Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 142- Super Secret Group

On Monday I sent out a tweet saying that the first five #WeirdEd regulars to DM me were going to be part of a special something. Once I had five I put them in a DM group together and said "WELCOME! FATE HAS DRAWN YOU FIVE TOGETHER FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE!
And then I left them alone to figure it out. One person had to bow out because we're all crazy busy, which was, of course, totally cool. I don't think I need to spell out the point to you, you're smart people.
This is what they came up with.


When Hollywood presents collaboration, we get buddy movies, road trips, and super teams. They have, or are given, an objective and they’re off. After a few setbacks, the heroes find, capture, evade or achieve their goal. In the real world, it isn’t always this easy. Students won’t band together to defeat Voldemort, and reaching a conclusion takes more resources than a box of Scooby snacks. What does it take to assemble a good team and to make it operate like a well-oiled machine that produces the desired outcome?

INTRO!: #WeirdEd Introduce yourself and tell the group who is your favorite book or movie ‘group’. Extra points for visuals!

Lord of the Rings:
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Fellowship was formed literally to make the world a better place, full of hope for the future. Like the Fellowship, many teacher collaborations start strong, full of life and energy. Each teacher brings their own vision, their passion, their hopes (“and my axe!”).

However, as time passed the Fellowship broke apart. In any team dynamic, forces work to pull a group apart. Assignments need grading, work piles up, orcs are at the gates. All of which sap the energy of the team.

Sometimes it’s internal problems that push the group to the brink. Competing visions, different methods, ill-defined roles and responsibilities, squabbles about who should carry the One Ring, etc. Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork? What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

  1. #WeirdEd q1  Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork?

  1. #WeirdEd q1 part 2: What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

Monty Python and The Holy Grail & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see a parody of a classic epic, in which a group of knights band together, undertake a glorious quest, and choose the classic ‘divide and conquer’ to complete the project. Actually, our group did that, so there’s something to be said for that method, after all.

Of course, we didn’t choose our group, as it was chosen for us. (*cough cough* Doug) When students choose their groups, the reasons behind the choices are less ‘work-based’ and more ‘fun-based’, and the seed of the threat to the ‘point of the project’ is planted.  When teacher choose groups, there are many more skills being taught (hopefully), but invariably there ends up being the four classic group work students in each group, as we see in Monty Python.

  • The Leader: (A.K.A. the bossy know-it-all, the A student, the “I’ll do it since nobody else will step up and do their part”, King Arthur)
    • King Arthur was obviously the ideal person for this job, being king and all, even if he wasn’t voted for by the general public and was instead chosen when some watery tart lobbed a scimitar at him. He spoke for the group when God arrived to give the mission, without checking with the others. The Leader is usually a type A personality, and though their intentions are often good, their companions may either resent the behavior, or not learn as much as they would otherwise.
  • The Minion: (A.K.A. Sir Bedevere)
    • Sir Bedevere was the first knight to come to the aide of King Arthur in the movie, and for that alone, he was allowed to stay with him for the duration, even surviving to the end of the movie. (Yes, it was probably in the script that way.) The Minion will be the student who convinced the teacher to be in the group with the Leader ‘because they work so well together’, and generally is the first to go along with the Leader’s ideas, since they will be around that person the most and will have to deal with short term disagreements in the long term if they don’t help.
  • The Sloth: (A.K.A. including quiet, shy, unpopular or just generally different and not-as-vocal-about-it students, Sir Robin)
    • Sir Robin wasn’t exactly lazy, but he was a scaredy-cat. He wasn’t particularly vocal about getting or staying out of trouble, or about better choices if those even existed. This one is tough. In a three-person group, this is the person who just is along for the ride, no matter how they handle it. They may simply not input, or they may go so far as to not do the part they are assigned by the Leader. They are the one that will resent that they were GIVEN work by a fellow classmate, but may not have the confidence to speak up, or perhaps they are the student who simply does not care enough to fight about it, though they would have much rather collaborated.
  • The M.I.A.- (Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film)
    • In a group of four or more, there is almost always a student who wasn’t there the day it was assigned or the day it was due, and the group has to catch them up, or cover for them, either way. This puts stress on students, as it did in the movie, as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film got the accolades for being part of a successful project, but all he did was show up the day they did headshots for the movie poster! (Citation: my own theory)  
This is not, of course, such a complete list that we can always tell who is who, and depending on the projects, the positions may change. A student who is experienced in artsy things may take the lead on the diorama group project, while a student who already read the book might lead the plan when it comes to the making of a theatrical scene on the most recent reading.

We as teachers must simply do our best to create guidelines for jobs so that the students can play to strengths while still requiring all to participate, no matter their type, especially when we choose the groups.

We also must have a plan for when groups cannot stick to the guidelines due to personality conflicts. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ‘group’ wasn’t exactly chosen, but Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian were piloting the Heart of Gold with its Improbability Drive, and we saw an example of when one person thinks they are the Leader, acts like the Leader, and makes decisions like a Leader, but is an idiot. Trillian even reflected on the fact that Zaphod would seem to sometimes feign stupidity rather than risk being wrong about something, and though she thought that was even more stupid, she would have to guide him through to logical choices, which he would then throw out for something much more ridiculous.

In relation to group work, this means that sometimes the person leading the group is not always the best choice, leading us back to the concept that a teacher may need to provide very careful guidelines in regards to the best ways as a group to split up the work and hold themselves accountable. If you as a teacher have any Zaphod Beeblebroxes in your class, you are aware of this necessity.

Questions based on this section:
  1. #WeirdEd q2 How do you as a teacher help facilitate group work? Split jobs? Assign roles?

  1. #WeirdEd q2 part 2 How do you help the students when it doesn’t go as planned?

Sister Act:
It’s great when your team has an even distribution of exactly the skills and personalities you need to get things done.  But life has a way of throwing you into ...unexpected collaborations.

In Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg plays Dolores, a lounge singer whose witness protection placement is as choir mistress in a convent.  Like Dolores living among the nuns, you may find yourself having to take on new identities in your teamwork in order to get the job done.  And sometimes the new habits chafe.

How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

In the end, Dolores saves the day- and the choir- by helping everyone in the choir find a way to bring their own identity to their singing.  When the singers embrace their own voices, their music draws crowds!

Although my students are under intense pressure to narrow their studies, I encourage them not to limit their curiosity.  I came late to my college major and even later to teaching, but there’s very little I have learned that I haven’t put to use somehow, even if it lay dormant for ten years.  You never know which of the ideas, skills, memories, experiences, passions, and trivia you have tucked away will come in handy.


#WeirdEd #q3 How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

#WeirdEd #q4 What’s an unexpected contribution you’ve been able to make to a collaboration because of your own skills or experience?

D2: The Mighty Ducks
When Gordon Bombay is approached to coach Team USA in the Junior Goodwill Hockey Games, he sees an opportunity to collaborate with his former team, the Ducks. Led by team captain Charlie Conway, the Ducks are fresh off a Minnesota State Peewee Hockey Championship and looking to capitalize on their fame and skills. Faced with new teammates, a brighter stage, and tough international competition, will they be able to collaborate and win gold for Team USA? Can they play with new teammates from different cultural backgrounds and different styles of play? Or will they fail to come together as a team and reach their potential against the hard hitting Iceland team?
D2: The Mighty Ducks is a modern day classic (if you were a child of the 90’s) that demonstrates the power of collaboration. In the movie, Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is faced with the dilemma of being overconfident in his abilities. While struggling to manage new or challenging situations, he also resists the help of others. How many times do we as educators find ourselves in a situation where we could use the assistance of others but are unwilling to even ask for help because we feel we should be able to remedy the situation ourselves? It’s not until Bombay sees his team quit and the dream of winning gold slip away that he realizes he needs to ask for help.
The assistance that Bombay seeks come from his mentor, his girlfriend (team tutor), and the very players he coaches. These archetypes also show up in most educational settings, however we often don’t think of them as potential collaborators. Mentors or experienced colleagues can be a source of great knowledge and information for new or even experienced teachers. Rather than work in isolation, teachers can gain valuable experience from the expertise of older teachers, staff, or administrators. While collaboration is often a forced concept, voluntary collaboration opens up a world of learning opportunities. While many educators often look to their spouses for reprieve from their day jobs, a spouse or significant family member can be an excellent collaborator in order to get an outsider perspective on what’s going on in the classroom. Often teachers get too caught up in the classroom to see the bigger picture and those without the lense of education often. And lastly, the very students we teach are perhaps our greatest contributors. When was the last time you asked your own students for help or seek their guidance regarding your teaching? Perhaps the ones we are responsible for teaching are the very ones who end up teaching us the most.

  1. #WeirdEd #q5 How can you best collaborate with others that are not in your content area or profession?
  2. #WeirdED #q6 How can you collaborate with students to improve your teaching?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Raising Money, Doing Good

ad by Sarah Windisch

The Russian election of the Orange Menace hit a lot of us in different ways, but one of the resounding reactions was, "I must put something good into the world." We felt helpless, angry, and in need of something, anything, to affirm that yes there are good people in the world and no Americans aren't all like Komrade Racist Misogynist Nazi-pants.

I wanted to donate to two of the groups we figured would be right in the firing line of the new administration- Planned Parenthood (because they help women and that cannot stand) and the ACLU (who know they've got a lot of fight on their hands). But I don't have much. I know, every little bit helps, but maybe there's a way to do a little bit more.

One of the benefits of being an independently published author is I control everything about my books. I set the price, it's easy to resupply, I don't have a publisher to check with or go through or even give a cut to. I am the process (once has done its process). And that means I can give my books away, jack up the prices (which I'd never do, but still), or take all the profits and do whatever I want. Normally that means buying records.*

So I decided to have a fundraiser.

For one 24-hour period the profits of every single Doug Robertson book sold by me personally, not through amazon, createspace, or smashwords would be split evenly between Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I chose Jan 20th because that was a depressing day and I needed something positive to focus on.

I had no idea how well the fundraiser would work. Selling books is a tricky thing. Maybe no one would buy. Maybe a few would. I had a pretty decent stash at my house for conferences and the occasional online autographed book sale, and my secret hope was I'd run out of books and have to resupply. Which would slow delivery but would mean we raised some decent cash.

The 20th came and my inbox didn't explode, but it did expand rapidly. Orders came in all day. It was a work day, and it was gratifying to look at my phone at breaks and see email notification piling up. That night I designed a Sheet to track all the orders, then shared it with my wife, who is the organized one, and she redesigned it and did that spreadsheet magic thing where it adds and totals automatically.

The process wasn't swift, because we had to wait for the Weirdlings to go down, and I had to email people the totals with shipping for their orders, and they can to pay, and some had to email me addresses and yadda yadda it took longer than expected all together. But eventually, after many emails and nights, shipments started going out.

first batch

We'd reached my secret goal and I also had to order more of every book so some shipments got delayed while I waited for CreateSpace to send me more.
second batch

Due to the magic of spreadsheets, it's was easy to figure out the actual profits. He's the Weird Teacher and The Unforgiving Road are $13 each. THE Teaching Text (You're Welcome) is $6. Shipping was built into the totals I emailed to people (side note- shipping to Canada from the US is reeeediculous). I subtracted the cost of each book to me and the cost of them getting to me, and got the total donation for each order.
 Those two Bonus Donations at the bottom are from two people who gave $10 and $14 more than their order. The total profit from one special day of sales was $464.87. I divided that in half...
...and arrived at how much we'd be donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood- $232.43 each (I know, there's half a penny left over). After that it was easy, since both organizations accept payments from PayPal.

I'm not writing this to be all Check Me Out, I Did a Good Thing. One- because that's not cool and it kinda defeats the purpose of doing a cool thing, and Two- Because I didn't do it. I set up an avenue for people to do a cool thing, and a lot of people took it. This didn't work because of me. If it had been me, I'd have sent each group ten bucks. But working together, we managed to send a decent chunk of change to two groups fighting for our rights in a time where those rights are under attack.

And we can continue to help-

Donate to the ACLU**
Donate to Planned Parenthood**

I wrote this because I want everyone who ordered a book on Jan 20th to know their money went where they wanted it to go. We're in this together. The work goes beyond the classroom, and there's ways for all of us to make a difference, monetarily and otherwise.

Thank you for reading, and for donating.

*partially true- that actually means putting a dent in car payments and whatnot on good months
** No PayPal on these pages, but you can through their mobile sites

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 141- A Special Ed Tour with Anne Lafferty

This week's #WeirdEd post and questions are written by Anne Lafferty.

This is a post about special education. Wait! Don’t run away! It’ll be fun! Hey, don’t worry, I’ll drop all the abbreviations here at the door and leave them right there for the remainder of the post: FAPE, LRE, IDEA, IEP, PLOP, BIP. ITP. Also, no paperwork today. We’re going on a tour and I’m your guide.

“I couldn’t do what you do.” The last time I heard this phrase it made me think - I haven’t had many visitors to my class outside of parents and specialists. I'm a teacher of kindergarteners and first graders with moderate-severe disabilities. Most people don’t really know what goes on inside my classroom, so I’m going to take you on a tour of my space. Bear with me - it’s my first year in this setting so it’s a bit of a work in progress.

Here is my student seating. Some of the chairs at the table are specialized to provide physical support for students with low muscle tone. One chair has a bumpy, squishy cushion to help a student to sit. They love it - and my own kids love sitting on that chair when they visit. At the circle all students sit in cube chairs, which also provide some postural support.
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Some of my kids are learning how to control a pen, pencil, or crayon. Others are working on remembering and writing their home address and phone number. I have one student learning how to type using Keyboarding Without Tears. We needed to adjust the mouse to make it “sticky” so she could drag and drop. You can see the progress one of my kids made in drawing his self portrait, too, since the beginning of the year.

This is our visual schedule. By now all of my students recognize each item on the agenda. Everyone in my room - myself, paraeducators, specialists - love the visual schedule. The symbols really make a difference in quickly identifying what comes up next.Some students have their own personal schedule. They put each item on the left side in the morning and right before lunch. As we go through our day, the students move the current activity to the right. This helps decrease anxiety that a lot of my students feel when they transition from one activity to the rest. Velcro is the best invention ever and makes an excellent birthday gift for the special education teacher in your life. Ahem.
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For language arts and math we have a modified curriculum with lots of visual and auditory supports. Some of my kids can follow along near grade level, others are working on goals to participate by gesturing or otherwise indicating a choice. Some students are working on things like addition and subtraction, others are working on counting meaningfully to 10 or 20. Every student has their own unique goals that my curriculum can help address. For some of my students language arts and math are opportunities to work on fine motor and language skills.

Most of my kids need some help navigating campus. We have to watch a little more carefully for steps, ice, corners, and uneven ground. Imagine walking around on this playground using a walker or crutches.
If it’s bright out, sunglasses or a baseball cap can help. In classrooms with fluorescent lights some of my students may need a hat to help deal with that kind of light. In noisy places like the cafeteria, assemblies, or bathroom some of my students use noise-canceling headphones to cut down on the distracting and annoying noises around them.

We have weekly visits from the speech therapist, occupational therapist, adaptive P.E. teacher, and the physical therapist. Here, students work on things like cutting with adaptive scissors (aren’t these cool? Before I worked in this class I didn’t know there were so many kinds of scissors), writing, catching a ball, swinging a bat, balance and walking. Some of my students are working on building vocabulary or using three or more words in a sentence. Here are some of our occupational therapy toys…
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I hope you enjoyed this tour of my room and what we do. My kids are capable of quite a lot and while their progress doesn’t always show up on measurements from state standards or common core, they learn a lot every day. I think it’s valuable to explore settings that are really different to what we are used to, whether different subjects, grade levels, or settings. It’s good to know the range of what is out there, outside of the cocoons of our little worlds. I think there are valuable things to find for our students in all sorts of settings.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 140- Calvinball

We've had a few weeks of good but less-that-weird #WeirdEds. This week I want to make up for it by going for it full-on. And there's nothing more full-on strange that a good game of Calvinball. So grab your Calvinball masks and get ready, because it's time to brush up on the rules of Calvinball.

Rule #1- The only permanent rule of Calvinball is that you can't play it the same way twice.

Got it? Good.

Teaching is wonderfully strange and wild and stressful. There's so many pressures on us so sometimes we need to run to the tree and sing the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song.

I don't waaannna grade
No I don't
I don't waaaannaa grade
But I can't won't
Because I goooootttaaa grade
Yes I gotta gotta grade
(Gotta gotta grade)
Yes oh yes oh no oh yes
I gotta grade
(Don't wanna)
I gotta grade
(Don't wanna)
I don't wanna I don't wanna

Of course the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song can boomerang back to you if you're in the Assessment Vortex and you end up grading the same assignment two or three times looking for growth.

Then take the ball and bounce bounce bounce to Differentiation Station, where every single player has to do something they aren't good at in front of every other play, and every other player gets to suggest how each other can improve the thing they are doing.

Then you must spin clockwise three times on one foot. This represents Emailing The Tech Dept. Spin thirteen more times and punch yourself in the forehead if you are the Tech Dept.

Integrate movement into your Calvinball game by finding Kinesthetic Country. Did you find it? Ohhhh, it's in Backwards Land, time to sit down for fifteen minutes and count grass blades.

Your score is now Progressing to B+. If you counted an even number of grass blades round your score up from Progressing to New Mystery Grade No One Explained To The Staff Yet. If you found an odd number of grass blades quick find one more there now you have an even number, well done.

Your principal is coming, so quick run back to your desk and continue grading, humming the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song under your breath. Or over your breath. You know what, hum it right in line with your breath, no one expects that.

Now, as for what we're going to chat about tonight- oh look at the time. I call Ending, I win.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting Help In Public

Fractions have always been hard for me.

That was a partial truth.

Math has always been hard for me. I'm not saying those dreaded words, "I'm bad at math." I am saying that it was the subject that tripped me up more often than any other in school, from elementary all the way through college where I took as few math classes as I could get away with. In high school I did summer school because I spent freshman year in a (fairly unhelpful) remedial math class and needed to get through to Algebra 2 for most college applications. Or something, I don't remember exactly. I just remember going from the pool, where I was a pool aid, to my high school to sit in a room and do geometry on a computer. Woo, checking boxes!

Because of all this, I've never been as comfortable teaching math as I am any other subject. I love reading and writing, I enjoy science and history, but it took me a long time to not get squeamish around teaching math. To not feel like I was bad at it. Whereas I feel incredibly at ease going off book, so to speak, for a reading lesson, I have a tendency to play it safer in math. Not necessarily, "What's the book say? Ok, let's do exactly that then do pg. 53 #s 2-26 Even Only to practice," but not going big and crazy with confidence either.

Many things are changing when it comes to my math instruction. One, I've become very good friends with Megan Schmidt, who for years has been a very patient recipient of and replier to long DMs written minutes after the end of a particularly frustrating math lesson. She introduced me to the concept of Math Talks, which was something I think I probably knew about, and was one of those Teaching Strategies that, as soon as she said it, made my brain go, "Ohhhhhhh, that make total sense. I should do that." But, because of my mental training and process of untraining, I had a harder time going from, "Ohhh, that makes total sense," to, "This is how this would look in my room." Instead it was, "How would this look in my classroom?" Which is not a question I ask often.

When I go to conferences I always find at least one interesting looking math instruction session. Take responsibility for your learning and all that, right? Don't practice your strengths, no matter how fun and gratifying that is. Arnold Schwarzenegger hated his legs when he was a body builder. So he did ridiculous leg days. So I look for math sessions. The best math session I ever attended at a conference was the last one I went to, just last weekend. It was run by Matt Vaudrey, who is one half of Classroom Chef. His session was all about math talks and being comfortable and getting the kids to dig deeper into math conversations. It was fantastic enough that not only did I buy myself and my student teacher a copy of the Classroom Chef book, but I also got a hug. Hugs are important. I have a million ideas from Matt's session that I can't wait to start dropping on my kids.

But asking for help in a DM is easy. It's private. Getting ideas in a session at a conference is easy, you're in a sea of people, a face in the crowd. Asking for help in a big public way about something you think you should know is harder. I think. Probably. Honestly, not for me, and I don't say that to toot my own horn, but to be honest about having very little ego about being embarrassed when I don't know something. Or at all. It's a confidence thing plus a genuine belief that my ego has before and will again get in the way of my learning, so I push it aside and ignore it. Honestly, there's no way to not sound like a jerk after those last few sentences, so let's move along quickly and hope you forget about them. *smokebomb*

ANYWAY, I was teaching my kids about fractions (see, it all comes back around, I have a point). And it's pretty easy (now) to illustrate and explain why adding and subtracting fractions works how they do. Even multiplying fractions makes sense in my head. But dividing fractions- I got no ideas. I know how to do it. Flip the second fraction and multiple. Great. But how is that helpful. I spend all year preaching at my kids that learning isn't magic. I tell them, specifically, "You cannot say, 'I know this is right because it's right.' You might as well say, 'Because magic!' It's not magic. WHY does this work?" They hear it in science, they hear it in language arts, they hear it in math. Not up until dividing fractions. Through dividing fractions. Before, for years, I would say, "This is the trick for dividing fractions, it's real simple." And they'd be able to do it. But they wouldn't know WHY. And, in my classroom, with my current teaching philosophy, WHY is paramount.

The problem is, it's real hard to teach WHY if I don't know WHY. And I had No Freaking Idea why flipping the whatever and doing the thing made the stuff.

So I did what we all do when we don't know- I googled it. And google FAILED ME. It's not that I struck out, there's a million pages about why flipping the whatsit and doing the stuffs makes tada, but none of it made sense in my head. Most of the time I'm a "I will figure this out on my own, go away" kind of guy. but with stuff like this I'm a "Pretty please won't someone hold my hand and speak in slow, measured tones" person.

And this is where the goddess known as Kate Nowak enters our narrative. I took the the Twitterz for help.
Many very nice people responded, but Kate "Dr Feelgood" Nowak had the thing that's easily understood. She broke it down for me step-by-step, holding my hand and spending just a ridiculous amount of time explaining exactly why the whositwhat getting flipped allows the jillywack to get all up in the shnizzle. For a whole, long, step-by-step-by-step thread. And in the end I got it!

I was able to make four math videos for my kids starring Sophie (my math-centric monster), allowing me to blend the lesson and giving Student Teacher Veronica and I the freedom to mix and help.

Here's the thing- I felt like I shouldn't be needing to ask for help with this. I'm in my 11th year of teaching. My second year in fifth grade. I should know by now how dividing fractions works. I'm going to put my teacher chin right out there in public for everyone to see and say, "I don't know how to do something"? That's asking for a swing, isn't it? At least a little. It's inviting DM groups across the EduTwitters to Copy+Paste the link into their thread, "Funny guy knows how to make with the jokes, but not with the teachie teaching."

Now, no one did that. Not in public. Probably not in private, but if they did, eh, whatever. We constantly preach modeling behavior. I was modeling total frustration and confusion and asking for help. I was utterly thankful for the help I got.

And this is where I assume, which I've heard has a Pinocchio in Funland effect on people, what other people think. And that's not totally fair, but it helps me make the point of all of this, and I think I'm at least a little right. The public nature of twitter makes it harder for us to ask serious pedagogical questions about things we think we should already know. I'm not talking about, "Oh, new Google toy, what's this do?" "How do you use Spheros in your classroom?" "What's a cool new project I can do to teach the life cycle of a basket full of puppies?" I'm talking about, "Why does creating a reciprocal fraction result in the quotient?" "Seriously, what's the deal with all these commas? How do you know where they go?" "What happens inside a cocoon has never made sense to me and I have to teach it. Help!" As grown professional educators it kinds feels like we should have those answers. Maybe not the best way to teach them, but at least the WHY.

Do we get scared of asking in public what we'd be ok asking in private? And how does this build out? Can we follow the ripples? You're scared to ask why dividing fractions work the way they do in public, are you really going to ask why DeVos crying "School Choice" is bad if you've never spent the time thinking about that system? If we can't ask the simple WHY questions, how much less likely are we to ask the hard WHY questions? I mean, if we're sweating the heat we might get from other teachers for not knowing some pedagogical peccadillo...

I leave open the very real chance that I'm totally wrong about this. Maybe it's in my head and I'm projecting. Maybe we're all good with admitting to not knowing, no matter what the thing not known is. But maybe we all know we need more leg day, and we're hoping everyone is too distracted by our awesome biceps to notice.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in longform. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Days of "Stick To Teaching" Must Be Over

I saw Alice Cooper in Hollywood on his Brutal Planet tour. Alice is, was, and always will be great live, so there's no way I'm going to miss this show. I don't care who the opener is. In fact, I didn't even look to see who the opener was, so imagine my surprise when The Knack hit the stage. You might be thinking, "Who are The Knack?" They're one of those bands where you might not know their name, but you know at least one of their songs. You know all the words to at least one of their songs. After you find out what that song is it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Here’s your pre-emptive you're welcome for that.

The Knack are playing away and all of us are patiently waiting for them to stop so Alice can die for our amusement yet again. They weren't bad. But they weren't special either. The Knack was The Thing Between Us And Alice Cooper. And we were getting tired of the barrier. So, right between two songs, in that dead moment of silence, when everyone in the arena including the band could hear it, a guy behind me shouts at the top of his lungs, "PLAY 'MY SHARONA' AND GET OFF THE STAGE!"

Education conversations can get like that guy. Play your hit, and shut up. We know the thing you do- you're the funny one, the coding one, the Google one- do your thing, stay in your lane. It is happening all over media right now. Sports writing and movie sites are going through the same transition. Like that Ringer headline says, we've reached the end of Stick To [Blank]. For a variety of reasons, social media and the immediacy of information is moving us out of our silos and forcing us to engage with the real world.

Which is good. Putting sports and movies aside, education is all about the real world. I've heard it dozens of times and so have you- "We're preparing our kids for the real world." But then we aren't confronting the real world like we should be. More importantly, we aren't confronting the poison in the profession.


Those are teachers. We work among them.  That's members of our profession talking about our kids in a public forum in the most disrespectful, racist way possible. When we silently agree to Stick To Teaching, we allow this to happen. We encourage it. Every time we don't call out hate we enable it. None of what I'm saying is new, but it should still be said again and again.

We are responsible.

We are responsible for so much. Education is a political act. Teaching critical thinking and problem solving, these are political acts. Maybe you don't see it that way, or don't want to see it that way, but the skills we are giving our students are much more likely to be used to parse the lies of an administration than to deconstruct a novel.

If we teach behavior standards and expect certain things out of our students, but don't call out adults like those above, we are hypocrites of the highest order. I will not tolerate bullying in my classroom. But because I'm a teacher I should stick to teaching and not confront other teachers? It's not a free speech issue either. Like xkcd explained so succinctly, free speech does not protect you from being called a racist for what you say. And don't argue racists deserve a chance to be heard. When someone is advocating the destruction of another group of people, you really don't need to hear them out. They aren't going to get to a point that makes you think, "Huh, you might be right." They'll just be spreading their hate, and you'll be letting them.

Silence is worse. Stick To Teaching encourages silence. It says look the other way and pretend that all things aren't connected and who you are outside of the classroom isn't who you are inside it. Silence is permission while being too scared to give it or to deny it.

It's on us. Personal responsibility for my students' learning, for their behavior in and out of my classroom is easy. It's expected. Personal responsibility for the fitness of the profession is also on us. I wonder why I don't hear more good cops decrying the actions of the bad ones. I know they're out there, but it makes it hard when I can't hear them calling out their fellows. The silence from the GOP every time 45 does or says something is deafening. We, teachers, need to be tasked with protecting the sanctity of teaching. We defend each other and we come for those who are openly, blatantly, joyfully against our students.

Just so my position on this is clear, I believe the teachers in that Facebook thread should be fired and their credentials removed. They are openly admitting that they do not create a safe environment for their students, that their students are not equal in their classrooms, and that they have remarkably low expectations of and remarkably high contempt for their students and their families. These are inexcusable.

Many teachers moved past Stick To Teaching a long time ago. The #educolor crew has been banging this drum and standing on the front lines alone for far too long. "But Doug, my admin watches my social media and they don't like me to be political." Ok, first- they don't want you to be calling out racists? They're worried your parents or students might see you calling out racists? Like that's bad? I get it though. Everyone speaks up in certain ways. Maybe being loud on twitter isn't your thing, that's fine. Unless, you know, you watch someone be awful and don't say anything. Then you're enabling. Do it in your own way.

But we now live in a world where Stick To Teaching can't be the only option. Don't say to other educators, "Man, I wish you'd just be funny and do your education stuff." Really? Tough. I wrote more songs than My Sharona. I’ll talk about the women’s march I went to with my students because we’re reading about the American Revolution and marches and protests are a part of our history. We’ll look at the Constitution for found poetry, a sneaky way to get them to read something they won’t have to read for years yet (plus doing black-out poetry on the Constitution reminds me of what this administration is doing to it, but I don’t tell them that.) And I’ll be loud on social media because I don’t know how not to be. Because I love this job and most of the people in it. And because we can always always always be better.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in longform. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

I Might Be Projecting

There are many benefits to having a student teacher. The biggest of which, and I've written about this at length, is that it forces me to be a reflective educator. I'm constantly thinking about what I'm doing and justifying the choices I'm making, both to myself and to the student trying to learn to be a teacher from me.

But there are other benefits, especially if you have good student teachers, and I do. A student teacher brings energy to a classroom. New ideas, a willingness to try things, to see how ideas they have work in the real world. I should pause here to add the caveat- If you, as the mentor teacher/cooperating teacher allow and encourage that, and why wouldn't you, don't you want them to be prepared and excited about teaching? One thing that's happening more in my classroom than has happened in the last few years is the Big Research Project. These would be happening without Veronica (my primary student teacher). I got some great ideas at ISTE over the summer and had a list of things I wanted to do with my class when I started this year. But I always have a List of Things To Do. A list that grows and lives and changes throughout the year. It's just that some years I'm better at getting to those things than others.

Here's a secret about me that's probably not much of a secret- I rarely do the same thing the same way more than once in the classroom. I try to evolve lessons and projects. Something didn't work? I take it apart and make it work. Something works? I pick at it to find the loose threads and cut them loose. I like that, but it also makes teaching harder than it needs to be because I don't have a file of Things I Do Every Year that I can reach into with ease. It also doesn't help much that in my eleven years of teaching I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade in three states and four schools. Makes it tough to cut-and-paste projects if you want to be responsive at all, and I do. Not to mention I'm constantly getting better with technology and finding new, better ways to do old things. Projects must evolve with that growth as well.

With Veronica's help, my class is in the midst of their third Big Project of the school year. We started with the Hobby Project, then moved to an Animal Project, and our current project is a Scientist Project. And there's one thing Veronica and I are learning together- Building good projects is difficult.

I have a list of Do's and Don't's (that looks wrong) for these things, which I outline for Veronica before we start planning.

  • I DO want student choice. 
  • I DO want a presentation. 
  • I DON'T want a slideshow (slideshows are good for three kids, and I have 36 and that makes you want to take a Sharpie to the eye, not to mention no one actually likes slideshows). 
  • I DO want opportunities for creativity. 
  • I DON'T want surface level, wiki research. 
  • I DO want us to find an interesting angle for the project before giving it to the kids.

Do you know what's nice about a list of constraints like that? They force you to be creative. Never forget the lessons of JAWS. The shark never worked, and because of that we got the best monster movie ever made (I will fight you). Spielberg was forced to work around his constraints and that made the movie better.

But there are other sneaky things we need to think about when designing projects.

  • What skills are actually being assessed with this project on top of the Big Skill?
  • What kind of time commitment are we talking here?
  • How much class time will be given for this project?

Yes, I want them to learn a hobby, but what other skills are stacked on top of that, and how can we be sure to capitalize on skills the student is already good at while being sure to improve those skills as well as the places they are weak? A tri-fold bulletin board doesn't do that very well. I don't make those part of project expectations. I don't like them. What's funny is kids will bring them in anyway. In our first project I didn't explicitly say "Don't Do Tri-Fold Boards" and kids did them. Why? Experience in other classes? Their parents read "Project" and heard "Tri-Fold Board" because that's what school was for them? Either way, I need to be aware of the subskills that are built in to projects, which I may or may not intend.

I don't like giving a lot of time for projects. In general, in my experience, the kids who finish with five minutes to spare would have finished like that with a one hour time frame or a one month time frame. Extra time isn't helpful. So we give a compressed, within reason, time frame. Three weeks, max. We do not build anything that takes longer than that. With three weeks a student can have soccer practice and a family trip and still have time to finish, but not so much time that the Due Date feels waaaaaaaaaay far off until it's suddenlytomorrowholycrap.

And that plays into the second one- how much class time will be given? My answer- Not much. We have other stuff to do in class. I will spend some time in class giving specific instruction in how I want the presentation, and I will give computer lab time for research, but the majority of the work is not to be done in class. Which is where I run into a thorny problem that requires me to be a grown up and hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in my head at the same time. I don't like giving homework. It's not a thing I do anymore. My student still have homework, but it's simply "Read at least 30 minutes each night, and practice the math skill you're weak on." But I don't send home reading logs or worksheets. I'll know if you're reading at home because your reading at school will improve. I'll know if you're taking responsibility for improving your math if your math improves. I don't want to give homework. But I also can't feasibly take chunks of classtime for a project. I have too much to teach. I need to remember that I am asking the parents to help their child with research and project design, and the parental situation is different for every kid. I need to make a blanket expectation as a baseline, and then flex that expectation depending on each kids' life. I need to communicate with parents, while instilling in my students that they are fifth graders and the expectation is that they do this because I am giving them all the tools they need to be successful. I won't lift them to the gold ring, but I will put out my knee for a boost.

Suddenly the statement, "I want my kids to do a project" is a major undertaking. And we haven't even talked about building and explaining rubrics because I don't want you to dose off.

I love Big Projects. A well-designed one does so much. It gives the students initiative and choice. It sets a goal but allows them to find their own road. It leads the student to topics and learning they might not naturally have gotten to. It gives a final Thing at the end, a culmination that isn't a test but still demonstrates learning.

A well-designed project is art and creation. The teacher starts with an idea, a standard, and from that creates a project. That project is given to a student where it becomes a standard again from which the student can create learning. A well-designed project is a cycle of creation.

**a #WeirdEd week 137 post**