Desert Island Books

The Dean at my school started an awesome email chain where faculty described in surprising detail their top 10 favorite books.  My school is incredible.  One of our Literature teachers is taking the semester off to go on her book tour.  Shout out to Virginia Reeves and Work Like Any Other: A Novel.  I started to get really intimidated by all the literacy going on.  I’m not illiterate but I don’t read as much as my peers and I definitely didn’t read much in high school or college.  But I couldn’t resist chiming in.  Below is my email to the faculty at my school.

Top 10 Favorite Books

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Uncle Dudley has a secret. What’s that secret you say? Harry is a Wizard?! His parents were wizards? He’s famous in the Wizard community and doesn’t even know what a Snitch is. This classic young adult novel sets the stage for the total of 4,224 pages of magic that will change your life.

What’s the sorcerer’s stone? A thing that helps you live forever. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named wants it but Harry says “I ain’t bout dat”.

Who dies? No one. At this point everyone is still a child and everyone can sleep soundly.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Part two of this terrific series establishes our three young heroes as budding adventures. They aren’t 11 years old anymore. It’s time to break some rules. Let’s have some drinks kids. But these drinks will make us shape shift into pimply preteens and cats.

Want to get rid of your embarrassing teenage journal? Just stab it with a basilisk fang (re: crazy huge snake tooth).

Who dies? Still no one but Ginny almost dies and that’s enough to keep your 12 year old self up an hour later in fear.


Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

So this crazy dude named Sirius Black escapes from Azkaban and everyone is terrified. This dude is straight up crazy! He can also turn into a big scary dog (not a werewolf those are different) WOAAAHH I didn’t know I was reading Twilight. Harry is pretty sure Sirius is in cahoots with Voldemort and is busy fearing for his life.

Meanwhile Harry is getting wicked good at Quidditch and is starting to get a bit too famous.

Ever want to know how Iphone got the idea for “find my friend” or “share location”? Well they straight up stole it from Maurader’s Map.

Turns out Sirius is actually Harry’s Godfather and is a good guy. There’s nothing to fear from this Godfather.

Who dies? No one because it’s still a kid story. Come on guys.


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

This book is the first of the long books. They only get longer. This is great for island living.

In this one Harry is chosen by Hogwarts to compete in a wizarding tournament against the world’s other wizardry academies.   This book starts with a spark of romance. Does she like Cedric?! What?! WHY?!?! She doesn’t like him for long because he dies.

Who dies? Cedric Diggory.

Who is still alive? Everyone that matters. Move on.


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Wanna feel the agony of learning that your hero is flawed? Oh get ready for this book. It turns out Harry is a real teenager and is super annoying. He’s also having weird dreams that connect him to his dark past. It’s kind of a Luke vs Darth vibe up in here. Is your attempt to prevent what happens in the dream the thing that makes the dream come true? I DON’T KNOW MAN THIS IS DEEP.

What’s the Order of the Phoenix? Think the Rebels in Star Wars. If you don’t know that then you are hopeless.

Who dies? Sirius Black.

True story. Senior year of high school my friend Jenny was reading the part where Sirius dies and I started laughing at her. It was the fourth time she had read the book. She kicked me real good right in the, well, just don’t make fun of people for crying when Sirius dies.


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

This book gives me kind of a Orwellian 1984 feel. The Voldemort followers are starting to slowly take control of the government and everyone is letting it happen. The easiest way to feel safe is to give up your rights. But what if your government is behind all of it so that you voluntarily comply?! I don’t know man. Times are hard these days.

Harry tries to learn to control his thoughts because otherwise Voldemort can connect with him and manipulate him. I wonder if Hogwarts had a wellness class taught by Dave Wofford then Harry could have centered away all his worries.



Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry dies.

JK he is risen.

Voldemort is all worried about the Prophecy “and either must die at the hand of the other for neither can live while the other survives… ”   This sounds like an IB Math logic problem.

Who dies? Like half of everyone else in his epic showdown between the good guys and bad guys.   The scene looks like a group of frat boys got their hands on some roman candles on the fourth of July. Most importantly Voldemort dies. Harry is the best!!


1984 – George Orwell

I don’t need a Big Brother.


Kafka on the Shore – Murakami

Because sometimes we try to escape from a past to find ourselves, only to help someone else on their journey. And some things are more beautiful because they have an expiration date.

Eat and Run – Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek is America’s greatest ultramarathoner and the best part is that he’s not a self serving dude trying to get famous. His book tells his story of developing mental toughness through helping his mother battle MS. Also at the end of every chapter is a tasty vegan recipe to fuel you on your long runs.

Writing and Grading Tests is Hard

I love writing tests. I think the part of my brain that dreams up problems is the reason I was a successful engineering student in college. The professor would cover multiple topics in a month and leading up to the test I would daydream about how they would write the tests. Engineering tests were hard. REALLY HARD. But I had really amazing professors. Dr. Richard Corsi and Dr. Desmond Lawler in the Environmental Engineering department at UT Austin changed the way I view exams. I forgot about a lot of the lessons they taught me but as I get more experienced in teaching and have more time for brain thoughts to stew, I have started to view tests differently.

  1. If the student almost got it correct, why take off a bunch of points?

This is really tough for a teacher. The only time I give a 100 on a test is if the student gets all the answers correct with coherent processes. But do you have to get all the correct answers to get an A+? I used to think that but I don’t anymore. Dr. Lawler used to use the acronym “EP” for “error propagates”. Meaning if you made a mistake early on but the rest of your answers would be correct, then you get full credit. I like this mentality and the IBO grades the same way.

Sometimes I throw a question on the test that I don’t expect many to get. On my last test I threw this problem on there. It’s challenging. The student didn’t get the correct answer but I gave him an A+ on the test anyway. Why? Because in the real world it would have taken minimum collaboration for him/her to get it.


My school has a very liberal retake policy. A student can attempt to demonstrate mastery following a test if they didn’t demonstrate mastery the first time. This makes a lot of teachers uncomfortable because it means students can retake an 80 for a 100 or bomb a test completely and retake it without “consequence”. I have decided to embrace this and grade in a more holistic way.


  1. Be holistic. 

I’ve also decided to take a step back when grading and not assign points to every small detail of the test. I was taught to use grading rubrics on tests and we would have conversations as exhaustive as “Ok let’s take off one point if they don’t rationalize the denominator”. Really? My heart hurt because of these conversations. I now think of the test as more like an English teacher thinks of a rubric for an essay. A student who earns an A would demonstrate mastery of the topic, with easily followed solutions, as well as attempting every problem in a way that is understood. B-students tried all the problems but made initial assumptions/declaration that caused them to go a wrong direction and miss the answer by a lot. With a few corrections at the beginning of the problem they could be redirected towards the correct answer. C students are missing quite a bit of content. They may have gotten answers completely wrong but some answers completely correct. Students who get an F left problems blank or attempted only half the problems.


This mindset is difficult at times because it doesn’t have the safety of a point system but when I take a step back and look at the grades I feel more comfortable with the feedback that I give kids. This also means that grading marks on tests are less of the focus for the students. I like it.

  1. Write problems that reflect the values you hold in class.

Some of my favorite problems in class are slightly out of reach for some students. The efforts they put into the problem are actually more of the focus than just getting the right answer. That’s the value of the problem in class so the test should reflect those same values. That means I don’t expect them to get the correct answer in order to receive credit. It means they better try it and show me that they can make progress.

Dr. Corsi was a master of combining topics into one question. His Fluid Dynamics class helped me refine my skill of guessing what’s on the test. I would look forward to seeing what he crafted in his four question long tests. It made me view assessment as a creative process and not a mandated one.

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The fact that I have to grade kids is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I could go on and on about the reasons why it’s bad but I don’t have too many solutions of how to make it better, especially when things like standards based grading are the norm for your school. But making it fun and holistic? That’s a direction I can go in.

Deciding What is Important

The Khabele School is incredibly unique in that it honors a full student education versus just the books. It’s a great effort to combat the factory of schools and the assembly line style of education that most school systems offer. Examples of our efforts include:

Project Week! Project week at the Khabele School is summarized here

In short, students are given about 6 weeks of prep time leading up to the week prior to Spring Break. We cancel classes and students are provided time to explore a topic of their choice. After spring break they return to give a presentation to their peers about what they did and what they learned. Think “If I had one week to do whatever interests me, what would I do?” It’s pretty amazing.

The Forward! The Forward is like a retreat, except we aren’t returning to anything. We are projecting ourselves forward into the people we want to become. It’s a two night camping trip to the Texas hill country. Kumbaya Bro.

Student Led Conferences! Students and parents sign up for a 30 minute time slot with their advisor. Students then walk through their academic and personal lives with their parent and advisor. This allows for a structured catch up time or allow for students to officially declare areas of their life that need assistance. It takes place in the fall and spring semester and we shut down school for two days each time.

These things are amazing but what that means by the end of May is that my classes meet for about 2 weeks less than a typical class. My PBL geometry book has 68 pages. I didn’t make the book but I am adapting it to my school. This year I’ll be lucky to get to page 55 with one of my sections and page 50 with another. This summer I plan on cutting back some of the problems so as to shorten the book to 60 pages. It’s going to be a painful process because I will likely look at every problem and think it’s worthwhile. The only thing I can think now is that the beginning sections are slow which is nice for the students but they spend an incredible amount of time just on Pythagorean Theorem. If I could cut a week from that, it’s a start. Otherwise, it could mean identifying questions that are more for fun and skipping them. But do you leave them in the book and hope that a curious student still does them or do you cut it entirely so as to have a consolidated book in which every problem is completed? This is a lot of work to figure out but it’s a great project for the summer!

My Rookie Mistakes

Originally Posted 8/31/2015
Experienced teachers always claimed that if you stay in the profession long enough you begin to feel sorry for the kids you taught in your first few years.  I think I have hit that point.  I’ve begun to realize some of my rookie mistakes.  I’m sure in a few years I’ll have more to add but so far this is my list.

1.     Being purposely vague because you want students to surprise students on tests. 

  •  In physics and math worlds I felt like some of my best questions were the ones I wrote for tests.  I couldn’t come up with anything as good for reviews or examples and I felt like if I used them on anything but the test, they were wasted.  Kids were purposely not be exposed to my beautifully written problem.  The end result: my brightest students left tests saying “wow that was amazing!” while the majority was thinking “we’ve never learned that”.
  • My solution: At this point I have realized that doesn’t work.  I am no longer afraid to show them problems like the ones on the test.  What I was initially avoiding was giving a review that looked like the test.  Now I just give them the beautiful problem as a regular in class problem or for homework.  I don’t say it’s like something on the test.  I just say “Hey check out this cool thing!”

2.     Making agendas and then stop making agendas

  • My first two years of teaching I taught in what would be considered a traditional public school environment.  I took all the advice of all the books and teachers at teacher training school.  I made daily agendas that would be projected on the board.  I would include fun facts of the day that would later be coined as FOTDs.  If I forgot to have an FOTD students would riot and eventually start emailing me interesting facts themselves.  This gimmick was really good for ensuring that I made daily agendas and put thought into what would be accomplished each day.  I then moved to a different school where this was less necessary because the students were highly motivated and a routine could be established without a constant visual reminder of what was to be accomplished that day. I fell out of this routine and habit.  Kids were left wondering what was going on and I started to not really know what was to be done each day myself.
  • Stop being lazy and make a daily agenda EVERY DAY and tell the kids what’s happening.  They are as detailed as I want but so often I would think of great ideas but then forget what YouTube video I wanted to show or what the link was to that one really cool site.  The daily agendas are more for me than for the kids but everyone benefits.

3.     Moving around too much

  • I mean moving cities.  In my 6 years of teaching I have taught in 4 schools in 3 cities.  My first two years of teaching were at the same place but then I moved for various reasons two consecutive years and then I got laid off from public school.  The good part was that I got a lot of life experience and was able to establish what I want in a school.  I experienced various leadership styles, department vibes, and campus cultures.  I learned this while sacrificing consistency in subjects taught.  The thing that makes me feel most comfortable in the classroom is being so well planned out that I can then focus on what the stumbling blocks for my students will be.  I didn’t have this for what felt like most of my career.
  • My solution: Find a school I love and stop moving. I am teaching geometry and IB Math Studies for the second year in a row. I am so much  more organized and can focus on how to improve my courses instead of just survive another year.

I’ve far from perfected anything but I’m basically shocked at how different this year feels compared to others. Reflection is good.

Reflection on Principles To Action NCTM

Originally Posted 6/28/15

The summer reading for my math department is one section titled “Effective Teaching and Learning” of the Principles to Actions written by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

I quite enjoy reading things like this because I don’t have a formal degree in education and I appreciate moments where I feel like I can be a student of our craft.  As I read the first few pages of this section I couldn’t help but feel even more justified in my choice to teach geometry with a problem based learning curriculum.  According to the NCTM, math classrooms should be created such that experiences allow for 6 things to happen.  As I read these six things I felt that using a PBL pedagogical approach helps establish these 6 things are norms.

1. Engage with challenging tasks that involve active meaning and support meaningful learning
The process of attempting problems on your own and presenting the problems to the class sets this expectation from the very beginning.
2. Connect new learning with prior knowledge
The self scaffolding nature of the problems allows students to develop this as a habit. In traditional “Me-We-You” teaching method the students often rely first on the teacher’s direction instead of thinking “what can I already do by myself?”


3. Acquire conceptual knowledge as well as procedural knowledge
Again, the problems are arranged in such a way as to have deliberate purposes in a deliberate order. I as the teacher know that a few specific problems help establish the conceptual knowledge and that a few pages later the procedural knowledge is established. I feel comfortable knowing this happens in a cyclic pattern across multiple topics simultaneously.

4. Construct knowledge socially through discourse
This is the easiest task with a PBL curriculum. I love watching the students discuss and debate problems. One difficult part of teaching this way is knowing when to interject and when to remain silent.

5. Receive descriptive and timely feedback
The student lead structure of PBLmeans that any time a student presents a problem they get descriptive and timely feedback. Any student that pays close attention can take mental notes or make modifications in their journals.

6. Develop metacognitive awareness of themselves as learners, thinkers, and problem solvers.
If students approach a problem knowing there is a high chance they will have to verbally discuss it, they become far more aware of what they are doing than if it were secret notes never to be seen by anyone. PBL allows for students to learn their tendencies and grow in ways that a traditional classroom can’t address.


I’ve taught PBL at a school and then gone back to the traditional classroom.  I felt a constant void in a traditional classroom.  I couldn’t feel that these 6 things were happening.  When I moved schools and went back to PBL I could feel these things happening even for my weaker students.  It’s a more comfortable way for me to teach and I see and feel these experiences happening on a daily basis.

Faux Chapters

Originally posted on 6/24/2015


Teaching a Problem Based Learning curriculum is hard for multiple reasons.  I’ll write a blog post in the future about why I choose to do it despite the difficulties but for now I want to focus on some of the ways that it’s hard and how to make it easier.

First off, I use the Deerfield Academy Geometry 202 book for my geometry course.

I find one of the hardest parts of teaching a problem based curriculum is that the lack of finite structure (no chapters/units) makes it difficult for students to get comfortable.  This discomfort is productive in the long run because a lot our lives and math lack this finite structure.  My first goal of the summer is to make a solution manual for the Deerfield problem book with the intent of rewriting/writing problems and creating my school’s own PBL book.  My second goal is to find good stopping points within the book that make me think “A test would make sense after page 6.” or “At this point a journal entry could be written about _____.”  When I make the problem calendar to share with the students I can show them when tests and journals occur based on page numbers.  This can provide some of the structure they need.  It’s faux chapters.