The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 53 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

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This episode is sponsored by mysimpleshow.


GONZALEZ: This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 53 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I’m going to talk with Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens about how you can approach your teaching like a master chef.

If you’ve been looking for a boost of inspiration lately, something to help you engage students deeply and make your teaching fun again, then I have just the book for you. It’s called The Classroom Chef, and it was written by two California educators, Matt Vaudrey and John Stevens.

The premise of the book is this: If we want our lessons to have a long-lasting impact on our students, if we want to make our content really relevant to them, we need to design our instruction the way a chef orchestrates a good meal. Rather than giving in to the educational equivalent of processed food, we could be putting more thought into preparing our lessons, from the appetizer all the way to dessert. Just like with cooking, teaching well is hard. And like any accomplished chef, we will only get really good at it if we take risks, if we experiment, if we’re willing to fall flat on our faces.

In the book, Stevens and Vaudrey show us how they learned to do this in their math classes. They walk us through lessons like Mullet Ratio, where students discover the concept of ratios by trying to determine which haircut is more “mullet-y,” and Barbie Zipline, a lesson on the distance formula that challenges students to design the most fun zipline for a Barbie while also keeping her safe. Although all the examples are from math, and math teachers are going to absolutely LOVE this book, it’s easy to imagine how the same kinds of lessons could be prepared in any subject area. Non-math teachers who skip this book will really be missing something special.

So today we’re going to talk with John and Matt about the book, and about how teachers who find it tough to get students interested in their content can start to do things differently. Once you’ve listened, come over to, choose episode 53, and you’ll see my complete review of The Classroom Chef, along with links to the book and all of the authors’ other online projects.

Before I play the interview, I’d like to thank the sponsor of this episode, mysimpleshow. Mysimpleshow is this great online tool that allows you to create your own animated videos for free. It’s so easy, and FAST: You can either upload your own PowerPoint and let the tool extract the most relevant information to form your script, or you can write your script from scratch using their templates. Whichever option you choose, mysimpleshow then finds images to match your text, which you can fine-tune until you’re content with the video. It would be perfect for flipping your classroom or having students create their own videos. To learn more and try your first video, visit

I also want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. Every time someone writes a rating and a review, it brings more listeners to the show, and as of today we have almost reached 200 ratings!! So if you’ve been listening and you haven’t left a review yet, take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and tell me what you think.

Now here’s my interview with the authors of the Classroom Chef, John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey.


GONZALEZ: I am welcoming John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey to the podcast, and they are authors of the recently published book “The Classroom Chef: Sharpen Your Lessons, Season Your Classes, Make Math Meaningful.” And when I say “math” there, that’s part of the title, I want to make sure that everybody listening understands that this is really a book for teachers of any age level and any subject area. It is definitely not just a math book. However, John and Matt both are math teachers in California, or they were math teachers. Now you guys both serve in more of a coaching capacity. And so if you could just give me a quick introduction of who you are and what your role is right now, and then we’re going to get right into the book. So John, why don’t you go ahead and go first.

STEVENS: Yeah, my name is John Stevens. I’m an instructional technology coach in southern California. I spent my years in the classroom as an eighth-grade math teacher, teaching anything from basic intervention math through gifted and talented Algebra I. I taught an engineering and robotics class and just had a bunch of fun doing that. I recently moved over to the high school and taught at the high school level and now serve 1,100 teachers and 25,000 students.

VAUDREY: My name is Matt Vaudrey. I’m an instructional coach also, I’m in southern California also, and I’m a recovering math teacher also. I taught seventh grade through seniors and most math classes in between. My sweet spot was eighth grade mild to moderate co-teaching. That was where I hit my stride for about three years, and now I’m in an instructional technology role in Bonita Unified School District in San Dimas and La Verne. And just like John, I’ve got a wide berth of teachers. The difference is I have K-12 teachers, so I get to go and do a demo lesson in a fourth-grade classroom one morning, and then go teach seniors about research strategies in the afternoon. I get to be all over the place and see a good bird’s eye view of education and see some vertical articulation and what’s being missed. It’s fantastic. I love my job.


VAUDREY: And, what’s even better, and so one of my teachers right now is out on maternity leave, so I’m filling in two of her periods in a math class. So I get to go back in the classroom part-time and keep my chops sharp, try out new lessons. It’s been a great experience. I got about five more weeks of that.

GONZALEZ: That sounds like a dream. I’ve been out of the classroom for quite a while now, and I talk a lot with other bloggers, basically, who are in the same boat. To be able to get back in the classroom without having to make the commitment to a full-time teaching job would be fantastic. So, OK. Let’s talk about this book. First off, just tell us, if you’re just meeting somebody, and you said, “I wrote a book,” what do you tell them if you’ve only got a minute or two? What’s the overall message of “The Classroom Chef”?

STEVENS: It’s to take a risk, and the big thing that we were thinking about as we were writing this book was how could we frame this in a way that would make it accessible for teachers to grab onto and relate to. And it started with creating a positive culture, creating that environment where it’s safe for kids to take risks, for the teacher to take a risk, and in the middle of all of that, sharing some of our struggles, sharing some of our speed bumps along the way that we thought we were alone in experiencing. Our first years of teaching didn’t go that great. And it was comforting to hear when I was talking to Matt about, “Wow, my first couple of years didn’t go great either, and maybe other first-year teachers have some similar experiences and maybe some 30-year teachers have similar experiences.” We often, in education, we have this style of approach, and we don’t want to expose our weaknesses, we don’t want to share our weaknesses with our peers in the staff lounge, because it makes us weak. And instead, it can make us productive by having those conversations and recognizing that they exist. So I guess creating a book, writing a book where we’re creating that environment, where it’s OK to admit to those faults, it’s OK to accept that those things happen and using that, being able to build a launching point, to take some risks and try to do something awesome in the classroom.

VAUDREY: And to add to that …

GONZALEZ: Yeah, go ahead, Matt.

VAUDREY: To add to that, we’re not only talking about taking a risk for teachers, but also to model for students what risk-taking looks like. We want to show that, hey, teachers are going to make mistakes too. We can turn those mistakes into learning opportunities, just like we expect you to do.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, and both of those things that you said are really, they’re pervasive throughout the whole book. This idea of … I think you’re both so wonderfully transparent about all of the times that you’ve fallen down, and the stories that you tell really resonated with me from my early years of teaching, and my later years of teaching, honestly. And I think that really is going to help readers to connect with you and realize that you are not speaking from a pedestal. That this is coming from on-the-ground experience and times that you screwed up. And the nice thing is that you’re not presenting something that is like, “Oh, well, this is how you can make your teaching perfect.” It’s more of the spirit of experimentation and trying crazy things, because it’s just worth it.

VAUDREY: Absolutely.

GONZALEZ: Let’s just talk about the metaphor. Where did you come up with this metaphor of taking it into, like, the kitchen? Because I think it’s so perfect.

STEVENS: We first started doing this as a presentation at a math conference, and we were trying to chunk it out, because this online community that we associate with, the Math Twitter Blogosphere, or the #MTBoS, on Twitter, there’s so much really cool stuff that’s being shared and we wanted to find a way to package that and deliver it to teachers, and we started it off as a conference, just a one and a half hour session, and we put it into this format that would make it digestible, I guess to run with the metaphor, and got asked to do it as a workshop, a full-day workshop, and the easiest way for us to do it was to chunk it out from appetizer to entree to side dish to dessert, and then your bill. And it made it so that teachers can relate to, yeah, our appetizers. We want to be able to open up class a little bit differently and try to do something unique and take that risk in the beginning of class. Plus it makes it fun.


STEVENS: Not everybody likes to cook, but we all eat, we all have that affinity for a certain type of food or for a certain style of cooking, so it makes it fun.

GONZALEZ: So this actually, this was a workshop before it was ever a book? You two worked together on this and sort of developed this idea, this metaphor, this way of packaging it, long before there was ever a book called “The Classroom Chef”?

VAUDREY: Correct. The conference that John’s talking about was CMC South, it’s for my bang for the buck, one of the best conferences around there, it’s fantastic. But it started out with that, and the full-day thing, the theme just kind of naturally evolved. I think John was the one that went there first, and it really resonated with a lot of math teachers, like, “Yeah, this makes sense to me.” And not just math, either. We had a variety of teachers in the workshops that got more and more common. People were calling us more and more often. So we sat down with Dave Burgess in San Diego, the author of Teach Like a Pirate, and we said, “Hey, this is going really well,” and we were talking about it for a while, he said, “You guys should write a book. You should put all of this into a book, so you can put it in someone’s hand that can’t be at your workshop.” And we’re like, “Yeah, OK.” So we did what Dave said, and we put it all into a book.

GONZALEZ: You know, sometimes putting everything into a book, it really forces you to sort of crystallize it and organize it and decide which stories are going to be the best ones to add, and so that must have been an interesting process too.

STEVENS: It was a challenge. It was a fun challenge, but it was a challenge, because now our words are on paper, and, you know, they can’t get edited in a blog post, they can’t get deleted from a tweet, and it was interesting to be able to take that and really fine-tune it into a message that can be delivered on the front and back of a page.

GONZALEZ: Right. So let’s get into the book. So one of the things, and we spoke a little bit about this ahead of time, that I wanted to make sure that we got to early on is this idea that teachers need to give up processed food. And when I read this chapter of the book, it’s early, and I just thought it was absolutely a genius comparison, because the thinking of a person who goes toward fast food for a meal is exactly like, and I’ll let you guys … why don’t you go ahead and explain this whole concept of teachers giving up processed food.

VAUDREY: Sure. So John and I were both in college around the same time, and we both had awful diets around the same time, subsisting on Velveeta cheese shells and chili and Costco-sized packages of hot dogs. And that’s great if you’re in a hurry, and you don’t need to be, you know, moving and thinking ahead about a whole lot of stuff in a row. But a steady diet of Hormel Chili and Velveeta cheese shells leaves you feeling kind of gross, and that feeling is exactly what John and I felt a few months into our teaching career. We’re like, “This doesn’t feel satisfying. It doesn’t feel substantial.” And that feeling only gets worse the more you do it. The more you subsist on things that are quick and dirty, teaching straight out of the book and not building conceptual units or interesting education opportunities for your kids, it just feels gross. So we tried to capture that in Chapter 2 about ways to give up the processed food and kind of think about what else is out there. You don’t need to be a master chef to try and make something a little more appetizing than Velveeta chili for your kids.

GONZALEZ: And so the processed food then would be the pre-packaged curriculum, the pre-packaged just any material, just going straight by chapter by chapter through a textbook and just using what you’re handed, because it’s an easy default setting.

VAUDREY: Exactly. And it’s something that most first-year teachers do, it’s totally fine. It’s expected and even suggested, for me early in my career. But moving beyond that, moving from the processed food to more interesting and meaningful meals is part of our evolution as teachers.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. You know, it’s funny too, because I think the reason it was such an epiphany for me to read that is because I think a lot of teachers, and in some ways, myself included, you see that stuff that comes pre-packaged and you think, “Well, this is from an authoritative source. This must be the way I’m supposed to do it. This is a textbook that’s been vetted and edited and these are the worksheets that come right from them.” And so to actually view that as the Velveeta of education, it’s a really interesting paradigm shift. So what you guys are proposing is more of the equivalent of, “No. Go buy some ingredients and put together a meal with a little bit more thought.” Not as a master chef, but as, you know, the effort that it would take us to actually try to make a meal.

STEVENS: Well, in there, there’s some things that you can do with those Velveeta cheese shells. You can do things with those pre-packaged products that is a side step or an iteration away from that processing, and being able to kick it up or spice it up a little bit. Some of us are not in a situation where we are free to deviate so far from our standard curriculum and from our boxed set, but we can take that stuff, and we can enhance it. We can find ways to bring things in, to support our content, to be able to deliver instruction and be able to create that space where, “I’m going to try something. I’m going to try something. It might bomb, but I’m going to give it a shot and see how it goes.”

GONZALEZ: I’m glad that you added that, because you’re right, a lot of teachers listening are going to say, “I’m already out, because I’ve got a prescribed curriculum that I have to use.”


GONZALEZ: And so this is the equivalent of somebody taking the box of Velveeta Shells & Cheese and just snipping some fresh herbs on top of it or adding a little bread crumb crust or whatever, like, improvising to make it better.

STEVENS: Adding a side salad and dressing it up a little bit, putting something healthy in there and mixing it up. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with a situation where a teacher is dropped into a very rigid structure, but it’s still your classroom. It’s still your environment, you know, to be able to take … We had a packet that we had to do, and within that packet we had a certain number of problems. But maybe it’s bringing in a video and showing something from YouTube that engages the kids and gets them curious about rigid transformations in geometry, or maybe we’re talking about something in history, and I can bring something in as an artifact that takes it and raises that level of curiosity.


GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about the appetizers. It sounds like we’re getting right to the point of getting kids interested at the very beginning, and so the very first section in terms of making a menu of your class instruction is appetizers. So talk to me a little bit about what an appetizer would look like and how might teachers approach this piece?

VAUDREY: Absolutely. So John mentioned earlier the MTBoS, the affectionately nicknamed MTBoS on Twitter, these are our math teachers that are blogging, sharing their craft and tweeting, and they build a lot of these really interesting and meaningful activities, and then put them online for free. And we’ve gathered a bunch of them on our website,, and so an appetizer would be a way to start class, to get students curious about what’s coming. So, for example, if your fourth-grade class is doing unit rates or, like, estimations or rounding, you can show them a roll of toilet paper and say, “OK, guys. How many sheets do you think are on this roll?” It’s a fairly accessible question. All students have seen and, hopefully, used toilet paper at some point, and they all have the same prior knowledge. It’s not a math question, it’s a guessing question, it’s an estimation task. This comes from a colleague of ours, Andrew Stadel from, and so the students begin to process it, and they give reasoning. And as the teacher, you can validate every problem-solving strategy that they take as a meaningful way to approach the task. Those skills, that culture that you’re building by having an appetizer in the classroom, transfers then to the math itself, the pure math content, so once they get to math time, they know it’s OK to ask questions, they know it’s OK to take a risk, they know it’s OK to have a variety of solving methods. All of those things are OK, because you modeled them in an appetizer. Other appetizers are like Which One Doesn’t Belong?, where you show students four items and say, “Which one doesn’t belong?” There’s no correct answer. They all could have a reason why they don’t belong. That’s also online from somebody in the Math Twitter Blogosphere,, Which One Doesn’t Belong?


VAUDREY: A student’s excited about math class. At the secondary level, John and I taught students who, for some of them, their entire career, math has been a struggle, and for some of them, they have parents that say, “Oh, I’m not a math person.” And so they’re coming into math class ready to not do their best. Appetizers are a way to open that up and make it more accessible for those students to take a risk and to try something and to be celebrated for success.

GONZALEZ: And so you’re giving them a task that is something that they’re familiar with already, or might be familiar with anyway, in their day-to-day lives and giving them, you know, a little bit of a question or a challenge or a problem to solve. But one of the things that you talk about a lot in the book is not doing these pseudo, what was the term now? It’s the pseudo, real world …

STEVENS: Pseudo context.

GONZALEZ: That’s it. Pseudo context, where it’s like we’re trying to create these real-world contexts, but it’s just really not anything that kids can grab onto.

STEVENS: Yeah. In math textbooks, the textbook companies, they try hard, they’re working, but their problems, for example, there’s a dog wearing a bandana, and you’re supposed to find the hypotenuse of the dog’s bandana in the picture. And it’s just, like, why? What is the intent? Or there’s a leaf with some veins, and we want to be able find the opposite angles of the leaf’s veins. Once again, why? Why would I care about that? It’s not, “When am I ever going to use this?” It’s, “Why should I care about this? Get me thinking, and that doesn’t get me thinking. That just gets me thinking about something else other than what I’m supposed to be doing.”

GONZALEZ: It just plugs real-world objects into what is essentially just a basic math problem.


GONZALEZ: Let’s talk about your site, John, Would You Rather?

STEVENS: Yeah, let’s talk.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, because this would be an appetizer also, right?

STEVENS: Absolutely, yes. is a way of getting kids to have a disagreement, a debate, a discussion about math. Would you rather have quarters stacked from the floor to the top of your head or $225 cash? Would you rather take the 20 percent off coupon at Bed Bath and Beyond or $5 off your next purchase? These are some things that as adults we don’t run into every day, but we run into often enough to where when we’re at the store we think about it. When we’re getting gas, do we pay with our credit card and pay a little bit more? Or do we pay cash, knowing that the credit card’s going to get you some cash back? Being able to set the stage for kids to have an educational and productive discussion and debate, I have seen so many really cool occasions where kids are having this argument, and they don’t even realize that they’re bringing math into the conversation.

GONZALEZ: So that’s, and that’s just full of these types of questions, basically, that kids can apply math to figure out and to debate about them.


GONZALEZ: OK. and it’s cool, because I learned about that from you at ISTE two years ago, and I didn’t know you were that same guy, yeah, until I started reading the book. I was like, “I met that guy.”

STEVENS: Yeah, that was when it was first starting out.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I thought it was a genius idea, so I really hope that a lot of teachers go and look at that.

I want to, for just a second, take this whole idea of appetizers and broaden out too. So I was an English teacher, and so this same concept can obviously be applied to any other content area. I think it’s really easy to make the transfer to, like, a science class. But even like in language arts, I’m thinking if I were to … like, right now I could show them two articles about Donald Trump and have them look at which one, talk about the bias in those, which one would make you like him more? And we can start talking about choice of language and how, you know, just choosing different words to describe something can have such heavier connotations, as opposed to me starting a lesson by, “OK, we’re going to talk about connotation and denotation today.” So you give them something from the real world, and then really have them do something with that. As opposed to just presenting it, have them take a stance on it one way or another.

VAUDREY: Exactly. The appetizer turns that on its head. Instead of saying, “Hey, guys. Let’s start with notes. I’ll give you the instruction first, and then we’ll interact with something.” The appetizer says, “Hey, here’s this idea that gets students curious and interesting and hungry for the instruction.” Now they want what you’re selling. Now they’re hungry for what you’re providing, and your instruction now is filling a need for them, filling a hunger for them.

GONZALEZ: Yes, good. And you even said in the book, sometimes the appetizer will take five minutes, and sometimes it’ll take 15 or 20. If the kids are really getting into it, and they’re dealing, ideally, with the kind of math that you’re going to be doing in the main part of the lesson anyway, then you’re really building a whole lot of investment from them.

VAUDREY: Absolutely, absolutely. And if it takes 20 minutes, but they’re interested in the mathematics, it’s driving them toward, it’s interesting them in the content and driving them toward the lesson, who cares if it’s 20 minutes? It’s 20 minutes that then I could have spent just me talking, giving notes, writing on the whiteboard. But this way they’re engaged in a conversation that’s far more meaningful for them.

GONZALEZ: Right. And you’re really priming them so much for, I mean, it’s constructivism, really, I think at its finest. You’re really getting them so interested in the content that if at that point you have to deliver a five-minute lecture, they’re all going to be able to absorb that really easily after that appetizer.

VAUDREY: Absolutely, yep.


GONZALEZ: So let’s move onto entrées then. Entrées come next, and this is where we get Mullet Ratio and Barbie Zipline, right?


STEVENS: Yeah. This is where all the fun stuff happens.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. So talk a little bit … I mean, obviously the entrée is the main part of the lesson. So what do you want teachers to start … how do you want teachers to start thinking about this main part of their lesson?

STEVENS: Well, before we get into the entrées, there’s another part that we talk about of lesson planning versus lesson preparation. And in the first few years of our careers, we were asked to put together lesson plans. I had to show my lesson plans to my principal, so I would plan them out, and it was very template-based. It was something that I didn’t put a lot of thought into, as far as the flow of a lesson. So once I gave that up and started preparing lessons rather than planning them, it made it to where I could do some of these wild and crazy things. One of my favorites is the Sept. 11th, the Twin Towers lesson that I do. And it was a matter of, I want to be able to make this meaningful for kids. I want to be able to find a way to put this into their wheelhouse that they can engage in, and I can get them curious. And I started off by telling them a story, and we all have, as adults we all have our story from where we were on 9/11/2001, and I share my story and just my perspective. My kids, at this point, some of our kids weren’t alive …


STEVENS: … during that. And that’s just mind-blowing.


STEVENS: So being able to bring them into that, and then moving forward, you know, how can I make that meaningful for them? And I could go through a lesson, I could just talk about it and bring in my content standards and try to find ways to align it, but I wanted to immerse my kids in it. So I went to Lowe’s, which is a national home improvement store, and I asked them, I took a risk, I went into Lowe’s and said, “Hey, would you be willing to donate materials for me to build a replica of the twin towers?” Long story short, we ended up building two, 10-foot towers and kids stayed in for two and a half weeks after school, and every single day they were measuring, they were cutting tape and wrapping aluminum foil around 2×4’s and plywood. And I can tell you that those kids are never going to forget that lesson. And it was meaningful for me to be able to watch them have that experience and very rewarding. It took a lot of work as any good lesson plan or lesson preparation will, it’ll take a lot of work, but in the entree section, we’re trying to find ways to make it rewarding for the teacher and the student to go through that process and product.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. One of the things I love about this book is that you guys really walk us through, slowly, some of these lessons. And so reading how you actually rolled out that Sept. 11th lesson to them, it was not only very moving, but I think it helps to take some of these ideas, which to especially an inexperienced teacher, could be abstract. They could be like, “This sounds great, but I don’t know how to do it,” and to actually walk you through, you’ve almost got the script of what you said in that lesson for us. I think then that really will help a teacher say, “OK. Now I kind of understand how you get kids into the right mindset for another kind of a lesson.”

STEVENS: We didn’t want to create this perception that the book is about Sept. 11th. It’s not about Barbie ziplining. We wanted to be able to provide the framework, “How did I go about designing and preparing this lesson in a way that you could as well? Maybe you’re not going to do it with towers and giant replicas of the Twin Towers, but maybe you’re going to do something in your content area with your standards that works for you.” One of my favorites in the book isn’t even my lesson, it’s Matt’s, and I’ll let him talk about it. But the Mullet Ratio, being able to take it at a completely different angle and just taking it and running with it.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Let’s talk about Mullet Ratio. Yeah, go, Matt.

VAUDREY: OK. So this is a good example of planning a lesson versus preparing a lesson. With the Mullet Ratio, I cut my hair into a mullet, I played classic rock outside my classroom. I had photos of mullets on the wall. I planned a whole experience based on this idea that the standard was ratios for an eighth-grade classroom, but they didn’t notice what the standard was, because it was so embedded in the experience. So I came into class, “Good morning, Mr. Vaudrey. What did you do to your hair? What happened? Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m fine. Come on in. We’re talking about mullets today.” I put two pictures of mullets on the board, and I said, “Which is a better haircut and why?” And they’re discussing it. The first time was in 2012. These are students who weren’t around in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. So they’ve only seen mullets in pictures, so we had to describe what it was. Like, “Hey, listen. This was kind of a thing for a while. People were really into mullets. They had haircuts and feathered hair and bouffants and Jheri curls. This was the thing in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.” So once we had defined some terms, that a mullet is business in the front and a party in the back, then we started talking, “OK. Well, which one of these is more mullet-y?” We drew some more terms. They could access the idea with some more specificity.

In California, one of the standards for mathematical practice is “Students will attend to precision.” So now when they have these new vocab terms, they say, “Well, the hot guy’s business is shorter, but his party is long. And the hillbilly has mostly party, and not much business at all.” So they’re using the terms. So when I bring in the numbers, I show measurements, OK, that business is 2 inches and the party is 12 inches. Now they have some more … the math naturally follows the flow of the conversation. Students were beginning to get frustrated, like, “Well, which one is more mullet-y? Am I right? Which one is more mullet-y?” Then when they needed more tools, I gave them those tools, I gave them a ratio as a way to describe which one’s more mullet-y. If you divide the party by the business, you get the mullet ratio. And then a higher mullet ratio would mean a more mullet-y haircut. And then after that we were off and running. We were talking [inaudible] of Inigo Montoya and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and we had all of these classic mullets from celebrities in that time.

GONZALEZ: The thing is, all year long then, if somebody’s getting a little stuck on something, you can refer back, and it’s like, “It’s like the mullet,” and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I got it.” They’ve got something to hang that idea on.

VAUDREY: Absolutely. And that actually happened. About three months later, we’re doing coordinate plane dilations where you take a shape, and you stretch everything by a factor of three, and it’s three times as long or three times as big. And I’m showing them the actual coordinates, we’re talking about how it’s three times as long but the comparison is still the same, and Jonathan goes, “Oh. It’s like the mullet ratio. Like it’s just three times as big, but the ratio between them is still the same.” And I had not made that connection.

GONZALEZ: The connection between ratios and proportions?

VAUDREY: And between dilations and the mullet ratio, yeah. But when he said that, I was speechless. And three or four students in the class went, “Oh, OK.”


VAUDREY: It’s like, “Yeah, OK, Jonathan. Yeah, let’s do that.”

GONZALEZ: So basically the idea with the entrées, with everything, but with the entrées is that it’s our default setting as teachers to just sort of, do sort of your standard, direct instruction, and then have the kids do some sort of application. But what you guys are doing with these bigger, I don’t even know what you would call them, you call them entrées, but these … they’re not projects either. What would you call them? Things like Mullet Ratios, a way of introducing a concept, really.

STEVENS: Yeah. They’re lessons, and they’re risks that we took. And some of them are more grandiose than others. The Barbie Zipline took three days. Mullet Ratio, I think Matt said, took four or five days. Sept. 11th took a day in class, two and a half weeks out of class, after school. But they don’t have to take that long. It’s trying to find more interesting and more engaging ways to get kids curious about the core content that you’re teaching that day. That standard that is looming, that’s staring at you right now, “I need to find a way to teach this next week. How can I do this and make it so that my kids walk out knowing this standard?” It’s finding that, it’s finding that thing, that hook that you can set, that dish that you can serve that will get those kids nodding their heads in agreement about how cool this is, how interesting this is or how curious this makes me.

GONZALEZ: And it’s almost … I just finished reading this quote by somebody named Jamie Duncan. She was talking about with — and this again, this is just with math, but this would apply to any other content — she would just model the best way to solve a problem, and then the kids would just repeat what she did. And she thought she was doing a great job, but she realized that the kids never had to do any struggle to try to figure out what the math was. And it seems like this is a lot of what your approach is, too. Instead of saying, “Here is the math concept, now here are some real-world examples where it would apply,” you’re starting with the real-world situation or thing, having them wrestle around with that, having them come up with their own sort of questions or maybe you nudge them in that direction, and then the math starts to present itself or the concept or the content or the standard starts to present itself as they wrestle with whatever the task is that you’ve given them.

STEVENS: Exactly. That’s, yes, you nailed it.


STEVENS: We want to be able to make them curious right away. When they walk in the door, when that bell finishes ringing, we want to make sure that we have their attention, and we don’t have their attention by going through a warm-up that was yesterday’s work or having them write something that’s disjointed from something that they hold true and hold near to themselves. Like, we want them to be interested in it, so let’s immerse them in it right away. Let’s get them interested in what we’re doing right away.

Side Dishes & Desserts

GONZALEZ: And then after the entrees, you’ve got side dishes, which … tell me real quickly what side dishes are.

VAUDREY: Side dishes are the little things you can add to a class that make it a little bit more interesting. When I play music outside my room when kids are coming in, when I wear a special costume that day, when I show YouTube videos throughout class, these are things that don’t take a lot of time or prep to add, but they help to craft an experience for the diner or for the student.


VAUDREY: And these are things that many teachers are already doing.


VAUDREY: But if you structure your class only around those things, it’s much like a meal that’s composed just of side dishes. It’s really carb-y, you feel kind of bloated, and there’s not really meaningful stuff happening.

GONZALEZ: Right. And so it can really enhance a good solid meal, but it’s not the meal itself.

VAUDREY: Exactly.

GONZALEZ: OK, good. And then the desserts are the assessment?

STEVENS: Yeah, this is one of my favorite parts of the whole entire book is the assessment. It came up, because I was frustrated with getting 180 of the same product. We would have the kids make a music video, and Guadalupe comes up and says, “I’ll take the zero,” and that really stung. Like, “What do you mean you’ll take a zero? It’s a music video. Kids like music. Kids like videos. Kids like music videos. I love making music videos. You should love making music videos too.” And she flat-out said that she would take the zero. So in the dessert section, we’re talking about giving choice, giving the kids the option of how they’re going to prove mastery to you.

For me the example that’s in the book is a “choose your own assessment” we did with triangle congruence theorems, it’s a geometry concept. And my kids, my students, had the goal of proving to me that they understood all of the congruence theorems in a way that was unique to them and that was in their wheelhouse. I had kids who did music videos. I had kids who created Instagram accounts, Vine accounts. I had kids who made posters. I had a kid that recorded himself and a friend playing Sonic the Hedgehog video game and on the screen were two triangles, and he was narrating as Sonic the Hedgehog bouncing around, and it was so cool, because if I would have asked him to make a poster, he probably would have done it. If I would have asked him to make a video, he might have done it, but it wasn’t going to be his best, because it was too far outside of his comfort zone to be able to create something that was meaningful for him.

GONZALEZ: But he definitely showed you that he understood the concept?

STEVENS: Yeah. And that’s what we want, but when we’re asking kids, “I need you all to make a poster, and you need to make sure that it looks good. Make sure that it’s creative.” We’re kind of doing our kids an injustice by setting them up with that expectation that if it doesn’t look a certain way that you’re not going to get a certain grade, even if you delivered the content in a way that I needed you to deliver it.

GONZALEZ: Oh, yeah.

STEVENS: If your handwriting is not as good, or if it doesn’t have enough sparkle to it. If it doesn’t have … if your music video isn’t funny, then you’re not going to get that credit. Speaking of credit, extra credit, and something that we mentioned in the book, but all too often it only feeds the rich. You think about extra credit as a whole, not saying not to give it ever, but think about who’s asking for it. It’s the kids like me as a student who has a 98 who wants a 101.


STEVENS: And, you know, what can I do to get ahead of Matt, because I want to have a better grade than Matt. It’s also the kid who has an F who’s just hoping to pass the class, or a D who’s just hoping to get a C so that she’s eligible for sports. It’s not, “Can I get this extra credit so that I can really understand the content?”


STEVENS: So it’s making it a point of, “I’m not doing this for extra credit. I’m doing this, because I want to prove mastery in a way that’s comfortable for me.”

GONZALEZ: Yes. I love that idea of letting them choose their own assessment. It’s making me think too again as an English teacher, and I see early English teachers who will assign the exact same essay to every single student, and I say, “You don’t even realize how miserable you’re going to be grading all of these on the exact same topic.”

STEVENS: Yeah. You know how much fun I had grading 175 triangle congruence theorem projects? It was a blast.

GONZALEZ: Because they were all different.

STEVENS: They were all different. I had dreams catchers, I had posters, I had PowerPoints, I had music videos, I had foldables. I had all kinds of things, including Russell’s little packet, that little foldable that he had created with pencil, coming into school every day for the three days in a row, and he got the same exact grade as the kids who had put on a full video production, because that was the best that he could give to me at that time. And I had given him, I had provided that safe enough space where he could come in and just work. It wasn’t about Mckenna who had taken pictures of DiGiorno pizza and cut out bell peppers to represent angles, and cut out pepperonis to represent the sides and put it onto this really cool-looking poster. He got the same grade as her, because he proved to me that he understood the congruence theorem.

GONZALEZ: So you need a completely different … I’m thinking a teacher who’s used to doing the same type of assessment is thinking, “How on earth do I create any of a rubric or answer key or whatever for this type?” You have to really be designing it in a very different way. It’s not how much glitter is on it and how neat is the handwriting. It’s how are you proving to me that you understood this concept? It’s a very different way of thinking for a lot of teachers, but gosh, it opens up so many possibilities.

STEVENS: It does, it does.

The Reviews

GONZALEZ: So one other section that we wanted to make sure we got to before we finish is the reviews, and you’re comparing it to restaurant reviews. But this is the students’ reviews of your teaching. So talk about the teacher report card.

VAUDREY: Oh, baby. This is my favorite part of the book. So John and I didn’t meet until we were towards seven or eight years into our career, but we had both been doing this for our classes. We had both been giving some kind of a teacher report card to our students where they can critically and anonymously grade us. Because when you go to a restaurant, the people that know the best about the food aren’t the rest of the waitstaff, it’s the people on Yelp who gave a review about their actual meal. And if the chefs want to improve, they should be asking the diners, not the rest of the staff. How often do we get reviews from our administrators and observations from our teammates that are helpful, but at the end of our day, our students are in our classroom 184 days a year. They know our class the best.

So I give students this survey. It’s just a quick, one through five or one through four. “I think that Mr. Vaudrey treats students with respect. He speaks in a loud enough voice. He goes at a pace that’s not too fast, not too slow. He gives fair punishments. He gives fair grades. He gives tests that reflect the content.” It grades me in a variety of ways that I want to be the best teacher I can be. And then, this is the golden part, is there’s a little short answer section at the end where it’s like, “How could this class be improved? Your friend tells you they have this class next year, what do you tell them about it? Sometimes the class is (blank) but sometimes not. Usually Mr. Vaudrey lets the class (blank) but sometimes not.” That’s a great place to find out the holes in my classroom management strategy, because students will be very honest if they know that it’s anonymous.


VAUDREY: There’s some excellent, excellent feedback that helps me be the best teacher I can be. I just gave this to my current class, my long-term sub class. We were about halfway in, I gave it to them last week, they finished their test and then did this, and I got some great feedback about what they want to do. I posted a review of all that on my blog with the link to all of my results in the name of vulnerability. If I’m going to ask my students to take a risk in my classroom, I want to show them I’m taking a risk too by putting myself out there.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, definitely. And I’m so impressed that you’re doing this even in a situation where you are just the long-term sub, and you’re still wanting to make sure that you’re doing right by these kids. And I think there’s two other cues to what you said. You’re giving this part way through the semester, not at the end, right?

VAUDREY: Yes. I gave it quarterly when I was teaching middle school. John, how often did you give it?

STEVENS: So we were on trimesters. I gave mine every trimester.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. Because if you don’t do it part way through, you can’t fix anything if it’s at the very, very end. I think it’s good to ask at the end, but you can’t do much about it until you get a new batch of kids.

VAUDREY: Totally. Like, this is a formative assessment for me the teacher. If I wait until the end of the year and ask this stuff, then all I’ve got is an autopsy. I can’t do anything with it.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. And the anonymity too, anonymity scares a lot of teachers. I’ve been encouraging principals to do anonymous surveys of their staff too, and that’s scary, because people can say whatever they want, but that’s when you get the truth. And you can dig further if you’re seeing a pattern or something, but people are going to tell you a lot more if their names are not attached to things.

STEVENS: Well, and it’s not just the truth. It’s truth from your customers. Truth from your clients. A hundred and eighty-five of them or however many you have. And in the staff lounge, we’re there to help each other, we’re there to build each other up, we’re there to bring out the best of any situation, and plus in the staff lounge, if I share my lesson that failed or things that are going on in my class, my colleagues only have my perspective to base all of their advice off of. So they don’t know what the kids see. They don’t know what the kids are feeling, and yet I’m asking my colleagues, “How am I supposed to handle this situation? How can I get better as a teacher? Well all you need to do is … ” But if I’m asking my students, the ones that the blog post that Matt just wrote was awesome, because the kids were very honest, and the same thing with mine. My kids were very honest. I thought I was doing a knock-out job in certain areas, and they knocked me right down. “And this is where we think that you need to get better.” And it was one of those humbling experiences, but it was necessary.


STEVENS: We all need [inaudible] to get better.

GONZALEZ: It ends up not being as bad as you think it’s going to be. Once you rip that Band-Aid off, it’s like, “OK, this is what I have to deal with.” It’s the anticipation of it that’s even scarier than the reality, I think.

Is there anything else that you want to sort of let people know about the book? Any other ideas before we move on to talking about your PD offerings and how people can get ahold of you online?

VAUDREY: There’s a temptation to wait until you’ve arrived, until you feel like you’re comfortable in your teaching and your classroom management before you start taking a risk. I encourage anybody, first-year teachers, 35-year veterans, everybody in between, it’s never too late or too early to start taking a risk. Try tomorrow.

PD Offerings

GONZALEZ: That’s awesome. Yep. I think you’re absolutely right. So you guys are continuing to offer this as PD. And so for anybody, and you offer this in the US and beyond, and I think in a variety of formats too. It can either be a short form or a full day of PD on these concepts?

STEVENS: Yeah. We offer a whole menu of options. You can go to our website,, and then we’ll give contact information, you can drop it into the podcast there if you’d like to, but we’re there to help, and we want to be able to make sure that we’re supporting teachers in anyway that they want to be supported, helping build them up and be able to drag that curiosity into the classroom.

GONZALEZ: And so where can people find you both online?

STEVENS: You can find us, collectively, @classroomchef on Twitter and go to You can find me at @jstevens009 and also email me at, and my blogs are, And I just started a newsletter for parents to be able to get weekly updates and ideas for math in their classroom at

GONZALEZ: Great. Oh man, you’ve got a lot of stuff. That’s great. How about you, Matt?

VAUDREY: I blog at, and I post resources there on the fairly regular. I’m on Twitter @mrvaudrey, and if your listeners are interested in bringing us to talk about the book or math or technology or teaching or any intersection of the three, they can email us

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. I’ll tell you, one of many things I’m excited about with this book is that I feel like you have packed so many great ideas here, and I think if somebody were to just read it for the things that they can do in their classrooms, they’re going to get a lot out of it. But I feel like your attitudes toward your teaching, I just think you’re fantastic role models for new and experienced teachers alike, just in terms of your spirit of experimentation and transparency, and I just think that the more teachers we get in the classroom who are like you guys, the better off schools and kids and everybody is going to be. So even if somebody’s reading this just to get to know two teachers who are really, I don’t know, just hitting the nail on the head in so many ways, then they should read it, even just for that reason. So thank you so much for giving me this time this morning.

VAUDREY: Thanks for having us.

STEVENS: Yeah, thank you.


For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, including links to all of John and Matt’s stuff, go to and click on Episode 53. To get weekly updates on all my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks for listening, and have a great day.


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