Dan Anderson Made Me Do It

Dan started it here, describing a day in the life of a math teacher these days.

Well, here I am, typing this while my kids are playing with a pair of broken laptops at my feet. Apparently my wife and I have been on our laptops enough that it’s inspired our children to play along.

I was hoping to do some work now, but my daughter Shuli (aged 2) refused to nap. Right now she grabbed Yosef’s face (he’s 5) and pulled on his cheeks as hard as she could. I am watching this disaster unfold as I type. Yosef just kicked her in the face. Shuli went on his back and slapped him.

Now, Shuli is climbing on me, and I’m typing while elbowing her, to keep her off the keyboard. This is more-or-less how it is.

“Which bomputer is the dirty one?” she asks. “Yosef is not giving me a bomputer?”

I just heard my toast ding. While I typed this, Yosef grabbed her first and she yelped. Now they’re slapping each other again. Should I get my toast?

I teach soon. I taught a live 4th Grade class this morning; this afternoon it’s my geometry students. The other three classes had assignments that (in principle) they’re working on.

Finding time to put the assignments together is, obviously, a challenge. Yosef is now holding up a pillow and hitting Shuli with it while she runs into it, like a blocking drill. More slapping, more yelling. “Get off me, you stupid jet pant,” he says.

“Is Shuli taking a nap?” he asks. “She really needs one.” How about we all take a nap, kid?

Since I can’t put together any of the assignments during the day, I’ve moved to the night. Last night I put on Netflix (I can’t even remember what) and set up all of today’s assignments. Oh, yeah, it was a Jim Gaffigan stand-up thing.

Here was one of his jokes: “If you want to know what it’s like to have four kids, imagine that you’re drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.”

“At the count of three, go to where Mommy is standing,” the boy says to the girl.

“Boo!” they shout at my wife.

After my 4th Grade class I went to the grocery store today. We’re in NYC where apparently you have to fight tooth and nail with your neighbors to get a delivery slot. We live close to the grocery store, so after class I took out the granny cart and went to the store to replenish our fridge. I managed to spend a couple hundred dollars, which makes me glad that my wife and I still have our teaching jobs. This would all be infinitely harder if we were out of work.

When I came back, my wife was in a meeting and the kids were wrapping up their first burst of TV time. (Sid the Science Kid and Daniel Tiger are the current offerings, but it changes weekly.) I checked in on the Google Classroom for my 3rd Graders. Engagement in that class had been low, so I’ve started posting half of a joke and asking students to guess the punchline.

“Stop running,” my wife and I yell to Yosef at the same time. I look up from the computer I’m typing this at. Our downstairs neighbors aren’t thrilled with the nose from our apartment, and I can’t blame them. I don’t like it either. When this is all over, we’re going to take our kids to a specialist who can teach them how to walk without stomping.

It’s raining today, is the trouble. (“STOP RUNNING,” this time I yell it.) We live in a seven-floor building that is part of a complex of four, and there is a nice big yard behind it. Usually I take the kids out there where they can run, jump, search for broken glass and used bottles, kick a ball around. I’ve taken to giving them splash time in muddy puddles on rainy days, but they get covered in mud and get too cold to be out after just twenty minutes; it’s not worth it.

I’ve spent the last few weeks saying that this whole thing was unsustainable, but it’s been six weeks now and that doesn’t feel quite right. This is sustainable, we can keep doing it. It’s just a grind, and a lot of days it sucks.

Making practice work with distance learning

My story with distance learning, so far, looks like this:

  • You need a plan, and a conversation with Justin Reich helped me form one. Create assignments that kids can work on more-or-less independently, and then try to check in with as many as you can.
  • I needed materials for that plan, so I put together assignments with examples, scaffolding and extension challenges. I wrote a post summarizing what I understood after three days of this plan, which was not much.
  • After a week spent thinking about the kind of work kids could do in our distance learning set-up, it became clear that I was at risk of coming in contact with precious little mathematical thinking. And when I was getting kids to hand in work, it was often after they had completed an assignment, i.e. kind of late to help them with it.
  • During my second week of distance learning, I focused on the workflow. A big goal was to figure out if I could get kids to upload photos of their work, something I deemed essential.
  • After that week, I wrote a second post about how I was making sure kids were able to send their work to me. I mentioned three paths that were working OK — typing in the chatbox of Zoom (with all messages privately sent to me), typing in a google doc, or uploading images into a google doc.

And, now, at the end of Week 3, I need to largely retract that second post.

The main reason was because I was largely dismissive of tech tools in those first two weeks. I mean, everything we’re using is a tech tool. But I meant the apps, the endless stream of tech tools that people have been recommending over the past few weeks. Off the top of my head, those include: CueThink, FlipGrid, OneNote, Microsoft Whiteboard, GoFormative, Equatio, and so many more.

I ignored these tools at first for two reasons:

  • Who’s got the time?
  • I don’t want kids to have to learn a new tool.

But there are two tools that stand out, and those are Desmos and Classkick. Go on over to Rachel’s blog and read her on-target comparison of the pros and cons of each tool. She also has examples of materials she has adapted for Classkick, and she’s a great designer of Desmos custom activities.

My main purpose in writing this post is to apologize for the earlier mistake. At the end of this third week of distance teaching, I want to summarize what my classes currently look like.


Students log on to Google Classroom. Twice a week they have live classes on Zoom, and I post the meeting link there.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.00.06 PM

The other two days, I have a day-labeled assignment waiting for them.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.00.19 PM

Whole-group interactive lessons on Zoom are probably the smoothest part of this. I use slides, and I’ve become pretty adept at annotating them using Zoom’s tools. I pepper students with questions that they then respond to in the chat. When I set the chat to private, students get a direct channel for sharing their thinking with me. This is a wonderful picture into who is participating, what people are thinking. Teaching is basically a conversation, and the chat makes sure we’re able to have it.

Then, we move into practice. That’s when I have started to lean extremely heavily on Desmos and Classkick.

These tools are simple for students to use because, as Rachel notes in her post, kids can just click a link and go to the activity. They are simple for me to use, because I can take my existing resources and post them online.

Twice this week, I took activities I wanted my 4th Grade students to work on and brought them into Desmos activities. Nothing fancy. First, a decimals worksheet:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.09.38 PM

As students were working on these practice problems, I was able to watch what they were doing and find ways to have conversations with them. Desmos lets you test a new tool for typing little feedback comments (though kids frequently don’t see them). Most important is the big-picture view of where kids are, something that roughly stands in for those moments when you’re looking around at your students and just watching and figuring out what is going on, can they do this thing?

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.09.55 PM

I next took one of my favorite puzzle pages from the Beast Academy books and ported it into a different Desmos activity:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.14.36 PM

The Desmos teacher dashboard is, once again, extremely helpful.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.15.40 PM

Because I have knee-jerk skepticism about tech tools, I was initially dismissive of Classkick. But once I saw it in action, I realized that, in the distance learning context, it is very similar to Desmos. It isn’t built for math (so no math type) but it is built for letting teachers import worksheets, have kids work on them through the computer, and enable kids to ask and receive help on specific problems.

This time I was going even more basic: I just wanted to post a review worksheet for students to work on independently this afternoon. I took a page out of my new favorite collection of worksheets and quickly turned it into a Classkick assignment. It looked like this:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.20.26 PM

This afternoon, while students were working, I was able to monitor their thinking as it came in. (I was “on call” for questions in Classkick, where kids can raise their hands and request help through a chat box. The chat is great — it feels like AOL Instant Messenger.)

Here was a sample of my view of things:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.23.41 PM

This is an individual student’s work:Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.22.36 PM

I can leave comments through that chat function, or I can leave notes on the slide itself. A student raised her hand to ask for help, so I came in and left and note and an unfinished diagram on her slide:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 9.24.00 PM


And that’s it, basically. It avoids the awkward need for students to take pictures of their work with their web camera. I’m still open to students turning in their work that way, but I’m not currently encouraging it. These tools seem to do the trick better.

So, in sum, that’s where I’m at. I’m currently using these tech tools reluctantly but enthusiastically. We’re living in a world where you necessarily have to use a tech tool for your teaching. All I’ve done is realize that a web camera and Google Docs are often clumsier for math practice than these other tools.

So, in short, my teaching this week used chat to make whole-group lessons interactive. Then, for practice or assignments, I used Desmos or Classkick, both of which make student thinking more visible. Which enables me to then make informed decisions about how to respond.

None of which is nearly working as well as teaching in an actual classroom would. But it’s much better than when kids were working on their own, invisible to me, for the longest time. So this is a step forward, and where my teaching is at right now.