Why my students like Deltamath

My survey question to 8th Graders was, if you liked Deltamath (a math practice site) as a distance learning tool, what did you like about Deltamath?

Here are the responses:

  • The very clear examples and how it is easy and not glitchy

  • There was always an example and there was a goal to work towards

I liked that if you didn’t understand something, it had examples to show you.

It felt totally normal like the homework we would usually have

Examples are clear easy to answer

It gave examples, helpful videos, and it was concrete. I also liked that it let you know if you were right or not.

I liked that it gave me a chance to put what I learned to use

I feel like the subjects are not super difficult but the problems are a good workout for ur brain

Also it tells you if you are right or wrong, so it helps you check answers

When it would show graphs and it would show you what you are trying to figure out.
  • Also that it explains what u do wrong after you get it wrong

It was fun and interactive, shifting to give you easier/harder questions if you were correct or incorrect.

By the way this last one is not true, Deltamath does not shift to giving you easier or harder questions. There is something psychologically fascinating about thinking that the software, which is essentially a random problem generator, is actually adapting to the student responses.

In any event, listen to what the students are saying: examples, examples, examples.

Update: Here are some more comments from students about Deltamath. (I lightly edited for legibility.)

  • Deltamath works well and is good for homework

I liked how Deltamath explained the problem if you didn’t understand it. Definitely my favorite out of all the tools we’ve used
  • It’s just easier than having to use paper and pen if i’m already on my computer in class

  • I like Deltamath because I am very familiar with and because it provides examples which are helpful for certain confusion topics.

  • It’s very organized which isn’t the case for a lot of other classes assignments

  • It’s 
also easier to work with other people

I’m kinda neutral on Deltamath, but I also feel like its a good way to learn

  • I liked Classkick more, I’m not sure why though
. I really don’t know why i think it may have just been the layout of the website or maybe just how you could do more types of assignments
  • I have no opinion
  • I really like getting the answer to the problem as soon as I solve them, like it’s really nice to have to get 5 questions right and learn what your doing wrong along the way instead of answering on work sheets and not being quite sure what your doing right until later
I like Deltamath because it is easy to use and it gives examples of question with step by step solving.

I asked students if they felt it was frustrating when they got something wrong. Here’s what they said to that.

Only if it takes away points
  • Deltamath can be frustrating when you get it wrong and there’s a penalty but otherwise it’s not that frustrating

Update to the update: here’s my other algebra class’s thoughts:

  • I love it, it is very organized
  • I liked the explanatory feature that it provided. Videos, examples etc…
  • I like Deltamath. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any part that is frustrating/not useful.
  • I think it was overall fine but bit less interactive than Desmos.
  • Delta math was my favorite because the questions were clear and although it wasn’t as visual as Desmos it still had some visual elements.
  • I like Deltamath a lot it’s really simple and easy to navigate
  • Desmos>>>>>>Deltamth because for me it helps to visualize it and Desmos does that
  • It was decent I mean the problems weren’t hard at all and I could complete them in the first 15 minutes of an asynchronous period. But Deltmath it self was an easy website to use.
  • I like it because it is easy to use and gives you clear feedback. And I feel that Classkick is hard to use and not great for online learning
  • I liked Deltamath because it was easy to understand what we were supposed to do and  when it was due.
  • Delta math was really good. The only thing that was a little frustrating was typing answers on keyboard. But otherwise it was very helpful, especially the help feature where it shows examples.

As a final question, I asked this class if they remembered times when they got frustrated and stopped working on the assignment. Do you remember which website you were using when you gave up on the assignment?

  • yes, on classkick
  • Yes, delta math, a few times actually
  • no not really
  • I think I got frustrated and stopped deltamath once
  • Yes a few times
  • Only a few times
  • Yes classkick
  • That never really happened to me
  • But I was very tired
  • mostly classkick
  • Yes. But I do not remember. It was not because of the site. More that I forgot about the assignment.
  • desmos
  • Sometimes I had trouble using classkick because it was  very technical and there were no specific inputs

Good auto-grading

Some feedback makes kids give up, stop thinking, or feel bad. In my view, this is almost always feedback that doesn’t help learning. And this is why so much auto-grading is bad feedback — it doesn’t help learning. (In general, motivation is tangled up with success in ways it’s difficult to separate.)

Auto-graded work sometimes makes kids feel bad. This is when the auto-grading doesn’t lead to learning, or makes it seem like learning will be impossible. It’s not exactly mysterious why this is. Most of the time when a computer tells you that something is wrong, that’s it. So you’re wrong. What are you supposed to do with that information, as a learner? If you knew how to do it right, you’d have done it right.

What would the ideal learner do when they get the “wrong answer” info? In some cases, they’d take a close look at their steps and try to suss out the error, essentially discovering the correct way to solve the problem on their own. But in a lot of cases, kids get a question wrong because they don’t know how to do it, or they fundamentally misunderstand the problem. An ideal learner in that case would seek out the information they’re missing, from a text, a video, a friend or a teacher.

Auto-grading in my experience works best when it makes those ideal behaviors easier. I sometimes play around on the Art of Problem Solving’s Alcumus site, just for fun. It automatically tells me if I’ve said the right answer or not (though it gives me two chances and it lets me give up if I want). Then, there’s always a worked-out solution provided. It’s right there, waiting for me to read it. And then, it gives me a chance to rate the quality of the explanation (which I find empowering in some cases).

The first incorrect notice gives me a chance to discover my own mistake and learn something from it. The second incorrect notice gives me a chance to study an example. And then I have a chance to practice similar problems (because the computer will continue to provide them). It feels very oriented towards growth. I can’t solve every problem on that site right now, but I’m confident that with enough time I could.

Deltamath does this nicely as well, though of course not every student reads every explanation or watches every video. It works best in a classroom, where students can ask each other or me if they get something wrong — again, it’s using auto-grading in a context that makes it even easier to act as an ideal student would.

I’d also like to suggest that there isn’t a meaningful difference between auto-grading and a lot of the “insta” feedback that kids get in current Desmos activities. If a kid understands what a graph means, then they understand that their answer didn’t produce the correct graph. If they don’t understand why, you’ll see those same giving up activities that auto-grading can produce — or they’ll do guess and check with the graph until they get a correct answer, which in some cases is not a bad idea — get the answer, and then try to figure out why it’s correct. In either event, Desmos currently employs a great deal of de facto auto-grading in their activities.

One way Desmos could help is by making it easy for teachers to connect students to learning. You might make it easy for teachers to attach examples or explanations to a wrong answer. You might make it easy for students to ask the teacher a question via a textbox if they get an answer wrong and they can’t figure out the problem. You might enable teachers to include a brief explanation with the wrong answer, and then let kids rate the quality of that explanation. (Really, check out Alcumus.)

There are smart ways to do auto-grading, I think. The smartest way, though, is to make sure it’s happening in the context of a lot of interaction between students and a teacher.

(Cross-posted as a comment to Dan’s post.)

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.

What are the fastest, simplest ways to get student work while using Zoom and Google Classroom?

In case you missed it, here is the current situation:

  • NYC, where I live, is at the center of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States, and our governor is saying we are 14-21 days from the apex of the epidemic.
  • But, we’re still teaching!
  • I teach math to young children (3rd and 4th) as well as to older students (8th and 9th).
  • My wife is also a teacher.
  • My two young children are what some people would call “loud.”
  • And what if one of them slips off the bed while they’re jumping on it? And we have to go to the hospital?

This is my second week doing distance learning. I previously wrote about what I had figured out in the first few days of this wild experiment, and my school now has each class doing two live sessions and two asynchronous sessions every week. The live sessions are on Zoom; I post materials on Google Classroom.

By the end of last week it was clear that my next, big problem was to figure out how to make more of my students’ work visible. To me, I mean.

Before going forward: I am not interested in your favorite app. At least, not yet. There are dozens of apps that aim to help students and teachers communicate over the computer. I’m sure some of them are useful, but I just can’t deal with a new tech tool right now.

Here is what I have figured out.


Before Class

It took me a few days to realize that it’s much easier to organize Google Classroom around classwork instead of announcements. Here is how I’ve started to organize my Google Classroom pages:

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 1.45.48 PM

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 1.45.35 PM

I’m organizing things this way mostly so that students can clearly see what they are supposed to do on each day. The instructions are clear: go to Classwork, to the opening assignment, start the next if you are ready, etc.

The most important thing, though, is that each learning activity becomes its own “assignment.” During week 1 I was creating large documents that students were working on over multiple days. This was good in one sense, because I had to post only one thing. But it became very difficult to monitor the progress of kids through the assignment at all. And then it became tricky to modify the plan in the middle of the week by adding on other bits of classwork.

This is a compromise position now, and I think it’s working. It’s certainly easier for me to figure out what I’ve assigned. This also seems to be the correct way to share solutions and notes, rather than trying to organize them by topic.

During Class

There are basically three good ways to collect student thinking during class.

  1. The chat box in Zoom.
  2. Creating a separate doc for every student, and asking them to type in the doc.
  3. Taking a picture of their work and posting it.

Imagine these three ways of collecting work plotted on a grid. One axis keeps track of how easy it is to share your idea with the teacher. Chat is easiest, moving to a doc and typing is still pretty easy, but it’s pretty tough to take a picture of your work and post it to your teacher.

The other axis is about how easy it is to express yourself using a tool. Drawing on a piece of paper is the easiest, most natural approach. You can type at length in a doc, and a chat allows you only to type quick responses.

Here is how I’ve been using these three methods for communicating with kids over the course of the lesson.

Opening Problem

I saw a common mistake in my students’ work yesterday, so this morning I wanted to talk about similar triangles couched between a pair of parallels.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 1.57.17 PM

This was my “opening” assignment. But how should I collect this work?

Students need to be looking at the image while responding (or else having to hold a lot of stuff in their heads while shifting back and forth between screens). It’s also not hard to type responses to these questions. And I wanted to ask a series of questions, and that might be hard to type in a chat.

I went for “type your response in a google doc” and I think it went OK. Here is what I saw from the students.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.03.52 PM

My 4th Graders can do this, my students with shaky tech can more or less do this. Monitoring them is a little bit slow, but it’s OK. As I monitor, I start saying things over Zoom about the work. “Hey Anna, got your work. I left you a little comment.” “Jay, good stuff; here’s what you should try for the last one.” You can also leave little private comments on the side that kids can see pretty quickly. Classroom is good at this.

During a Live Lesson

This is where Zoom chat is great. You don’t want kids going back and forth between Zoom and some doc during the live, most interactive part of the lesson. I’ll quote my last post:

There is a way to sort of do whole-group instruction that opens up a tiny window into how students are thinking. It uses the chat box.

You can change the chat settings so that all chat messages are sent privately to the host of the meeting. At first, I did this because I wanted to cut down on random chat chatter. But then I realized it’s a private way that students can respond to questions.

Here is a routine I’m finding useful during whole-group discussions:

1. Ask a question. I state it, and if possible I also write the question in the chat box. That way, everyone receives the question even if they missed it when I said it.

2. Then, everyone types in their answer to the question. As the answers come in, I acknowledge receipt. “Thanks, Emma.” “Got it, Jake.” I’ll comment on wrong answers without calling individual students out. “Careful, if you’re writing (x – 2)(x -3) that’s factored form.” I can also address individual students: “Tommy, what you wrote is fine.”

3. Then, I’ll share the answer. I’ll take questions, rinse and repeat for however much whole-group time I’ve decided on for the lesson. Attention spans for this vary by class and by age, of course. More than 15 minutes is probably pushing it, I think.

Classwork or Asynchronous Assignments

If you can get away with using some online practice tool, that’s great. In general these tools are less useful in this situation than I would have hoped. The problems do not ramp up in difficulty; they’re only useful for practicing something that students are already reasonably proficient at. I use Deltamath, but it doesn’t work for my 4th Graders. I’m looking at IXL for the little kids, but it looks like it’ll be very tricky to coach kids through signing up and getting used to the tool — I’m holding off on that for now. ASSISTments is too buggy for me to use right now, and I find it difficult to navigate their reports on what the students did.

If you can get away with using a doc and asking kids to respond in it, by all means. But this is incredibly limiting. To see why, let me take you back to my Sunday night. My 4th Graders were supposed to work independently on an assignment on Monday afternoon. I decided to do review; I found a useful set of fractions worksheets from the Math in Focus books. I really wanted to use them:

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.17.53 PM

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.19.32 PM

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.19.38 PM

But! How are kids going to fill this out in a doc? Do I need to recreate this from scratch? That would take so much work.

Same with an assignment for my 8th Graders — I wanted them to try sketching a parabola. Same with my geometry students — I wanted to see their work setting up proportions. Same with my 4th Graders today — I want to study decimals, and wanted them to shade in 0.7 of a whole square.

This leads me to my final and most important thing to share, which is how to coach kids through sharing pictures of their work through Google Classroom.

How to Coach Kids Through Sharing Pictures

My first obstacle was getting a “student view” of my classes. Google does not have this feature, and my school only allows us to add people with our school accounts to Google Classroom. And they weren’t thrilled by my suggestion that they give me a second email account under the name “fake_pershan.”

So under my personal gmail account I made a class called “Pretend Math” and registered a new personal gmail account (“fakepershan”) and created an assignment for myself.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.25.03 PM

Then I shared my screen and walked students through the steps.

That solves the problem for most of my students. It’s not so hard to take a picture with a phone and then upload it to the assignment. I walked my older students through these steps.

BUT: my youngest students don’t have phones. And I can’t get their parents in front of the screen to coach them through this.

SO: my brilliant colleague pointed out that there is a simpler way to do this in docs, with a webcam.

In 4th Grade today I created an assignment focused on teaching photo sharing.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.28.21 PM

I shared my “Pretend Math” screen and showed them how to use the tool. Then, I showed them how to open the assignment, and then every kid went to this doc. (I created a separate doc for each student, which Google Classroom lets you do.)

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.28.32 PM

The big question is whether their webcam pictures would be good enough for me to learn anything from. The answer so far seems to be “sort of.”

To test whether my 4th Graders could actually pull this off with some real math, I sent them to another brief assignment, this time connected to content our class was learning.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.31.16 PM

This is what I got:

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.33.32 PMScreenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.33.06 PM

So, not perfect. And some of them were worse than not perfect.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.35.54 PM

But this is a crucial option that I needed for working with my younger students. And in each of my classes of older students, I have kids whose phones either are not working or they don’t have smart phones. This is a crucial method that kids can do on their own to turn in photos of their own work.

But, of course, this is sort of annoying. I tried to use it for my opening problem in a class or two and that turned out to be a bit of a mistake, as it took far too long for students to submit their work. I would have been better off using one of the other methods.


Once students have handed something in to Classroom, things are actually pretty good. Google lets you comment on the work itself via highlighting and commenting, but I’ve found it more useful to give a quick written comment that appears under the assignment itself.

Screenshot 2020-03-25 at 2.40.23 PM

I should say that Desmos has released a tool for adding written comments to students in their activities. There are two reasons why I’m not ready to use this for my classes:

  • My resources aren’t already loaded into Desmos.
  • Desmos is at some other site, rather than my one-stop shop Google Classroom.

But if I had more time and if my students were doing a lot of Desmos, I could see that as being useful. It seems roughly equivalent to what Classroom lets me do with assignments, but it makes it easier for me to assign Desmos “worksheets” for students to do on their own. I’ll need to do that for a lot of graphing activities down the line, probably.


Phew! OK, that’s all I’ve got. Good luck, out there, and let me know what you’ve figured out.

Why don’t I like Lincoln in the Bardo more?

I reread Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders last week, hoping that this time it would hit me a bit harder.

I want to love this book as much as I love the rest of Saunders’ work. Tenth of December and In Persuasion Nation are favorites of mine, and Civilwarland in Bad Decline is also up there. His essays are often tremendous; Saunders is one of my favorite writers.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story; it’s a lot of ghost stories. Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie (spoilers) dies while Lincoln is in his first term. He is buried in a chapel plot and then becomes a ghost. He converses with many other ghosts, all dallying for their various reasons. Lincoln himself dallies, shocking the many spirits of the graveyard by returning to mourn his son the night after the burial.

Saunders is so big-hearted a writer, his portrait of Lincoln’s grief so raw, it touches me deeply. His ghosts are grotesque but also kindly drawn, and their sorrows often left me moved. Saunders is above all a moralistic writer in the best sense, and I’m a sucker for stories about people struggling to do the right thing when the stakes are the highest, and this is that kind of story.

The moral picture, as far as I understood it, is that his sort of ghosts are precisely a certain type of human. Lovers of freedom and independence, they have to fight to remain as they are – ghosts, that is, though the ghosts are in denial about who they really are. They are, of course, dead creatures. We, the living, in contrast are dying creatures, also pushing away thoughts of our mortality for the sake of getting through the day.

The greatest cause of the spirit’s life in this book – the only cause – is survival. It takes constant internal work to resist the urge to move on. This requires a focus on freedom and survival and a systematic refusal to let others into one’s heart. This, Saunders argues, is bad. I guess I have to agree.

The thing that drives me nuts about the book is that I don’t get why this is a story about Lincoln, and I don’t get the way he tells that part of the story. Yes, there are parallels drawn between the personal and the political in the novel. Saunders draws a line between the South’s insistence on freedom and autonomy and the selfish egoism of the ghosts. In a pretty cool scene, all the ghosts in the graveyard literally embody Lincoln, and it’s strongly implied that our ability to embody the station of others is at the heart of the moral impulse – Lincoln performs this for the nation at the political level.

But the historical aspects of the story are told in a fragmented way, with faux-historical sources excerpted one at a time, commenting on the Lincoln family and Willie’s death. Frequently, the historical sources contradict each other. This is the same fragmented way that the ghosts speak in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what Saunders is trying to do with all of that. Is his point simply that we remember stuff differently? Why would he be making that point. It’s such a showy way of telling the story, and I have no idea why he does it.

I felt a lot of things while hanging out with those ghosts but very few things while trudging through the historical bits. He seems to be suggesting that those memoirs and those ghosts have the same manner of speech, but I still can’t see what he makes of that.

Anyway, I like the book but I feel as if I should like it more.

After three days of distance learning, here’s what I now understand

I feel like we all know the issues with online learning. If not, we all will soon enough. No need to make this post all about the problems, though it would be strange not to mention them at all. Here are the main ones:

  • A social environment is more motivating than being stuck in your bedroom alone
  • You can explain stuff, and people can ask questions, but it’s really hard to know what’s going on for kids who aren’t asking questions
  • I am also taking care of my two young biological children
  • You can’t tell what’s on kids’ pages as they are writing
  • My own two children are absolutely going to destroy our two-bedroom apartment
  • It is very difficult to show anything in to the teacher while asking a question
  • The two-year old is hitting the five-year old in the face over and over with her Elmo figurine

So, what do you do? Justin Reich had been very generous in talking through some ideas with me, and he helped give me a way to think about it. “Organize around individual check-ins,” he wrote. “When I talk to the best full time virtual school teachers, they say they spend a considerable portion of time following up with individual kids.”

Designing materials for a lesson like this is not easy. If you start with individual check-ins, there’s a nasty chain of deduction that pretty quickly leads you away from normal classroom practice:

  • You can only check-in and tutor individual students unless most students have something productive to do
  • You’re going to need a few days to individually check-in with all the kids you need to
  • That means that everybody needs something that they can do pretty-much independently for several days

It’s not really easy to design materials for that.

Well, I should say that the difficulty really depends on the group. I have a high-flying 8th Grade class that is seeming relatively easy to design for. I’ve used ASSISTments (buggy, but good) to assign practice problems from Illustrative Math, with Desmos extension problems. That’s been smooth.

But, yeah, all my other classes have been harder.

The way I’m seeing it right now, you’re looking for materials that have three qualities:

  1. The assignment lasts a couple days. This reduces planning time, and also gives me more of a window for checking in and helping my students with the assignment.
  2. The materials include clear examples and support. This is how kids are going to do the assignment more independently. Fawn just wrote a very nice post about making worksheets that start with models and then fade the support, teaching kids what correct answers look like.
  3. There are challenges at the end that are optional. Because some kids will finish things in a day and want more math, and they deserve it. If they want it. If they want to go outside and take a walk while maintaining nice physical distancing conduct, they should do that too.

The hardest, hardest thing so far has been finding time to put materials together while taking care of my own two biological children. My wife is also teaching her middle school students from home, and every evening we’re scraping together a schedule that lets us both do our jobs. I’m really so grateful to be getting a paycheck at all right now, I can’t really complain. But it’s not easy for me to put nice-looking things together.

So, here it is, a sloppy thing that I’ll share. It’s the resources that I gave my high school geometry students as their assignment this week, and it’s been going OK.


The document is here.

We were studying similarity before school closed. I had gotten as far as practicing setting up and solving proportions.

Starts with an example:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.20 PM

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.33 PM

Two things about the example:

  • I talked it through with the whole-group on Zoom, which I might as well not have done. I had to work it through one-on-one with the kids who I knew would need it. Still, it was worth the five minutes to reassure some kids that they understood this so that I could focus on the individuals. I’d say the whole-group is worth it, but not worth a huge investment of time.
  • A lot of my kids don’t have printers so they’re reading my worksheets on their phones, so I’ve been trying to write in big, clear fonts. Not sure if it’s helping, but it’s the rationale behind those huge letters.

After the example comes practice. I send kids into breakout rooms and tell them they can leave the computer and work alone if they want, but they can also collaborate. All I ask is that they remain more or less around so that I can call them back if I need to, and so far that’s been OK.

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.29.52 PMScreenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.00 PM

Then another example:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.22 PM

Then, ideally, would have been some indirect measurement practice except it’s BEEN ONE HELL OF A WEEK and I put what I could find into the worksheet even though it’s not a perfect match:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.30 PM

Then, the extension problems:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.30.36 PM

And also:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.39.51 PM


I did something similar for my 4th Grade class, and it went better than Day 1 did.


Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.40.55 PM

Practice (this time with more fading of the supports):

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.41.34 PM

Extension challenge:

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 8.41.43 PM

And it went better, in the sense that I was able to have some mathematical conversations with people and figure out what they understood, what they didn’t understand, help people, that’s the whole point of this job, right? The key, when you strip everything else away, is figuring out what people understand and helping them understand it?

But you’re basically flying blind in this distance teaching because you can’t see what anybody is doing at a given moment. Maybe there’s some digital tool that can help give you a better picture of what kids understand and can do, but without that the main thing is the individual conversation. This is a structure that tries to plan around that.

Please, share if you’ve got something better. Please.

Oh, and remember how we used to share resources online and but then we stopped because blogging died? Can we bring blogs back, if just for a few months?


Addendum, 3/19/20:

There is a way to sort of do whole-group instruction that opens up a tiny window into how students are thinking. It uses the chat box.

You can change the chat settings so that all chat messages are sent privately to the host of the meeting. At first, I did this because I wanted to cut down on random chat chatter. But then I realized it’s a private way that students can respond to questions.

Here is a routine I’m finding useful during whole-group discussions:

1. Ask a question. I state it, and if possible I also write the question in the chat box. That way, everyone receives the question even if they missed it when I said it.

2. Then, everyone types in their answer to the question. As the answers come in, I acknowledge receipt. “Thanks, Emma.” “Got it, Jake.” I’ll comment on wrong answers without calling individual students out. “Careful, if you’re writing (x – 2)(x -3) that’s factored form.” I can also address individual students: “Tommy, what you wrote is fine.”

3. Then, I’ll share the answer. I’ll take questions, rinse and repeat for however much whole-group time I’ve decided on for the lesson. Attention spans for this vary by class and by age, of course. More than 15 minutes is probably pushing it, I think.

Will schools close for coronavirus?

First, listen to the experts. Here is who I have found helpful to follow:

I’ve been trying to figure out what is going on and what the response actually will be. This has been an attempt to just make sense of what various experts are saying, and think about the implications. I know nothing about this beyond what I’ve learned in the last few weeks, like the rest of us.

Here is what I think is going on:

It’s tempting to ask, “how lethal is this virus?” It’s also tempting to summarize that lethality in a number. But the mortality rate of a virus is not some fixed fact about the virus. The reason why the usual flu isn’t so very lethal is because it’s seasonal, there are vaccines, we have experience treating it, and so on.

So this new virus has a mortality rate, and for vulnerable populations it does seem to be many times worse than the usual flu. But mortality is not simply about biology. And that’s where the real potential for crisis begins.

Because this virus is new to humanity and spreads so rapidly, dangerous cases can pile up very quickly. If hospitals are overwhelmed with cases and don’t have enough nurses, doctors, beds, masks, and so on, the virus suddenly becomes much deadlier. If you have a choice between everybody getting sick over the course of a month or spreading that out over many months — you would definitely want that second option. All things being equal, the mortality rate will be lower.

Not all things are equal, though. Stretching out the timing — dragging this whole thing out as long as humanly possible — also buys time for scientists and medical professionals to figure out how to treat the sick. It makes sure that doctors themselves aren’t all sick at once, and available to work. It gives the government time to fund mask manufacturers so supplies aren’t immediately depleted. And, of course, it gives researchers time to work on a vaccine.

When it comes to pandemics, slower is better.

A lot of what has been happening so far feels like an attempt to contain the disease. We’re used to a world where people are quarantined to keep the disease from spreading. For example, the WHO has been speaking about how it is important not to give up on containment of the virus as a goal:

“As long as you have these discrete outbreaks … there is the opportunity to control them — to get on top of these and contain them and prevent a lot of disease and ultimately death,” says Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the director general of the World Health Organization. “That’s the big message we saw in China — and one of the big surprises.”

Other experts, though, have been puzzled by why the WHO is talking like this. From their point of view, the opportunity for containment has long passed:

As best I can tell, containment was never really a serious possibility. It’s just that even a failed containment strategy gives a government a head start on slowing things down, which is the real public health goal.

What will that mean, in the months ahead?

It’s hard to know exactly, because we’re constantly learning more about the virus, the disease, and potential public responses to it. It was initially unclear whether kids were even getting sick and spreading the virus, since their symptoms have been so mild. My sense is that evidence is starting to come together that children do get infected with the disease. If their symptoms are more mild, does that mean that they infect others at lower rates? We don’t know this yet, and governments need to know this.

What I’m getting the sense of, though, is that schools won’t be closed in the initial stages of local epidemics — for now.

There are a good number of school closings, but they seem to be focused on wealthier schools or school districts that are more responsive to the needs and fears of parents. They also include colleges and universities where online learning is easier to put together.

Public schools, though, are a big deal to close. And even experts who are raising alarm bells are reminding people that shuttering schools isn’t necessarily the right response. There are confusing network effects of closing a school. If you close a school where kids are getting their meals, will that send more kids to an overburdened hospital? Will nurses have to stay home to take care of their children? Will kids gather outside of school anyway? (This was apparently something that happened during H1N1 closures.)

That said, school closures, even big public closures, are clearly happening across the world. Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, they’ve all closed all of their schools.

Based on what’s happening in Seattle, it seems to me that this is the escalation of responses we can expect:

  1. Early isolation – When the virus is new to a place, a school (or anyplace else) will shut down the moment someone gets tested positive. There’s still a chance at some kind of containment of the virus early on. This is when public health officials want to isolate and chase the cases.
  2. Individual caution – When the disease is plausibly in your neighborhood, it seems that public health officials then urge individuals to start changing their habits. Be on guard, they say. You may have this disease — don’t mess around, isolate yourself is you are feeling sick. Wash your hands seriously. Cut down on contact. Reasonably avoid crowds. On the margins, be more careful. And this has an impact.
  3. Easy shut downs – As cases pile up, places that can begin to shut down. Private schools or districts that aren’t responsible for providing a lot of social services begin to shut, when cases are a degree or two away. People are encouraged to work from home as much as possible. Big events are cancelled or postponed.
  4. Tougher shut downs – If things continue, then bans on gatherings above a certain size can be imposed.

And so on, and so on. And if a community starts approaching the capacity to handle cases, and there’s a risk of running out of healthcare resources…that’s when the serious moves are pulled out. And, as far as I can tell, that’s when large schools districts with lots of poverty will begin to close, for several weeks.

My sense is that various countries have been able to avoid these tougher shut downs, for now, by aggressively pursuing 1-3. Part of the work of 1-3 is extremely widespread testing for the virus, and the US has gotten a slow start on this despite adequate warning. (It doesn’t seem like this is entirely the fault of the White House, but it seems like they didn’t help things along at all. Here’s a piece about what we know about the testing rollout.) That’s somewhat scary, but my understanding is that testing is ramping up in the US. Hopefully we’ll be able to move smoothly on that front, from now on, but who knows.

All this, though, is just the first wave of the virus. Who knows, at this point, whether we’ll get any reduction in cases when the weather gets warmer. Even if it does, though, we’ll have to deal with all of this again in the fall. We can expect waves, though future waves will (hopefully) not be as severe. Anyone who already fell ill will have some immunity (as researchers have recently confirmed). And who knows, maybe we’ll know more about treating it. Hopefully we’ll have a better sense of what measures are effective by then at slowing its spread.

But we should expect a few waves, I think, over the next year or two. That’s my impression.