Learning is Hard

One dark evening a man was on his hands and knees under a street light looking through the grass.
A pedestrian asked what he was looking for.
“The keys to my car.” replied the man.
Having some time and feeling helpful, the pedestrian joined the man in his search.
After a while, with no success, the pedestrian asked: “Where were you when you lost your keys?”
“Over there by my car.” the man gestured.
The pedestrian was puzzled. “Why are you looking for them here?”
The man without keys explained: “The light’s better!”

Why is it in education that we continually look for answers in the wrong place?

We give homework, tests, and assignments then grade students on their work.  When they don’t measure up to our expectations we encourage them to develop better habits and we talk to parents, then we move on to the next unit.  We decide the trouble lies somewhere in the work ethic of the student, the lack of support from home, or the general difficulty the student has “doing school”.

We shine the light on their ability to follow our rules and search for remedies that will allow the student to get “back on track”, neglecting the complexity that is human life.  Rather than meaningfully understanding the needs of students and responding to them, we focus on the limited time we have with students in class and expect them to figure out what they need to improve on their own.  

We seldom look for ways to deeply understand and connect with students and the ways in which they learn.  Once they are beyond the door of our classroom, it’s on them to do the learning, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their own fault.  Why is this the case?

Learning is hard.

True learning is hard and messy and takes a lot of time.  Honestly, thinking about a hypothetical classroom in which my most struggling students receive A’s gives me a panic attack because of the chaos, coordination, and deep focus it would take for me to help them find success.  The same can be true about searching for keys in the dark: it can seem impossible, but if that’s where you need to focus your attention, it appears to be a waste looking anywhere else.

I’m not arguing that it is the job of the teacher to do everything for students.  I’m simply arguing that giving them a C on a paper with comments is not enough for a student to do better on the next paper.  Earning a D on a math test and saying “you need to study harder next time” doesn’t help a student prepare for the next test.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma, but I think it is important to admit just how difficult learning actually is and take one step toward embracing the messiness that is teaching.  It is time to stop looking at test scores and expecting students will change on their own.  It is time to stop looking under the street light and expecting we will find our keys.


Choosing Whichever Comes Last

We’ve all heard the commercial.  Buy a new vehicle and get some kind of 10 year/ 100,000 mile warranty.  When I was younger, I remember being curious about how it can be both 10 years and 100,000 miles under warranty only to find out that the warranty is covered until whichever happens first.  This makes sense for a business model, but I find this idea of “whichever comes first” creeps into our daily decision making and causes many of us to stop short of our true potential.

These thoughts came to me during a run.  I was out for a quick run and I told myself I was going to run for three songs then turn back around.  As the third song ended, I looked ahead and saw a side road about a quarter mile ahead.  I had the option to reach my goal of running for three songs or to push on for just a bit more.  I chose the latter.

The first issue many people face in reaching their potential is not setting a goal.  It is very unlikely to grow or even feel accomplished if you don’t have a goal in mind.  The second issue is that often people are satisfied with reaching their goal and, once they reach it, stay stagnant.

When given the option of 10 years or 100,000 miles I challenge you to choose whichever comes last.  Run to the next street, then one hill more, then finish that song.  Get your degree, get the job that you’ve dreamed of, but don’t ever stop striving for the next step.  You are bound to fail or come up short sometimes, but its the only way you know you gave it your all.  Learn from it, and get after it again.  Goals are great motivators, but they are just the beginning.  Greatness in school, in work, in relationships, and in life happen when you’re given two options and you choose whichever comes last and whichever takes the most work, reflecting on your journey and constantly preparing for the next challenge.

Starting the School Year with Struggle and Collaboration


You know that feeling – the summer is quickly winding down; the peaceful time with family and friends is replaced with the anxiety and uneasiness of a new school year.  Perhaps you’re not worrying because you have a routine; you have a go-to plan that has worked for years. Perhaps you do not worry because the start of the school year is as simple as assigning seats, a quick welcome, and going over the syllabus.

Being the fourth year of my teaching career, I have not really developed any tried and true methods, and I am not a big fan of imposing rules and expectations on the kids right off the bat.  Instead, my planning stemmed from something Dan Meyer said to me when I asked him how to get a group of kids so engaged and thinking critically:

The way your students think and talk about math on the first day of school doesn’t imply they will need to think and talk about it the same way in April or May.

Just like the growth mindset for individuals, a classroom and a group of students as an entity can be developed over time.  Recognizing the ideal class will never be handed to me on the first day of school I decided to ask the question – how do I help students take the first step?

ACTIVITY ONE –  How do I get students to collaborate about math in a meaningful way?

  1. Make sure you have students sitting in groups.  If you want students to collaborate you need a environment conducive to doing so.


2. Hand out a piece of paper to each student and tell them:

Today we are going to practice being artists!  How many of you feel like you are decent artists?” (take a show of hands)

How many of you feel like you’re definitely not artists?” (again a show of hands)

I need you to get out a pencil.  In a second I am going to put up the picture that I need you to draw” (don’t start with the picture on the screen because their reaction is hilarious when you show them).

You will spend three minutes drawing an image to the best of your ability.  It does not need to be perfect, but I want you to do your very best

This is a perfect activity for the first day because they will still do almost anything you ask!  Mostly they’re confused why we are drawing in math class.


3. Throw this image on your screen and tell them “Ready, go!”

  • Here’s a link to the larger image: Train Pictrain
  • There most likely will be an uproar because many of the students are having a panic attack.  Just remind them “I won’t let you fail.  I  just want you to do your best”


4. Give students students about a minute to draw, circling the room saying “I’m seeing some awesome works!  Keep it up!”  After a minute tell the kids to put down their pencils.I want you to grab your paper with your left hand [pause and demonstrate it for the kids] and pass it to the person on your left.  You should now have a new image in front of you.  I want you to keep going where the last person left off. Go!”

  • An interesting thing happens at this point.  The students have met their first struggle of the year.  They are forced to deal with someone else’s work – maybe good, maybe bad.  Either way, they are forced to look at a situation in sometimes a very different way than they approached it.  Doesn’t this sound exactly like what we want from students in a classroom?
  • After the initial struggle of trying to figure out someone else’s drawing you see students…collaborating!  They are asking the person before them how they started or sometimes what they were looking at.  One student grabbed their partner’s paper and started drawing but after a few seconds the partner reached over and rotated the paper 180 degrees saying “you should probably look at it this way”.  


5. Repeat this process giving students 45 – 60 seconds to draw before switching again.

  • I had groups of four so I gave students about 60 seconds, then 45, 45, and 45.  Not only do you end up with collaboration; students are able to flex their creativity as well!

Example Train DrawingExample TrainExample Student Train 2         

6. After the activity take the time to reflect on the important lessons.

A.  Did you notice…

  •    Point out the use of collaboration to make sense of the first person’s drawing.
  •    Tell them about other observations you made while they were working.

B. Why did that happen?

  • Ask the students why they felt the need to collaborate.

C. Does it happen in life or does it happen at home?

  • Ask students to tie the drawing activity to life.  Make sure you give them time to think, and let them come up with the answers.

D. How can we use this?

  • What does this look like in a classroom?  What is the value of collaboration?



  1. Have students flip the page over and assign partners.  Students need to choose who is person A and who is person B.


2. Explain to them they will only need one pencil and one piece of paper.  Person A will be in charge of the pencil and person B will be in charge of the paper.

  • Tell the students:

Person A, your task is easy; all you are allowed to do is put the pencil to the page or lift it up.  Person B, you will be in charge of the telling them when to lift the pencil up and when to put it down.  Person B, you are also in charge of the paper.  You will be drawing an image by moving the paper below the pencil.  In a second, I am going to tell person B what you will be drawing; person A, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes.

  • Like anytime you give directions, you probably want to go through these directions two more times so everyone is on the same page.  If you have the time to model it for the students, that usually helps too.


3. Tell person A to cover their eyes, then on the board write the word – CAR – then immediately erase it.  Give students 2 or 3 minutes to complete the task.

Drawing of poorly sketched car
If you’re lucky you’ll get some sweet pics that look something like this.
  • Some students struggle with the idea that they are completely in charge (person B) and some students are frustrated by not having any idea of what the end result will be (person A).  What happens though, is a cooperation between the two partners to overcome a challenge.  By keeping the image simple and fairly vague it impossible for students to fail.  Use this activity to talk with students about overcoming challenges and developing strategies.  In fact, laugh will the students about their struggles.


4. After the activity take the time to reflect on the important lessons.

A.  Did you notice…
B. Why did that happen?
C. Does it happen in life or does it happen at home?
D. How can we use this?


These activities did more to set up a positive and collaborative environment than I could have hoped.  My honors classes use each other as resources to the point where I feel like I’m not needed!  It allows me to rethink how I am utilized in the classroom and focus more time on students that need more one on one help.  My regular classes for the first time are actually talking!  I’ve always preached collaboration with little to no success, but now I have students comparing answers and going to each other for help.  By no means is it the perfect environment, but like Dan Meyer said, the students in October still have six months to get there.

These ideas are not completely my own.  Each of them were developed from the Link Crew mentality – one that encourages learning through activities, then having discussion about how the activity ties to real life.  This is the book that contained these ideas.  I encourage you to buy it if you’re looking for ways to spice up your classroom.

Where is our advertising?

The other day I was watching TV (which is a rarity these days) and this commercial came on: I Knew One Day. Watching it gives you a sense of pride, a sense of being part of something special and bigger than yourself.  You can have your opinions about politics and the military, but at that moment I was a little let down that I didn’t make the choice to be part of the amazing Air Force team.  Whoever’s job it was to make that pitch sold me.  Well done.

A few days after watching that commercial I was having a conversation with a student and, being a high school teacher, the inevitable question “what’s your plan for after high school?” came up.  She smiled and said, “Well, I was thinking about being a teacher, but my mom told me that it would be a bad idea”.  Dagger – to – my – heart.

I can make the argument that the mom is right.  Going into teaching is a bad idea.

  •  If you are someone who wants to teach the same way it has always been taught, teaching is not for you
  • If you are someone who thinks teaching is a simple way to work with kids and get paid, teaching is not for you
  • If you are someone who enjoys working 40 hour weeks, teaching is not for you
  • If you are someone who thinks teaching would be great because you get summers off, teaching is not for you
  • If you are someone who thinks working most jobs is too taxing and you were always good at school so why not, teaching is not for you.

I can also make the argument that mom is wrong. Going into teaching is an amazing idea.

  • If you are creative, teaching is for you.
  • If you are passionate about – quite literally – changing the world, teaching is for you.
  • If you are someone that loves chasing dreams with endless potential, teaching is for you.
  • If you are someone that embraces failure and the growth that comes from it, teaching is for you.
  • If you are someone that loves to learn from others, be challenged by others, be stressed by others, all for the sake of becoming a better human being, teaching is for you.
  • If you are someone who loves ever changing technology, teaching is for you.
  • If you are a leader, teaching is for you.

Thinking about the Air Force commercial, I am upset that education doesn’t have an advertising department – no budget to spread the word.  I can envision a similar commercial where we talk about education and all the different parts that make it up.  Teaching is just a sliver of the slow moving mammoth that is education.

-Teaching       – Psychology      – Social Work      – Technology      – Architecture     – Programming        -Advertising    – Business Management           -Administration       – Advocating      -Policy Making
– Custodians   – Cooks              – Media               – Coaching          – Students          -Innovators

My dream is for young people to be excited about joining education.  If we turn off all the best and brightest we will only be left with those that have no where else to go.  Let’s work together to get the top young minds to work in education or at least see it as the important building block to society that it is.  The question that needs answering is, how do we communicate this message to others and shift the growing paradigm that going into teaching is a “bad idea” to one that is “an amazing idea”?

Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

What A Teacher Doesn’t Teach – Guest Blog by Paul Franzowiak

The conversation that I have had over the past several days with students has been nothing short of amazing.  The Every 15 Minutes program that was presented and done mostly by students, for students, showed me just what amazing talent and people MFHS has to offer. Many students talents were show cased the in the video shot, produced, edited, and practically done all by students, but also with the conversations that I’ve had recently.

As some of you may know, I truly enjoy math, teaching, and learning. However, I don’t always love learning about math. One thing that truly fires me up about being at the high school is the development of being overall quality individuals. I’ve been able to sit down with several individuals and share my thoughts and feelings with them, only for them to do the same with me. They trust me enough to tell me things that I’m sure most students wouldn’t tell their mom or dad. I feel so grateful that students are willing to do this for me and see that I actually don’t just care about math and their grades, but care about them as HUMANS, YES HUMAN BEINGS, who have grown up and shown me that I am doing something right other than teaching math. The comments and statements that some of them have made to me just gets me fired up and want to learn more about them as those weird things we all are… HUMANS.

I will honestly admit that I have never been more excited to be at school and wanting to go to a school function more than the Prom Grand March that I attended this last weekend. So many of my students were there, dressed to impress, and they ALL did. I was absolutely AMAZED, seriously AMAZED, by how well some of my students looked all dressed up. Seeing students who I could never imagine in a suit or dress or heels came and amazed me with what a little time, effort, and hair gel can do!

Thank you to all of those who have shared something personal with me. I know it’s not easy trusting a stranger who you have only known a few months, but these conversations (not their grades) are what I will remember most about these amazing humans.

Paul Franzowiak is a math teacher at Menomonee Falls High School committed to helping students being successful in school and in life.  Follow him @MathwithFranzo or check out more of his posts at http://mrfranzowiak.blogspot.com/.

Using Blogs and Snapchat in Math Class

One of the things that are most difficult as a math teacher is breaking the mold of the same old same old.  I want desperately to be the type of teacher that uses innovative methods to help propel students to higher levels of success.  Still, I find myself teaching in quite the traditional manner.

Therefore, I want to share a day that I was able to break the mold.  I gave students a protractor, ruler, and asked them to measure the height of our school.  The results were pretty awesome.  This is one student who shared her thoughts: Student Blog

The coolest part of that blog is the fact that she used Snapchat to take a picture and measure the angle.  If it wasn’t clear in the student’s blog they took a picture of a student standing a certain distance away, drew a line connecting the student’s feet to the top of the building, then laid a protractor on top to measure the angle.

Teachers spend so much time searching for apps that will make lessons better, but we seldom think about the things we have right in front of us.  Snapchat, Twitter, Vine, Instagram, 2048, and the many others that students use every day.  The challenge I have for myself is to find more uses of these in the classroom. It will save the time needed to teach students how to use the app and as an added benefit most of these are social apps and it is easy to share work.

2015, the year of snapchat in the classroom?

Pre-Thanksgiving Thoughts for Post-Thanksgiving

Recently I attended the Midwest Google Summit and was inspired by the energy, creativity, and truly innovative thinking that defined the conference.  Back in the classroom for a week, I am frustrated that I cannot instantly reach the level of so many of those innovators.  Nonetheless, I aspire to use technology to make learning as effective and engaging as possible.  I sit here days before Thanksgiving and I have thoughts jumbled in my head about how I can revamp my teaching upon return.  Here are my thoughts:

Have students reflect on their learning openly and online

I want students to reflect on their learning as I reflect on my practice.  I want students to understand, like teaching, learning is a continuous process that changes over time.  To steal a quote from the conference “education’s biggest measure of success is change”.  We look for student progress but never ask them to reflect on the process.

I am considering the students begin a blog or a website.  I want students to share their learning openly to a community outside of themselves.  This way students are not only being reflective, but they are able to receive and learn to deal with feedback from others.

Post & Organize Course Material Effectively Online


I am not the most organized person.  It just happens to be a fact and there are plenty of people that can vouch for that.  If I can find an effective way to manage and post course material for students I believe they will benefit greatly.


 The first change I am making is turning all of my notes into a google presentation.  I previously used Smart Notebook but now realize that without using all of the interactive gadgets it really is not any more special than power point.  The added benefit google presentation offers is the ease in sharing it with students.  No more printing off notes of the lecture.  No more “slow down” or “can you go back?”.  If students are gone… the notes are there!

The second change is that I want to utilize my google site in a more effective way.  I want to make sure that the day’s lesson is clear and obvious for students, and if they need past material it is simple enough to find.  Finding the right pieces to the site is essential moving forward.

Moving forward…

Those are two of the biggies that are on my mind.  Other concepts that I have thought about and need more insight on are:

1. How can I use google forms on a more consistent basis to help our class reach the learning goal?

2. How can I post our class progress that will be beneficial to student learning?

3) How do I create a website that parents feel comfortable using?

4) At what point am I just trying to hard… just shut up and teach math…