Philosophy Without A Home

Educator on education

November 27, 2015
by dendari

What is a Teacher Worth

Are we looking for the right people to be teachers?


You may have listened to Taylor Mali explain what a teacher makes,

or seen some meme on facebook, as a kid I saw it on bumper stickers.

So, is the idea that a teacher should be altruistic the best quality to look for in a teacher?


I’m here primarily because I love kids and want them to have a chance at a better life. Often I find myself getting upset when students don’t put in their best effort. Which is often exactly the wrong response.


Middle school students love when they can confound the adults in their lives. They love attention, even negative attention. And they especially don’t want to be known as people who care about anything. That would just be uncool.

Would a bit more emotional distance and focus on action research make me a better teacher?


Maybe my mistake is not caring too much, maybe my mistake is not understanding that these adolescent actions that punch (yes, punch) my buttons are really the beginnings of independence. I should be happy and celebrate them. I fail in that respect at least once everyday, with my students and my own kids. Maybe I’ll do better on Monday.

November 21, 2015
by dendari

What is formative assessment

You know how it is, you try to blog once a week. You put it off during the week, because it is busy and you just don’t have time. Then Friday comes around and you put it off till Saturday, then Saturday is busy and you put it off till Sunday. The next thing you know it’s two weeks later.


I’d like to start a conversation with the 12 people who might read my blog, the 6 who read it through facebook, the random looks from G+, and the two who scan the title on twitter. If you wouldn’t mind chiming in.


Here’s my question, “Are multiple choice tests formative?”


My team and I, we write these CFA’s (common formative assessments) every week or two. they are the basis of the grades (Which is a question I’d like to ignore for now). The problem is we give them basically at the end of the teaching so they are really summative, though we often find we need to reteach.


We are planning a new unit next week and were given the green light to go more standards based grading. I thought it would be a good time to suggest that we move these questions around a bit more. We can ask them to warm ups, one-on-one conversations, exit slips, homework assignments, etc…
Then it occurred to me, are multiple choice tests ever formative? Can I use the right or wrong answers to inform my teaching?

November 9, 2015
by dendari


A question to ask. You’re at home, or in the classroom, or at the park, wherever and you are asking this child, or group of children to do a task. Do they stop and stare at the wall? Do they fidget? Do they hem and haw and avoid work? Do they fight? Do they talk back? Do they do anything except attack the work?


None of these things has anything to do with being lazy, or entitled, or total jerkfaceness. Generally, people like to do interesting things, they like a bit of a challenge, they just don’t like too much of a challenge.


Leo Vygotsky called it the Zone of Proximal Development, that sweet spot where things are just hard enough to be interesting, but not too difficult. They can’t be too easy either, that is boring. Some call it, Flow, others grit, and even others intrinsic motivation. Whatever you call it, try asking a question.


Are you asking students to do the work alone, or are you joining them in the learning?

The ZPD, the sweet spot, the Zone, they all shrink when you ask students to go it alone, but they enlarge to monster size when kids know they are supported.


Students can’t just be confident that they can fail and not get hurt, they have to know they have the ability to succeed. Do they know that?

October 29, 2015
by dendari

Getting My Sea Legs Back

Working on a ProjectComing back to the classroom after almost 7 years has been a rough adjustment. The textbook  we have is, in my opinion, garbage, so I spend a lot of time creating curriculum. Thanks goodness for the Internet and sites like Then there is the new evaluation procedures which require a lot more work on the teacher’s part. Finally, we are a SIG school so there is paperwork and data collection everywhere.

This week I finally went full in on the problem based learning (PBL) bandwagon. I’ve talked about it for years, but I’ve always fallen back on the teacher directed lessons. I’ve tried to do the Madeline Hunter formula, Hook, Model, Practice, Evaluate or I DO, WE DO, YOU DO TOGETHER, YOU DO. I see the logic in the formula, but at the end of the day what happens is the students who are good at school get it, the students who are bad at school don’t, and the behavior problems are behavior problems because they get it and are bored or the don’t get it and don’t want to ask.

I didn’t think my kids were ready. I spent a week preparing them and they still think a good student is defined by how well they listen. I emphasized trust.

I thought I had to trust that everyone can and will work without me watching over every movement. They have to trust each other to do the work. Everyone has to trust me that they will be ready for the quiz.

I wasn’t sure if I could trust them. I took the plunge anyway. On Tuesday, I shared the problems and stepped back. I didn’t even assign problems, I gave a choice of four. I didn’t choose groups. I set parameters:

  • Choose someone smarter than you
  • Someone who works harder than you
  • Someone who will keep you out of trouble.

The task Tuesday was to read the problem, decide what it means, and then split up the work. It went pretty well, but a lot of groups didn’t really fill out the work assignment sheet.

For Wednesday I displayed my one slide.

Working on a Project

Before the bell even rang I stepped into the room and said, “You do not need me to tell you what to do, you do not need to wait for the bell, you can start right now”. Then I went back into the hall for duty. When I came back in most students in most classes were working.

On Thursday I said the same thing. I stopped them for 5 minutes so I could show a sample presentation on a project nobody had, then they went back to work. They were supposed to finish the bulk of the work on Wednesday and finish the bulk of the presentation on Thursday for presentations on Friday and Monday, but the word bulk gave them permission to not actually be finished and still feel the pressure to actually put in work. One group finished. One came in for lunch to do bit of extra work.

In my lowest class students worked and asked questions. I taught the one lesson I would have taught at the board 4 times, but this time everyone listened because they wanted to know how to solve the problem.

In my class where I have a lot of strong personalities it was silent. I went from group to group and they were all working and didn’t need or want any help.

It isn’t all roses though. I have two students in one class who have failed to join a group, despite being assigned to two. They now try to wander the room and join random groups. When I ask them to stop they blame me. I have one student who is in a group, but still doesn’t do any work. And of course I have a lot of groups that are busy trying to create a presentation, but  have no idea about the math they are using.

I’m ok with most of this. I wish the two students would join one group and do some work, but there are more issues than just math there. I hope that during the presentation we will have some decent feedback and they can learn from that. If not from students then hopefully from me.

Finally, today was the dreaded question. Will this be graded? Well yes, but it will only be worth up to 2% in the gradebook because we have to use a Common Formative Assessment which will be the quiz. I would much rather grade this project and put that into the gradebook. On the other hand for those students who fail the quiz, and there will be a few, this will be a good lesson on doing the math first and worrying about presentations second. They can always retake the quiz and if last quarter is any indication almost half would have to anyway.

October 24, 2015
by dendari

Stages of Instruction

The Delivery

I’ve always been the type of teacher that likes to design a good lesson plan then forget about the student aspect.

There’s a story of college professor who says, ‘I just delivered the best lecture of my life, it’s too bad no one was there and listen to it’.

That’s the mindset of a person who believes education is delivering information. I don’t. I just find it very easy to fall in that trap. I can spend time developing a wonderful lesson and then deliver it and feels like everything’s going great then I look at the exit slip or the quiz the next day or the next week or whatever and find most of my kids fail.


MIley Cirus OMG

My brain is like, ‘what happened?’

I did an awesome job of delivering the lesson. I went through each example slowly and carefully. I scaffolded each step in the problem. It was very clear. I asked for questions and there were a few. When I asked questions about how to do the problem students could easily walk me through it. I was even careful to ask students who I knew would have problems understanding, and I didn’t let them off the hook. I stood and waited until they gave me an answer, then I used the Socratic Method to lead them to the right answer.

Michael Caine "I fialed you"

I was confident everybody knew this, so how did they fail?


And that is a very easy trap to fall into. You see it all the time, everybody’s looking for the best curriculum, the best textbook, to teach from. Reformers come in and create scripted lessons, telling teachers exactly what to say, and how to say it. What questions to ask and what answers to expect. Some curricula even talk about common misconceptions and how to use them to enhance the lesson. At the end of the day learning is not about delivering information it’s about the student’s understanding.If they don’t understand it then it doesn’t matter what delivery method you use.


Taking it PBL style.


I’m trying very hard to break away from the traditional style teaching where I deliver information and students write it down and then regurgitate back to me. It’s hard to get away from it. All of this emphasis on meeting standards, you look at the standard, you find the lesson that meets the standards. Then you teach the lesson and do a quick quiz on it and say ‘oh good 70% of my students understand’. The problem is everything seems to follow the same general format – hook, explanation, and an exit slip. It’s still dependent on delivery.

Go Fish

Next week I start a problem based learning unit. I created my own, I hope they go well. I just have this nagging feeling that I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Comments and suggestions are welcome Housewarming, Mortgage, Retirement, Reflections.

As I run up to this week I’m trying to prepare my students for working in a problem-based learning environment. This is difficult because I’m not so sure how to do it. I started the year saying the words, “You (students) have to take responsibility for your own learning”.

The problem is that, for the most part they aren’t and I’m not forcing them to. (I have another bad habit of doing things for people when they should be doing it themselves.)

To Do List

I have to teach my students to monitor themselves. It’s going to be a learning experience for my students as well as myself. How do I get them to effectively monitor their own learning? How do I keep them on task without chasing them around the room and saying, “hey get back to work”? During class, I’ve been asking what makes a good team member? What makes a good teacher? What makes a good student? I tried some team building stuff from Kagan. I just hope that I can continue to be consistent on this. I also created some daily reflections sheets.


One thing that happens to me as a teacher is I set the kids on a task and then I step aside to do paperwork for 10 seconds, suddenly there’s a line in front of me and the first questions is quick so I answer, the next thing I know there’s 12 people in line and instead of students working intently in the groups students are gathered around socializing about this that the other thing and it’s not an effective learning environment. What I would like to do is to emphasize trust. I will trust that they will do work and they can trust that I will provide the resources necessary to learn.


Monday is the first day. We’ll start by writing contracts. What will we do as students, what do we expect from our group? What do we expect from our teacher? What do we expect from ourselves?

Next, the groups will examine the problems and decide what exactly they mean. They will have to determine what a good project should look like. Then determine a checklist of activities they will have to do to complete the project. Finally, assign tasks to each person in the group.

My task the first day it to not spend too much time with one group. Just a few minutes at a time and put them on the right track. Don’t answer questions, just ask.

October 10, 2015
by dendari


I’m afraid I’m compromising mine. 

We started the year not knowing what we we’re doing. We kind of punted that first unit.

This second unit we took more time to plan exactly what we were going to teach. We lined up our standards, we organized our daily lessons around specific standards. Everything was nice and orderly.

So what happened, during the second unit each lesson is designed to teach a specific standard. That worked very well in the beginning, but now nearing the end of unit students can do math but they’re not really understanding math. They can all recite to me how to recognize a proportional relationship in a graph. They can all recognize a proportional relationship in a table. They all know the standard equation for a proportional relationship. The problem is they just don’t understand what any of that stuff to means.

When I start asking like students what does this letter mean in the equation or what does this number mean or what does this mean anytime they get angry at me ‘I don’t know what it means you just told me to put it there’. I’m falling into the trap of being a teacher I don’t like. Teaching to standards and modifying questions from the final. I’m saying this is how you solve these questions this is how you get to the answers but my students aren’t understanding math

A disorganized pile of folders on a shelf

October 2, 2015
by dendari

Intentional Classrooms


This first part is already a couple of weeks old, but I get a bit busy and can’t get back to my writing.

A disorganized pile of folders on a shelf

A disorganized teacher leads to disorganized students

Another week done at the middle school. I’m trying to get back into the swing of things of teaching. I realize that as a person I really don’t have a lot of organization. I do have some, but I don’t. It is kind of funny. What I mean is I don’t have any sort of organization skills, but I learn them or steal them. Going back to decorating my classroom again, I had so much trouble with it, not because I thought I wanted it to look pretty, but what I really wanted was to create organization for my students


Now a month into the school year I am realizing that I don’t have a good system set up and that hurts me and my students because we, the students and I don’t know what to do next. This is very important a classroom setting. We need organization to fall back on for those times when we finish early or just need to change tracks.


Most classrooms it is the same, come in the class do bell work, finish bell work jump into worksheets  or a short teacher led session, or better yet come into class work on project, take the project and share it with class in this way, what do I do if I don’t know how to do the project, How do I just ask for help or learn something new without asking the teacher. Where can I get more information. How do I teach myself. How do I work with my peer. etc….. That is the system that I don’t have set up in my classroom.


(editor’s note, I’m glad to say I’m getting more organized, but I’m trying to be intentional about it. I’m trying to make something that works for me and enhances the learning of my students)




I love edcamps, free conference, free breakfast, free lunch, how can you not like that. Plus no boring speakers. What it is, is a bunch of educators who come together to talk education, except because we don’t know each other’s students we never fall into the teacher’s lounge trap of focusing on behaviors.



EdcampIllinois (Schedule and collaborative notes here) was hosted by Maple Middle School in Northbrook. Some new folks organizing things and they did a great job. My favorite session was the Breakout Edu session. The game is simple, lock a box with three or more locks that use a variety of changeable codes to open. Set clues around the room, and the object is to get into the box before time runs out. Locks can be opened with numbers, words, or patterns so that students can test math, English, or whatever. (Not to mention the great team building exercise).


The next weekend was EdcampChicago. I’ve been going to this edcamp since the beginning and even helped organize a few over the years. (Schedule and collaborative notes). The first session for me was How to use twitter and blogs to inspire math. For most of the hour it was just me and another teacher so we had a great time-sharing people we follow on twitter and blogs.


My second session was Building a Culture of learning. Awesome stuff here. Because of this conversation I’ve been doing “My Favorit Know” as part of my warm up,  it has been great. All I do is take a picture of a common mistake from yesterday’s exit slip and put it into my presentation, then as a class ask why that was such a common mistake, or what s/he might have been thinking. We talked of ways to build a growth mindset and build collaborative groups, but you can read about that in the notes above.


I finished the session by attending a flipping the math classroom and makerspaces in the middle school. Oh, and winning a $500 document camera. Thanks Lumens.


It has been a busy few weeks at school (and on the weekends) I just haven’t had much time to write and reflect. I will do better and keep posting about once a week. The one thing I want to do is to be more intentional about what and how I make changes. I’m very good at following plans, and I’m very good at stumbling through life pretending I have a sense of direction, what I’m not always good at is purposefully planning so that a specific outcome is achieved. Yet, this is the basis of a lesson plan/unit plan.

Time to turn up the professionalism.


September 9, 2015
by dendari

Drowning in a Puddle

It has been seven or eight years since I have been in a classroom alone. The changes are drastic, but some things never change.


As a SIG school we are meeting and documenting everything. We are testing; Common Formative Assessment testing, Pre-testing, Post-testing., AIM testing, MAP testing, and PARCC testing. It’s a lot of tests. Sure I’m an anti-testing teacher, but I also see the value in knowing where your students stand in relation to what you are trying to teach. And while some of the tests I am required to give may not be worth the paper it is printed on (or the energy wasted in lighting up the pixels) I appreciate being forced to think so often about whether my kids are getting what I’m teaching. It can be easy to get caught up in how well you deliver the lessons and forget that the point is not the delivery but the reception.


I think back to the two weeks before school when I was doing my new teaching induction. I thought at the time what they were doing was great, and it was. It’s just that we spent a lot of time talking about adult things and not classroom things. We talked about the procedures for classroom management, district procedures, technology, copiers, etc… What we didn’t talk about was learning in our classrooms. We didn’t talk about curriculum, lesson planning, engaging students, formative assessments or any of that stuff.


Perhaps, after 15 years in education decorating classrooms, deciphering curriculum, and building engaging lessons shouldn’t be something that stumps me. But there I was less than  a week before school asking on twitter for advice on decorating my room. (And misspelling mathchat)


I do want my kids to do most of the decorating, I want them to show off the work they do as a group in the classroom, but I also can use the walls to create engaging learning spaces. I have the:


tape word wall,

and the:

tape box of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

tape box of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

I think I might do a quote wall as well. Most of it is empty at the moment, but slowly the kids are filling it up. I started with base vocabulary words from NWEA, but then asked the students to add their own. then I asked them to translate into Spanish. I just have to remember to build time for this into lessons. It can be one of the things you do when you finish your work early.


School has started and I don’t have time to craft decent lesson plans. I’m sure I’ll get used to all the work, but at the moment almost two weeks in the school year I’m still in survival mode.


It was nice having time to decorate my room, create a substitute folder, and learn some other things, but with the start of school what I’ve realized is I needed to take time to go over the curriculum more. Our first two weeks before school would have been more useful if we had sat down with our instructional coach and really hammered out a strong first two weeks or a month of teaching. An overview of the first unit. Not too detailed, just something like; here are the essential questions for unit 1, here are the standards that will be taught each week, here are a few ideas for lesson plans, etc…


Building procedures in the classroom are extremely important, however teaching procedures, like teaching anything else, has to be done within context. If my first couple of lessons of the school year are review lessons, I can spend more time in the lesson practicing things like, getting into and out of transitions, moving around the room, answering questions as a group, etc…  For me teaching is a procedure and I have a hard time visualizing exactly how I want my room to function until I’m actually designing the lessons and putting them into practice.

August 27, 2015
by dendari

Being a Teacher – That first Monday

I know many people who read this blog are already in education, but for those who aren’t let me give you my first Monday


I woke at 5 so I could do a bit of exercise and breakfast before school. I got to school a bit  past 7 and went to make copies for the day. I did try to make them on Friday, but I couldn’t.


The copy room was like a rugby scrum as teachers jockied for paper and position, then the secretary came in a jumped the line. I gave up and walked away. I only needed a couple of copies for small group instruction.


Later I learned that they put paper in at 7;30 AM so a lot of teachers make copies then before the daily ration of paper is gone. I have a box of paper, I just didn’t expect to have to use it this early in the year.


At 8 the students enter the building for breakfast.  When they are finished they head to their grade level hall and wait until announcements at 8:30. Official duty starts at 8:10. I sometimes feel a bit like a prison guard as the students are asked to sit 2 X 2 in the halls. Girls on one side boys on the other. Students read talk or play video games, teachers talk and keep order. I try to practice rewarding positive behavior by giving away Eagle bucks.


My first class starts right after announcements and I’m teaching from 8:30 to 12ish, back to back to back to back. It’s a tough stretch and that first day my calfs were so sore I could barely sleep. I’ve almost got the hang of it, but this is my major weakness as a teacher. My plan for the day has to be ready, I can’t really make mid-course corrections, or a few extra copies or anything like that (no bathroom breaks). Luckily for me we have a schedule that requires common meetings and plannings.


After that marathon teaching session. I have lunch, plan (I made copies for tomorrow and I didn’t have to use my own paper), and PLC (Professional Learning Community) time. PLC is team time, but the change in name requires actual PLC rules, plus we are a SIG (School Improvement Grant) school, meaning we have to keep records of the everything. Then I teach one final class before the end of the day.


My daily team consists of a first year teacher who spent last year substituting, a SPED resource and an ELL resource. They are great people who are willing and happy to dive in and do what it takes to teach. They help me with my planning difficulties. Each day has a slightly different topic as not all team members can make every meeting and Mondays are spent with Science to help us connect our lessons. I just wish we had common planning time as well, an hour is just not enough time to work together. We at least have time in math to divvy up the lesson planning responsibilities for the week. The common lessons are helpful for me and the students. I feel a bit bad because I haven’t been able to stay late and half the team is at school until 7PM very night.


The Science team is a good match. They are a bunch of overly organized, newish, teachers. Most of the 7th grade is new to the building and most of the teachers are in their first few years of teaching. The first meeting was mostly getting to know each other and the students, but we did look at last year’s MAP scores and get a few thing out of the way. Near the end of the meeting the Math coach visited, she had this 1,000 yard stare as if she was just overworked already and we haven’t even had students for a week yet.


It has been a bit frustrating the first week because we are trying to figure out the thought process behind the curriculum they built last year and no one has been there to help, but after seeing the look of exhaustion on the math coach’s face at 1:00 on a Monday I knew our she has been too busy to work with us yet.


As a math department we are kind of figuring it out and finding more flexibility than we first thought. We can really make this curriculum our own, but getting through the first week is more about survival than planning for the future.


After my respite with adults I teach one last class and the students leave at 3:30. We kind of push them out of the halls and wander outside to make sure everyone leaves in an orderly fashion. New duty schedules were posted on Wednesday.


I’ve been trying to keep on the students during the day to clean up after themselves and the last class has the responsibility of putting chairs on desks. I spend the first 10 minutes after the students leave cleaning my room and writing the objective on the board for tomorrow. Today I graded the AIM test for the EPIC class (Response To Intervention, a state mandated program to give student extra help in their areas of need, but I would prefer a more low key homeroom type program). I packed away the exit slips to grade at home and started to leave, but found my partners at the copy machine trying to get ahead of the game. I gave them my ream of paper. (I expected paper shortages, but not this early in the year).


At home I corrected the exit slips, still not happy with progress, and reviewed the lesson plans for the week. Now I’m writing this. Next I’ll review my classroom student information system to see what medical, psychological, and educational notes there may be on my students.


I’ve been in education for 15 years. When I first started there was none of this required collaboration stuff. We had a tight group in my first building, but for planning and paperwork, I was basically on my own. Over the years I’ve been to a lot of team meetings and for the most part they ignore planning and concentrate on students. In defense most of the meetings tended to be grade level meetings not subject meetings. The problem is when the focus is on students and not teaching the discussion revolves around student behavior and nothing productive gets done.


This sounds odd writing it, but I prefer the focus to stay off of students and stick to classroom teaching. The funny part is for a lot of the last few weeks I have heard the word compliance and flinched almost every time. I don’t want to teach students to be compliant, I want to teach them to learn. In actual practice, though there is a lot of focus on compliant behavior, mornings in the halls and a heavy focus on classroom procedures.


This is one of the weaknesses of the reform movement. The students and teachers are all expected to be compliant. We have a ton of paperwork and required things to be done. Like creating common assessments (9 per quarter), common assessment data discussions, etc… It’s all good stuff that good teachers do, but somehow it doesn’t feel exactly natural. Like we are expected to go through the motions of being a teach in hopes that someday that will be true.


I don’t have a problem with data collection and using it to steer classroom instruction, but right now this isn’t feeling as authentic as it could. On the other hand I also feel like I might be learning a thing or two about formative assessment that I might not have wanted to know. We’ll see. This data collection and use is something I’ll be looking  at during the year, if I can find time to reflect on it.

August 20, 2015
by dendari

The First Day

It seemed like forever, but the day finally arrived. the first day of school. Traffic was crazy around the school as fresh-faced teenagers started showing up.


No uniforms this year, well the teachers all wore the same school t-shirt, but for tomorrow no uniforms for anyone, just a fairly loose dress code. (teachers are more restricted than students).


Not a lot of math on the first day either, mostly rules,, but I did manage to sneak a mention of Fibonacci. I think I’ll show this tree on Thursday.


On the first day Students learned to write on desks with dry erase markers. I promised to talk less. We took tours of the building.


Tomorrow we talk a bit about numbers. The task tomorrow will be to draw a Venn Diagram of all the groups of numbers then know. (Natural Numbers, Whole Numbers, Integers, Rational Numbers, Irrational Numbers, Real Numbers).


Feel free to add a snapshot of your diagram in the comments.