Month: June 2010

Total 13 Posts

We Had Too Much Time On Our Hands

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.

This Has Come Up A Lot Lately

I have received more criticism of my curriculum design theories in the last four months than I have in the last four years combined. Much of it has been useful, especially insofar as I’m able to notice common questions and then formulate clear responses. If I’m then able to summarize those responses visually, all that’s left is for me to track down those critics one by one and shake their hands.

I imagine the questions that led to the panel above are self-evident. The answers are tricky, but I’m grateful, at least, that they now have a frame.

BTW: Add Michelle Bullard to the list of Commenters I Wish Would Just Get A Blog Already. Her response is pretty wonderful:

I think that students who can turn problems inside out like that, from concept to detailed numbers rather than from numbers to concept, can’t fail to pass any standardized test, but I really don’t care whether they do or not.

You Don’t Have To Be The Answer Key

a/k/a Annuli Follow-up

Is there any advantage to these images over the analogous problem in a textbook?

I vote “definitely, yes.” The first four of these questions offer two enormous bonuses on top of the fifth while assessing the same skills.

The first is that you can guess them intuitively before you answer them mathematically.

What do you think? 500 tickets? 5,000 tickets? 50,000 tickets?! Give me a wrong answer. Give me an answer you know is too high. Give me an answer you know is too low.

I spent six years looking for high-yield techniques to draw students who hate and fear math into conversations and then calculations about math. Given another six, I’m sure I’d find something more effective but that right there is the best I have. It costs you nothing and it gets them talking. It gets them interested in an outcome. It gets them interested in the tools to determine that outcome.

The other advantage to this curriculum is that the student doesn’t need the teacher to verify the answer.

I usually envy all the fun ELA instructors get to have with their students. Not here, though. ELA instructors have to grade essays using subjective measures of form and content. “Was my thesis coherent?” the student wonders. “Was my essay persuasive?” The student waits for the instructor to render judgment. This is necessary, I suppose, but it’s also adversarial and it forces the teacher to double down elsewhere to restore a spirit of collaboration to the relationship between teacher and student.

Meanwhile, my math student wonders, “Was my original guess correct? Is my math right?” to which I can respond, “Beats me, man. Let’s find out.” And we count up the tickets. Or I show them the playlist from which I burned that CD. Or we measure the toilet paper. Or we look at the front of the dental floss container.

Every answer but the last one disposes the student to see that math makes sense on its own terms, that math coheres to the world, that math exists apart from her teacher’s say-so. Her teacher doesn’t determine the correctness of her answers.

This did wonderful things for my relationship to my students. At our very best, we became peers, collaborators, and co-conspirators in the creative exercise of mathematics.

2012 Mar 12: “It’s Killing Me. I Gotta Know.”

2012 Dec 12: Watch Students Watch The Answer To Their Math Problem

2013 Feb 14. Mr. Ward has another illustration.

2013 Feb 27. The conclusion of the Barbie Bungee activity has students testing out their predictions, making sure their bungee cord is long enough for Barbie’s head to come close to the ground but short enough that it doesn’t touch the ground. Kids flip for this, apparently. Here are examples from different teachers’ classrooms:

2013 Feb 27. Brian Miller’s class solves The Bone Collector challenge and watches the answer.

2013 May 11. Nat Banting’s students “gave a round of applause” when they saw the end of Toothpicks.

2014 May 19. Reader Amy Hughes writes in:

After some work on rectangular prisms with 6th graders, we worked on the file cabinet problem. It took all week to weave the videos into our work/homework, etc but on the final day, when the last post-its are being place on the cabinet, the bell rang and students would not leave the room until their calculations were verified – it was awesome to see them care that much.

2014 Aug 1. Kate Nerdypoo:

They would literally CHEER and high five when they discovered they had the right answer.

2014 Dec 28. Nat Highstein:

… in my experience, this is not your typical reaction to getting the right answer on a math problem!

2015 Sep 9

2015 Sep 29

2015 Oct 2

Mary Bourassa:

At this point one student was about to leave the room and said “I’ll wait because I need to know how this turns out!” – how cool is that?

2016 Feb 07.

2018 Feb 26.

2018 Feb 28.

2018 Jun 10

2018 Nov 13

2018 Nov 14

2019 May 20

2019 Aug 2

2021 Feb 26

Teaching Will Probably Be Okay Without Me

Anne Schwartz has it under control.

Never mind that she’s fresh off her student teaching or that her Tales from the Chalkline is just two months old. You’re looking at a teaching and blogging star on the rise right here.

Going forward, I’m going to need your classroom anecdotes like a junkie needs a fix. This one has set me up for a week:

Student: Why do you want to be a teacher, Ms. Schwartz?
Anne: Have you met you? You’re awesome. I get to hang out with kids like you all day!
Student: Okay but why do other teachers want to be teachers?
Anne: Probably for the same reason, because kids are awesome.
Student: That’s not true. You’re the only teacher I have who likes us.

Anne is local to San Diego and she’s looking for a job. Someone do something about that.