Monday, September 29, 2014

How Being a Game Master Helped me Prepare for Student Teaching

Post by William Payne: William is a senior at Augustana College and is currently doing his student teaching in math at Bettendorf High School under the guidance of Joe Buck @josfbuck 

Wait, what?

Hello everyone! If I haven’t met you yet, I’m William Payne and I’m student teaching in the math department under the skillful watch of Team Lead Mr. Joe Buck. I’m a senior mathematics and mathematics education major at Augustana College. Feel free to stop by, pop your head in, and stay for some math!

When I was approached by Mr. Casas about doing a blog post from the perspective of a student teacher, I was excited but also completely unsure of what to say. I could talk about how awesome everyone has been- faculty, staff, and students alike. I could say something about how impressed I have been with the quality of the Mathematics program here at Bettendorf. And although every word of that is true, I figure it has been said before. Old hat, if you will.

So, instead, I've decided to share a revelation I had while reflecting on my student teaching experience at Bettendorf. That being a teacher is remarkably similar to being a Game Master.

For those of you not among the Dungeons and Dragons, tabletop role-playing game, nerd-folk, I want to do a quick explanation.  Dungeons and Dragons is a magical time (pun intended), where a bunch of people get together to become someone else for a night. Pick a type of character you might want to play. You might choose to play a melee fighter, for example. Or some kind of cunning rogue. Maybe a wizard. Or something in between one of those. Then, using a variety of specialized dice, you roll stats to determine how strong you are. Finally, you decide how you want your character to act- hero, villain, or somewhere in between. It’s all up you. Then, you play that character out. However, as Billy Shakes once said, “all the world’s a stage,” and your awesome character has no stage on which to act. That’s where the game master comes in.

The game master creates the world the players inhabit. They create other characters, places, languages, and religions with which the players will interact and, well, live, really. I learned to play Dungeons and Dragons my freshman year of college. But it wasn't until my junior year that I began to learn how to be a game master.

And these past few weeks of student teaching, I've been really grateful that I learned this skill. Teaching and being a game master require many of the same skills.

First off, they require that person doing them can act. Teachers, at their core, are also actors, I feel. They need to stand up for an audience and perform. They need to put themselves in a variety of different hats and positions to fully be successful.

Second, they both require a great deal of creativity. If a teacher gets bogged down, reciting their lessons from the book all the time, the students will get bored, and rightfully so.  If a Game Master doesn’t find ways of making the game fresh, then the players will enjoy the game that much less.
Both classes and specific game campaigns tend to develop personalities of their own. You develop jokes and ways of thinking that other people wouldn’t always understand. When you can see a gaming friend coming towards you and you can make that friend hit the floor laughing just by yelling “A IS FOR AXE!!,” you know something wonderful has happened. This paradigm exists, too, in the world of the classroom.

Also, both teaching and being a Game Master requires a good amount of flexibility and ability to improvise. In both cases, the teacher or the Game Master has no idea how their audience will react. As any good teacher will tell you, sometimes a lesson goes pretty flawlessly. But most of the time, the lesson goes off somewhere, and the teacher has to do something he or she wasn't expected. Players, too, also have a good amount of unreliability. Sometimes, you have a great story all planned out. But one cannot control player behavior, and sometimes the party might just kill the most integral part of the story. A good Game Master adapts.

So, students, if you are looking for a really fun time, but also want to experience some of the responsibilities of a teacher, I recommend getting together with some good friends and learning to play one of the various editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Or Pathfinder. Or any other tabletop role playing game, for that matter. And teachers, if you want to practice your teaching skills, while getting away from the classroom, I have the same recommendation.

After all, what could be better than laughter, gaming, and friendship?

Game on, Bettendorf High School.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Best This...Most Likely That

Post by Joe Buck: Joe is in his 31st year of teaching Mathematics at Bettendorf High School.  He still owns his now yellowing copies of the Core Standards for Mathematics Content and Core Standards for Mathematical Practices that were developed by a large group of college and high school teachers, textbook and standardized test writers, and members of the mathematics, business and scientific communities. You can follow him on twitter @josfbuck 

Back in the Spring of 1985, our students voted on a slate of superlatives.  Best this - Most likely that.  They included some teacher superlatives, too, one of which was “Most likely to be teaching at Bettendorf High School in the year 2050”.  I was doubly amused by the two teachers who ended up tied for the “award”.  One was a fixture, who at an age approaching seventy was not going to be there by the Fall of 1985, let alone 2050.  The other was me.  As a first year teacher, there was at least a chance that I would live until 2050, but I was quite certain that I would soon be teaching at the college level and be a distant memory around this place. 

Now I will most certainly not be at BHS in 2050.  But what happened to that college goal?  Turns out I loved teaching high school mathematics.  And, by the way, I still do!  I love the beauty of introducing kids to something as simple as Euler’s Formula (shown above) which can be understood best after mastering Taylor Series at the end of Calculus.  Or the infinite complexity and self-similarity of the Mandelbrot Set (seen below).  I love when something complicated looking can be understood as simple.  “Oh, you mean you just ?”  I also love when something that looked simple turns out to be so much more interesting. 

Just like my “favorite tie” is the one I am wearing today, so my favorite time to be teaching is right now.  People often assume that my field has been set for thousands of years and is fixed and unchanging.  Yet the first crude pictures of that Mandelbrot Set were only developed a few years before the first year of my career.  When I was in high school, I was taught about logarithms and my teacher showed us how we could use them to understand how to work with a slide rule to “easily” make arithmetic calculations.  Of course, calculators were already pretty widely available, so he didn’t actually make us learn how to use those slide rules.  That would have been the traditional course at the time, but it would have also been silly.  Technology advances continue to make a difference in what is most important for everyone to know from those centuries of mathematics. There is so much math happening fresh every day.  Much of it is completely understandable by teenagers.  And even when the math is Algebra and Geometry, where most of the specific things we decide are important (or Core, if I can use that word without it being a political statement) have been around for centuries, we learn more and more each year about how the brain works and how learning happens, making right now the best time to be teaching.  (And next year it will be then, we will have learned so much more about what is most effective.)

I have a student teacher this year.  He is enthusiastic, energetic, and excited about helping kids learn mathematics.  I hope for him that thirty years from now, the rush of helping kids see something today that they did not know yesterday, then understand it tomorrow, and master it by next week will still be just as exciting as it is right now, and as it was thirty years ago.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

My Teaching Experience in the U.S.

Post by Lu Yang: Lu is in her 2nd year of teaching Chinese at Bettendorf High School. She is a certified Chinese Guest Teacher from China 

Before I begin to talk about my experience, I may introduce myself a little bit. I’m a certified Chinese teacher from Chinese Guest Teacher Program, which is sponsored by Hanban and College Board. Every year since 2008, they choose and send excellent Chinese teachers to US for mutual benefit. I’m not the only one. There are over 200 of us in the U.S. 

How can a Chinese teach in US? First, you have to pass through an extensive screening process. Second, you will be interviewed in person by the College Board and NCSSFL interview team. Then you have to go through an intensive professional training both in Beijing Normal University and UCLA. Finally, you survive and you can come to the school of US to teach. It took me almost half of the year to become a teacher in US, it’s not very easy. Why am I so desired to do so? I think experiencing different culture and language is the most wonderful part of life. And I feel I’m so lucky and honored to do such meaningful job.

  First Impression of U.S.

1. No cars, no legs.

2. Hi-bye greetings

3. You can rarely see tall buildings.

4. When you take out $100 to pay the bill in the store, people will show you a surprised face. And different coins drive me crazy, especially their value not in accordance with their size. In order to save time for the rest people waiting to check out, every time I pay by cash. The result is that I carry more and more coins every day until I get my debit card.

5. People here eat hamburgers, sandwiches or pizzas every day. In China, these kinds of food can only be snacks after meals. Thus I felt sad for American people: how boring it would be to eat such food all year around!

6. First snow arrived in late October! Even though it's freezing outside, students wear shorts, slippers while I’m wearing the thick sweater. I have to say I'm very confused with the season.

                                        Education Differences Between U.S. and China

1. Students have assigned classroom and seats, teachers travel among different rooms in China.

2. Tight bell schedule of one High School in China:


Get up
Running exercise
Self- study


Five sections
Break-morning physical exercise


Lunch and break time
Three sections
Activity and dinner time.       


I guess only highly motivated Chinese students can endure such tight schedule. At the very beginning of three-year high school life, most of the students already have a clear picture of the future in their mind-what university they want to go to or what kind of life they want to live.

There is no formative assessment, just mid-term exam and final exam. All the exercises, homework or projects are not counted for credits, just for students' benefits. And what they learn is also so limited, just focus on the academic subjects. More options are provided in the university. In U.S., students have an access to different subjects to extend their potentials. When the first time Mr. Casas showed me around in our school building, I was really shocked. Students can learn business management, photography, advertisement design, cooking, car maintenance and even woodwork, not to mention all kinds of professional sports team and clubs. What a colorful and exciting school life here!

3. The tradition of respecting teachers in China
Teachers in public schools are treated like government office worker, all their benefits come from the government. Parents care much about their kids’ performance at school at such vital period, so they keep the best corporation with teachers.
On teacher's Day, students send flowers, cards and presents to their favorite teachers. There is a saying in China" Be your teacher one day, be your father forever", which means teachers are very influential person to one's life; you should respect them like you respect your father. Thailand also has the same tradition. Students have to go down on their knees to ask questions or turn in their homework.

4. Class management in China
Before I really worked in US's high school, a lot of professional trainings I received is about the class management, like you have to set up your rule on the first day of school and repeat it again and again. At that time, I totally didn't understand why teachers have to put so much emphasize on discipline. In China, students are supposed to keep quiet while teacher is teaching. If you have any questions, ask the teachers after class. You don't have to tell them to shut down the phones or remain sitting on the seats. That’s the common sense for every student who’s in the classroom. Actually, every class has a student council with a class monitor, group leaders and PE and arts representatives. Students manage themselves, organizing class meeting, sports meeting and etc.

In US, teachers have the duty to observe students all the time in the school building, even during the passing time and lunch time. In Chinese high school campus, students learn to take care of themselves before they enter into the university and do what you should do at the right time, even at self-study time, no teachers will come.

                                            My Chinese Class- My Students and Me

Students are eager to experience a new language and culture and want to challenge themselves  by learning the most difficult language in the world. In my class, I speak Chinese as much as possible, in order to give students a direct output- what Chinese language sounds like. Since I've already known US high school students are much more active in class, I abandon the traditional teaching style to lecture students but educate them and I stick to the principle-Learning while playing. Students are totally engaged in fun games and class activities to learn Chinese. Students love cultural Friday, when I introduce Chinese culture and teach Chinese handcrafts. At the same time, I pick up a lot of English and American culture from my students. There are several funny moments when I'm trying to explain something in English. For example, what I’m supposed to say is “Look at the sheet I give to you”, while I made it sound like” Look at the sh*t I give to you”. The other example is the “Cut two eyes” in the paper cut class, however I gave the instruction like “Cut two a#s”. Students and I always burst into laughter. No matter me or students, we learn a lot from language mistakes.

Every time students who were in class before greet me in Chinese, I feel so happy and self-fulfilled. And no matter how much money , it cannot buy this kind of happiness and accomplishment .I still remember my students' nice words to encourage me on the first Chinese class meeting, they said" you are best teacher ever" “you are doing great and you don't have to change anything". I think just because of what they said made me want to stay here and enjoy my teaching here so much!

Monday, September 8, 2014


Post by Jason Hamann: Jason is in his 3rd year of teaching special education at Bettendorf High School and currently serves as Team Leader. You can follow him on Twitter @jlh842000

I recently attended the first show of the Garth Brooks World Tour in Chicago with my wife; she is a huge Garth Brooks fan.   Beside this being the first time we have taken a weekend away since having our children (6,4,2), this the first times that I have taken a personal day to do something for/with her.
My struggles with achieving balance between my work and personal life is for another post. 

Back to the concert…Garth Brooks’ wife, Trisha Yearwood sang her new song called “Prizefighter”.

This song made me think of the students we, as teachers work with every day.

 Some of the lyrics that caught my attention:

“Here you are face to face with your greatest test of faith”

In some of our students’ young lives, school is the biggest challenge for them.  They just are not wired to go to school, sit in a desk, take notes and be quiet for an hour at a time.   How do you make your classroom engaging for all students, especially the ones who don’t learning in the typical manner?

“Turn the sound of defeat into your battle cry”

Sometimes students get a few bad grades, get a few assignments behind, and just quit.  Many want to give up instead of battling through the tough times.  How will you help these student use their “defeat” as motivation?

“From your head down to your toes- you find your glory, strength and hope.”

On top of school issues, students all over the country many have many outside issues to deal with: verbal and physical abuse, sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental health concerns, unsafe neighborhoods, gang violence, hunger.  Yet they still have the strength to show up to school every day. 

“Look at you-smiling with a shiner, standing higher, prizefighter”

Many students are beating the odds, fighting through their battles, showing up at school every day with a smile on their face and longing for greatness.  

How will you inspire the students you work with to be their best?