers and only sweat the real expenses like calculators. If you have 30 calculators in a rack and you check that there’s 30 back in the rack at the end of the class (not letting anyone leave until they’re accounted for) does that count as time-hogging administrivia?

  2. Most adminstrative details are the realm of the English and social studies classes. We’re bogged down in the government class with senior announcements, class ring orders, walking partners, graduation details.

    I guess it makes up for all the lost time not worrying about the CASHEE, seeing as most of the kids who last until their senior year without dropping out already passed it.

    Administrative details in a math class are up to that teacher’s discretion, inevitably. Yours is a luxury I’m envious of, but that I can show The Daily Show in my classroom with some relevancy more than makes up for it. Heh.


  3. If I were you I would spraypaing the compasses, backside of the rulers, backside of the calculator with red paint etc so it is easy to see that they are yours. Tell the kids that you have a problem with things “going away” and that they need to tell you when they see your stuff at other places.

    The ruler that I am sure mostly disappear due to mistake will start to return and things that might be stolen isn’t as usefull anymore since they will risk that the other students will tell on them. From your blogg I am sure that the majority of your students will be loyal to you and not put up with other students stealing from their favourite teacher.

    The wonderful thing about working hard to be a great teacher is that there is a tipping point that when you are good enough you can start using peer pressure to your advantage.

    Here at my school in Sweden we had problem with sabotage in a computer room. Someone was breaking keyboards and mousse left and right. First I tried to reason with groups I suspected that the saboteurs were in but that just made it worse. Instead I gathered up my two favourite classes and told them the problem, told them I needed help, that this took a lot of time and energy from me and simply took the fun out of being a teacher for me. Two weeks later the sabotages stopped, 5 people had confessed in the overwhelming light of numerous of witnesses.

    If you do right by your students most of them will do right by you.


  4. Please tell me more about the bets. Do you bet actual items, extra credit points, or??????

    I’d love to be in your class.

  5. Mary wrote: “I’d love to be in your class.”

    She’s right. But I really mean it. I don’t want to be one of your math students, but I’m already one of your teaching students here at your blog. I think I’m ready to propose a more formal lesson.

    I’ve been lurking here for about a year, while I’m working on improving my teaching skills, completing my ARL program, and starting a M.Ed. degree. I’m finding I’m buying in to so many of your approaches, yes, but also to your… oh, I don’t know, let’s call it your gestalt. What’s fuzzy for me is a better sense of your “big picture.”

    I’d certainly be willing to “be in your class,” even if only for a day, but I can’t pay the bills like your school district does, so I’m sure I (and many of your other acolytes) would be too much of a disruption. So here’s my (modest) proposal:

    Would you be willing to film a couple of your classes from start to finish? Even just a fly-on-the-wall-in-the-back-of-the-room approach would be okay.

    Even better would be two fixed camera’s in the back of the room, and a third in the hands of a TA (for those critical close-up shots). I suspect this would be a bit of a burden for you, but I’d be willing to help: I have Final Cut Pro and a bit of experience, and would be more than willing to cut a final product together as a DVD. Nothing too fancy, but even a rough cut would be very interesting to some of your pre-service fans like me.

    You could even try it a couple of times and only share the one that shows you in your best light!

  6. If you take Stephen up on his offer, please be sure and post final edits on your blog or TeacherTube (please not YouTube…it’s blocked here) and let us know about them!

  7. Yeah, my wife had to get waivers when we did something like this for her master’s project. One parent didn’t want to participate, so we kept their daughter completely out of the shots. For Dan’s project, I am more interested in just his behavior in the classroom, so it would be really easy to keep the kids out of the picture, or at least, unidentifiable. That’s kinda what I was thinking in putting a camera in the back of the classroom. There is so much video going on in our local classrooms that I think the schools are starting to get familar with how to handle this kind of thing. Anyway, I don’t want to cause trouble, just expand how much we’re learning from Dan.

  8. Okay, I took bets for 5 bonus points today. We were talking about the effects changing one or more dimensions have on the perimeter and area of two-dimensional objects, then to surface area (lateral and total) and volume of three-dimensional figures. You would have thought I gave them candy (not allowed in our state). The students got farther and worked harder than I’ve seen in a while. There was participation, discussions, light bulbs going off (I could tell by the “AHHHHH! I get its”) and excitement in the room.

    Maybe it was the way I scaffolded the lesson (I don’t think so). Maybe it was the bet — the challenge (I think so, since after I announced the “bet” – they were engaged). Who’d have thought!

  9. Hey, thanks a mil for the comments and advice and everything. I’ve been out of the office since the weekend on top of which I got engaged, so things are gonna be, like, twenty times slower around here for a bit.

    Which doesn’t automatically preclude Stephen’s idea.

    Principally, I know (from going through the exact process Benjamin is cranking through right now) how much work the release forms require. It’d be possible to angle it just-so but even then, factoring in crappy audio and static video, what you imagine of my teaching is probably more valuable to you than how I actually teach.

    If that all sounds like self-important garbage then, fine, let’s do it. Most likely, though, I’ll record some individual set-pieces, like, how I open class, how I get into a learning moment, how I get out of it, how I get the class working, how I cajole them, etc. Stuff like When I Talk You Listen.

    And I’m gonna be downright mean in coaxing other bloggers to do the same. How sick would it be if I (or Stephen, who seems to have some chops) edited together fifteen top-notch blogger-teachers and how they open a lesson (any lesson). That’d interest me, anyway.

    P.S. Mary, bragging rights seems strong enough though maybe I’ve tossed out a candy or some points before. Glad it worked out for you. Fun, easy, fast way to get some buy-in on a question.


    Offer’s off though.

    I was an undergrad (21 years ago) when I got married. The week before, I locked my keys in my car while on campus. The traffic enforcement guy from campus security came over and slim-jimmed the door open.

    Two day’s later, I did it again. I call security, and the same guy shows up. He pops the lock, and with his hand still on the door handle, turns to me and says, “You gettin’ married?” I kid you not. This was in Los Angeles, not Utah; kids my age just didn’t get married there.

    So there is NO WAY I’m working with you until after the honeymoon.


    Okay, nevermind. Offer’s back on. I want this too badly.

    Hey, I don’t know about chops; I’m no professional. But I went to USC (great film school), worked at Sorenson (the video compression guys), and Apple (the … well, you know). I’ve picked up a few tricks along the way. Happy to use them any way you would like.

    On a related note: USC’s “24/7 DIY Video Summit” is this weekend. See: http://www.video24-7.org/ . I’m waitlisting for the program, but I’m gonna at least hang out at the free screenings if I nothing else opens up. Anyone here email me if you’re going too. [my full name squished together @ gmail]

  11. I forgot to mention: I really like the multi-teacher coop idea. Gimme a week or two and I’ll put a draft plan together, then invite all of you to tell me my plan sucks and how I should be doing it. Then we’ll do that.

  12. Way to bury the lead, Dan. I second the congratulations!

    (And don’t most people get engaged, then married, and then go to Hawaii? It was the best story I’d made up. Not that I entertain myself by making up stories about online personalities, say you or anyone who comments here…)

  13. Stephen, yes, please. Get this going. I’ll participate. I’d rather not lead.

    To the girls, thanks for the well-wishes. I’m excited. It’s nothing melodramatic to say that my life is going to look vastly different in seven months than it does now.

  14. Dan: As I was going to sleep last night, your comment “what you imagine of my teaching is probably more valuable to you than how I actually teach” started floating through you mind.

    I think that may be dead-on.

    I’m psyched to see whatever video Stephan and team come up with. I haven’t gotten to observe other teachers since I started teaching. The training that I value most is the extended observations my methods of teaching math course required. Seeing how two different teachers worked, not just in a snippet but over the course of the semester, was invaluable. I miss getting that sense of different ways to approach teaching. The sense of possibility those observations provided.

    But what you have going here is slightly different. Better than the pedagogy discussions between pre-service teachers in my theory classes, it offers, “This is what works for me.” It reminds me that I need to be aware of EVERY little detail that goes into my classes. I read what works for other people and my imagination plays it out. There’s no way you, or anyone, could live up to the ideal teacher that I envision.

    There’s something to be said for the idea, “You know what good teaching looks like; go and do likewise.” How you convey the idea of what good teaching looks like seems like half the issue. (Differentiate instruction for the audio/visual learners? I think I just talked myself in a circle to answer my own unstated question.)