Monday, September 21, 2020

You Gotta Have Faith


Before I start I have to say that I deeply hate that forever connected to the phrase "You gotta have faith" is the band in the above picture. It was their first single and I was the exact right age to hear it over and over and over even though I hated that band. Remember nu-metal? With the two decent bands that came out of the entire genre? If you don't know what band and what song I'm talking about you were not in high school or listening to rawk radio in the mid-to-late 90s. I shall not taint your brain and your ears further. Google it if you must know, but I warned you.*

What does the above rant have to do with education? Nothing. I just needed to explain why I hate that header image, but it's the only header image I could have possibly used considering the title and subject of this post. 

I also would like to note that I will be using a bad language word in this post. Why? Because language exists for a reason and we're all adults here. Because I could beat around the bush and be clever with synonyms, but those don't carry the weight and impact I believe is needed to make my next statement land like it ought to. So if bad language words hurt your ear-eyes make like A Christmas Story and pretend it's another word. 

We all good now? Cool.

Distance teaching is fucking hard, my friends. It's fuuuuucking hard. And even in a few weeks when it gets easier as everything settles into something resembling a groove, it's still gonna be fucking hard. 

Teaching is never easy. Even the quote unquote best class in the world still isn't easy to teach. You could have 30 of the most wonderful "I wish I had 30 of her/him in my class" students and it would not matter. The year would be hard. There is too much going on, too much pressure, too many personalities and loads atop loads that must be carried for a teaching year to ever be easy. It's always hard. But, like Jimmy Dugan says, "The hard is what makes it great." I embrace the difficulty of the job because that challenge is what makes me better.

Distance teaching, though? That's fucking hard. Hardness, as we all know, is a scientific measure that increases exponentially (I think I'm using that word right, but I teach 4th grade math so who knows). There's "hard". And then there's "hard". And then there's "pretty hard". Next is "damn hard". Followed by "pretty damn hard". Then there's "...*whew*...I mean...mmm...this hard, man." And last is "fucking hard." I have heard tell of "pretty fucking hard" and " pretty fucking damn hard" levels, but those only exist in middle school because middle schoolers, through no fault of their own, are broken on a deeply hormonal level. Also also, if you made it through the entire preceding paragraph without giggling once at the repeated use of the word "hard" you are more adult than I will ever be.**

I am exactly one day into distance teaching. The second grader and kindergartener who live in my home are exactly one day into distance learning. Yes, I'm going to use both phrases because teachers are not distance learning. Put your hand down, I know "teachers are always learning" and "the best teachers learn from their students." You can stow the cliche pamphlet. Our job is distance teaching right now. Except for the districts and states actively trying to murder their teachers. They're still teaching teaching. Until an outbreak happens at their school. Then they're climbing into our boat. Make space. Six feet in every direction, please.

Now here is the real kicker, and the thing I cannot get past- 

Really fucking hard is still the best fucking option. 

I do not come to you bearing bad news (which you already know anyway). I come to remind you that we have no other choice. No one does. The parents don't want this. The students don't want this. The teachers don't want this. But we have no choices. It's fucking hard or it's in-person, and that should never have been an option. What are the other choices? Homeschooling. I guess, and not to take away from the parents of our students, but teaching isn't that easy. Remember the above paragraph? One does not simply walk into teaching. The character the writers don't know what to do with suddenly deciding to become a teacher (I'm looking at you Keiko O'Brian) and BAM they're teaching is bullpucky. Horse hockey. Fiddlesticks and other nonsense. I trust my parents, I know they want what is best for their children. And I know that no matter how hard distance teaching will be, those students will be better off with me because this is my job and I'm trained for it and good at it. I'm not specifically trained for this kind of teaching, but I'm more trained than they are. 

We should be working in partnership with our parents. They are the teacher in the room, while we're the teacher in the box. We should be flexible *looks hard at places requiring things that are unfeasible in the long run* and have open lines of communication so we can change things and make everyone has happy as they can be. That doesn't mean we can make them happy. Just as happy as they can be.

No one is going to enjoy this year very much. I know that sounds dire and terrible, but we have to admit that. 

I hate hate hate with the fire of a thousand suns the cliche "teaching is a marathon not a sprint." I go into why in detail here. The short version is that marathons suck. They suck the whole time. They hurt for the entire race. If you're winning you're in pain the whole time because you're pushing your body harder than it believes it can be pushed and you want to die but your will won't let you. If you in the middle or the back you're still running/walking/staggering over 26 miles. Marathons hurt the entire time. Don't call teaching a marathon because then you're saying that teaching sucks and hurts for 180 days. It doesn't. Teaching is a baseball game. Seriously, read the thing

Teaching is a baseball game...normally.

This year? This year teaching is going to be a marathon. It's not going to be very fun.

So how does one survive a marathon? The flip answer is training and suffering. The real answer is Faith.

Not faith in a higher power. Faith in thyself. Faith in thy students. Faith that is might be a fucking hard way, but it's the fucking best option. I have to believe that. I'm clinging to it. I can do this. I can teach my kids well. They will learn. We will make it through the year.

Before I had kids I did triathlons. That's the swim/bike/run thing. Sprints, Olympic distances, and once a half Ironman. That's a 1.2mi swim, 56mi bike, and 13.1mi run. I trained my tail off for that. Was in the best shape of my life. Still hurt the whole time. I loved it, because I'm broken (except for the run, I do not love the run), but man it hurt. I got through on training and faith. I believed. I can take another step. I am strong enough. I do have a water table coming. I will nom on a gummy bear for some sugar. They hurt. You survive through the hurt because you have to.

Right now all of us are having tech problems. I can't log in, why am I muted, what's the website, I forgot my password, what icon did you click on I don't see it, why can't I hear you, who left this comment in Classroom, we have to learn what program now and why? The kids will adapt. They will learn. Every year I spend the beginning of my year walking slowly through all of these issues in person and by October zip zap look at that everyone is doing what they need. This isn't every year. The timeline for everything is expanded this year. I'm hoping November we get there. That's a long time. I have to have faith. I have to be preaching to my students and their parents and instilling that faith in them. We can find the way. We will celebrate the small steps. We will find mind games and tricks to get us through the year as best as we can.

Now I will also grant that it's so very easy to say "have faith". It's so very reductive to bring what this year will be down to "it's a marathon." I agree. Metaphors are never perfect fits, they're meant to illustrate a point, not define it. It's going to take collaboration and self-care and support and a million other things too.

But if we don't have faith that even though distance teaching is fucking hard it's the best fucking option we have open to us, I don't know what we have.

It's what I got. I gotta have faith.

*If you do Google it, it's not the first result. It's Google's "Did you mean?" result. But still, don't google it.

** Honestly, I do not know why I don't get asked to write for major education publications.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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, September 15, 2020

What's the Plan? (OR The First Week Cometh)



Today was supposed to be the first day of school.

I guess technically the first day of school was supposed to be a few weeks ago. But then the pandemic happened and we had to swap to distance learning. So we were given more time to plan for that. More on that in a minute.

So why wasn't today the first day? That's easy. 

Most of my state is on fire. 

As I type this all the windows in my home are sealed shut and there's a wet towel wedged into the crack at the bottom of the front door to keep smoke out. It still tastes like fireplace in here. My kids haven't been outside in I don't know how many days because the air quality is so bad the air quality measure online is pegged to the right and literally says, this is not a joke, "Off The Meter." Bad does not begin to describe the air quality. Imagine being trapped in a small car with a chain-smoking Keith Richards on a cross-country road trip, and he recently switched to unfiltered.

It's bad here. Others have it worse, people have lost their homes, their places of business, their lives and the lives of those near to them. Ours is not the worst. But ours is still bad. Bad enough that "Are you going to have to evacuate?" has been part of the phone calls I've been making to parents for the last week. "Where are you compared to the Level 1 line? How is everyone's breathing?" 

In other words, in the middle of a global emergency, one of the main symptoms of which is trouble breathing, major fires are making it hard to breathe. Luckily for all of us the United States government does not care at all and has no interest in making anything better. Sometimes trees just explode. Shoulda raked better.

Because the fires are so bad, causing families of students and teachers to be displaced, schools have been enlisted as emergency shelters and the various scheduled material hand-outs have been postponed. So put down your hand, Karen. Just because we are teaching from home, and we're all trapped at home now by fire and COVID-19, does not mean teaching can happen. Parents haven't had a chance to pick up computers, iPads, books, supplies, and whatnot. Teachers who were planning on teaching from their classrooms, which is an option here, now can't because social distancing has been increased to "STAY INSIDE WHY ARE YOU EVEN DRIVING WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU YOU CAN CHEW THE AIR RIGHT NOW." 

Or, in teacher parlance, an inequitable situation has now been made even more inequitable. This, though, isn't the fault of the system. Well, it's the fault of this part of the system. But that part did all the inequities on purpose. Because white supremacy*. 

All of this is a long lead in to say that the first day of school, normally a fairly stressful day even in a normal year, is incredibly stressful right now. I am starting my fifteenth or sixteenth year of teaching (yes, I should know and I could count, but does it really matter?) so I've done the first year a few times. I've felt confident and good at it for a while. I'm established enough at my school that, and I say this without ego, students coming up to my class know me and are excited to join me. They think they know what they're getting into even. They don't really, but that's ok. 

All that to say- What the hell am I going to do for the first day of school this year? Ignore the first week, just Day One.

Here's the problem, my friends- Schedules have changed and changed and changed again over the last three weeks of planning, meetings, trainings, and questions. So many questions. We're supposed to be teaching synchronously three or four times a day. For those of you not in the know, that means all 30-some-odd of my students are supposed to go to their school-issued Chromebook at 8:30am, long-in, and join me and everyone else in a Google Meet. We will Do School for a while, then they'll log off the meeting to work independently while I Do Other School. Then at 10:30 they'll all log back in and we'll Do More School. That happens for a while then they log out of the meeting and small groups happen, independent learning happens, whatever. Then there is one more block of time where everyone gathers in a Meet to Do School. Then they do more independent work.

I did not make this schedule. I suspect none of my peers (or my union or any parents of students) were in the room or consulted when this schedule was finalized. That's a different conversation for another time. 

The fact of the matter moving forward right now is on Monday at 8:30am we're supposed to have The First Day. We've been told not to try to teach content for a few weeks, but just social emotional learning lessons and tech procedures (something I'll get into in a minute). So what to do, what to do?

I'm going to be completely honest with all of you- I'm not going to follow the prescribed schedule on the first day. Or the second. I'm not. I don't think it's the best way to start the school year, I don't think it'll set the tone I want for my class, so I'm not going to do it.

Here's how the year normally starts in my class. (I should note that this has worked in third, fourth, and fifth grade. So if you teach tiny ones and you're shaking your head I get it, it might not work for you. I think it could, but I've never taught that size child.)

- My desks are in groups of four or five. There are probably six groups like this around the room.

- There is no seating chart. I greet every child at the door, shake their hand (ain't doing that anymore, foot taps all the way now), and tell them to find a seat. They ask where they're supposed to sit. Or a parent does. I say, "At a desk, please. Pick one, make a good choice." The kid is excited. The parent is not (some of the time). This has a purpose- My class is built on trust. This is the first act of trust. I will not control your body even in this. The very first act you do in this class will be your own. It might be a poor choice. That's ok. We're learning here. 

- Once everyone is in we immediately move to the Spaghetti and Marshmallow Tower Challenge. Every group is given ten strands of raw spaghetti and ten tiny marshmallows. They are told that together, as a team, they must make a free-standing tower. I don't tell them it's a contest to make the tallest one. They do assume that though. The second act they undertake in our class is collaborative work they' excited about. They talk. They plan. They test and try and fail and rebuild and laugh and start to bond. Our class is built on planning and communication and testing and trying and failing and rebuilding.

- We play the Name Game. The Name Game goes like this- You must choose an adjective that starts with the same letter as your first name and that describes you. Mine would be "Dashing Doug." Yes, I tell them my first name, why wouldn't I? They know to call me Mr. Robertson. Now here is the fun part- We go around the room and the first person says their name. Dashing Doug. The second person says the first person's name and then their name. Dashing Doug. Amazing Amanda. The third person says the first person's name, the second person's name, and their name. Dashing Doug. Amazing Amanda. Cool Chris. And so on. It is a joy to watch the feat in front of them dawn across their faces. Especially the kids at the final group of desks. I will, of course help. But the goal is you must listen to every single person in the room. You must hear their names, the way they pronounce them, over and over and over. You must say it right. After the last person goes I go. Because now I know everyone's name and face and it has only been an hour. Then I open it up. There's always a kid in the first group who wants to run the table. I challenge them, do it backwards. By the time The Name Game is over no one has any excuse for calling a classmate "Him over there in the red shirt" or mispronouncing a name. 

There is more to the first day, of course. But that's the start. See how much is set up in those few activities? They are foundational to our room. I will bring those things back over and over through the course of the year. Everything sends a message.

How in the green hell am I supposed to do this through Google Meets?

I don't know.

So here's my plan, and here's why I'm going to immediately not follow the prescribed schedule and shhh, don't tell my boss. 

I have been telling my parents in calls and emails that there will be six Google Meets over Monday and Tuesday, three each day. I've told them the times. And I've told them their student must come to one of the six. But only one is required. They can come to as many as they want. I'd love it if they came to all six, because then they will for sure meet everyone in their class this year. I'm calling it the Trickle In Start until I can come up with a better name that I can slap an acronym on and write a book about. This way coming to class basically starts as a choice. Who will decide to come more than once? Will the kids who come more than once encourage their peers to come more than once? Which parents will force their kids to come every time? What tech issues are hiding that I can fix with ten kids instead of 30? 

I want to know. Because I don't know how this is going to work.

What will we do during this time? Probably some variation of the Name Game, but it won't be as fun because the kids will have their names displayed. It will probably changed over the six Meets, which might provide motivation to keep coming. 

I'll introduce myself and display a Google Tourbuilder I have that talks about my journey from my hometown of Palmdale, CA to here in Gresham, OR. We will talk about how their summer's were. I'll bite my tongue in half as students talk about visiting with friends and traveling and how some of their parents were for sure not being the kind of safe and responsible we all hope everyone is being. I might let other kids ask about that though. Respectfully. We're not going to get into rules too deeply, I hate starting with rules. Welcome to class, here's how you need to be controlled. Bleh. Bad messaging. We'll probably play a Kahoot.

On the first day everyone is supposed to be in a Meet, the we'll build the rules. Maybe with a Padlet. My normal rule procedure is I make the kids list every single tiny little rule they can think of and I write them all down. I fill over writing space with their rules. Then I tell them we all have to memorize everything that has been written so we know. They don't like that. So we start searching for overlaps and possible combinations. We look for positive statements instead of negative ones. It all boils down to Be Responsible, Be Respectful, Be Safe, Make Good Choices. And then, because it amuses me to quote Pulp Fiction in my class, I tell them that there is one overarching rule to remember, that even if they can't remember those four rules they can certainly remember one- Be Cool.**

I think I'm going to do this online by ignoring the district-created curriculum around setting online learning procedures. They did this last year for four months. They know. Let's make a Padlet of all the procedures and rules a class needs to be effective in distance learning. Now let's simplify simplify simplify until it's clearly understood and easy to remember and, most importantly, created by the class, not by me and not by some person in the district office that didn't think to call me when she was making these rules up in the first place. 

So that's my plan for starting the school year from home during a pandemic while wild fires smolder in our backyards. 

Oh! Real quick, because I promised. You can totally teach procedures, social emotional learning, and content at the same time. That's literally the message of STEAM. If you can take silos away from Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math you can take them away from "This is how we log into our online classroom" and "This is what we're going to be learning about" and "How are you feeling?" I promise you can. I do that every year too. Messages are stickier when they are wrapped in useful context.

I want to also state that all of these plans for online learning might burn down, fall over, and sink into the swamp. Always a possibility. In which case I'll build another castle. 

How is your year starting? 

*If you're reading this and you got to that part and rolled your eyes with a "Ugh, Doug. Must you make this political?" Yes. I must. Call it what it is, confront it, and fix it. Education destroys ignorance. And if you think white supremacy doesn't exist I'd really appreciate it if you never support anything I do or create ever. Kthxbye.

** Yes, I know that's Pulp Fiction quoting Happy Days, but in my head I see Jules telling Ringo to tell Honey Bunny to be cool.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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.

Monday, September 7, 2020

I Never Metacognition I Didn't Like


It's pretty On Brand™ for me to quote underrated musical genius "Weird Al" Yankovic, but I'm going to do it anyway. This is not an exact quote but more along the lines of what he said. I heard it on one podcast or another and it struck me as true and useful so I saved it in my little mental file cabinet is Useful Quotes To Remember. And, because it's me, of course it's not just a pithy saying but an entire short anecdote so that the pithy saying at the end has context and is actually sticky and useful. Here's the story he told, as best as I can remember it-

Being a creative person can be hard sometimes especially when you have kids. I was sitting on the couch one day while I was working on this album and my child came up to me and asked me to come play with her. And I said I couldn't because I was working, and she gave me the strangest look. I realized it was because all I was doing was staring into space. But that's a lot of what creative work looks like It looks like spacing out.

If I were to insult your intelligence by summarizing what you just read for you into an easily shareable, hopefully viral meme format, it would be "Sometimes creating looks like spacing out." But I won't do that because both Al and I have more faith in your than that. 

This is on hundred percent my process. Or at least part of my process. I either sit and stare at nothing while talking to myself or I move all over while scribbling useless and illegible notes on scraps of paper while talking to myself. And sometimes my process for creativity is sitting down at my computer with no ideas and forcing myself to type until something worth exploring comes out. I call all of these "mining for ideas." One of my favorite metaphors for creating is thinking, and I know this isn't technically true but that's why it's a metaphor and not a fact, that no one delivers the block of marble to the sculptor. You, as the creator, have go to the quarry and mine the marble for yourself, you have to drag it back to your shop, and you have to beat it into a giant rectangular prism. And that's all before you can start actually working on turning it into whatever it's going to be. Now all the mining and hauling can be the homework you have to do, or the brainstorming, or the prep work. It's the gathering of mental materials. Then you can actually start going at the block of marble with your chisel. And even then that's just the rough draft. Once you release the Thing from the marble it's still not done. You go at the marble with finer and finer chisels and files and rags until you have removed the last piece of excess marble. Then you're done. 

Often the going to the quarry to mine looks like sitting on the couch (or chair or whatever) staring into space. The mental gathering of energies.

From there the next thing I think about is teaching. I do a lot of spacing out after school. That's how I lesson plan. That's how projects come to me. If you work with me (and the world isn't ending like it currently is) and you come into my classroom after the kids are gone chances are high you'll be met with me scowling at nothing while something that sounds like death metal to you* blasts out of my computer. That's what working looks like.

Unless I'm actively teaching. Then it happens very quickly because you can't space out for too long in front of 30 fourth graders. Trust me on that. I have learned to trust my instincts and listen when the little cricket that lives in my pocket goes, "WAITAMINUTE! Wait...One...Second..." My students learn it quickly. I stop talking, freeze, point up at nothing, look into the middle distance, smile slightly, and then 'Ok, no...wait...ok...put away your books- NO DON'T you'll need them. Push your books to the side. Ok!" Then we do a thing. That's spacing out at warp speed.

Which brings us all the way around to the most important part of teaching- The money and drugs Students!  

If I know that creating for me looks like spacing out for who knows how long, and I'm constantly asking my kids to think creatively and push their boundaries, how can I expect thinking to look any different? So often we, and I include myself in this of course, know what "think time" means but we forget that time moves at different speeds in different places in the classroom. 

It is so tricky to know when a kid is spacing out (ie "I wonder what I'll do on Minecraft after school...") versus thinking (ie "So if this math problem works like this, then this next one..."). They look the same on the outside, but they look different on every person.  Like I said, my Resting Think Face is a scowl, probably because I'm annoyed at stupid brain come on get it together let's go. But it could just as easily be a more slack-jawed, wide-eyed look. Or have a half-lidded sleepy vibe. Or it could look like Work. Like if you asked an amateur actor to play Thinking, the face they would make. Kinda constipated, but not to a panicked level yet. Constipated but making progress.** Those kids you see and think "Ah, she's working." But she might be in Minecraft too! We don't know.

A theme of this school year is going to be Patience and Grace, but think time should always be filled with Patience and Grace and that's hard because we have places to go and things to cover. We all know 30 kids don't learn at the same rate but we do our best to make it happen because that's the system we work in and it's not perfect but it's the best we've come up with so far. What does your thinking face look like? What does your spaced out face look like? How can someone around you tell if you're mentally solving complex equations or thinking, "You know, I don't care what anyone says- I really like vanilla ice cream." 

I have to remind myself of this all the time. Not just when I'm blasting "Weird Al". Because I forget. But I have gotten pretty good at it. Unless it's early in the year and I don't know the kids yet. Then I have no idea what thinking looks like to them. This, by the way, is a conversation I have with my students (minus the constipation thing, but I make the face and they get it anyway because some humor is universal). I tell them I am trying to figure out what their work style is.

BUT I'M IN CLASS WITH THEM FOR THAT! What am I going to do this year? What does thinking look like online? How do I teach cognition skills from my office when they're in their homes? How can I learn to look at a kid on Meets and know what or if they're thinking. Or did their screen freeze? Or is that really their thinking face and it looks like a frozen screen?

Patience and Grace as teachers relearn instincts we've honed over years of work. Patience and Grace with ourselves because we are going to miss so many cues we would have caught in class. It's going to be so much harder to find the kids that had a tough morning or a bad lunch or have something really exciting to share but they're too polite to chime in with it and besides they don't know how much to trust me because humans aren't really built to make close connections through a screen. 

What does your thinking look like? Maybe we could ask our students if they know what their thinking looks like? I do that during my conversation and the kids all strike funny poses. Then we do it again and I ask them to try and be a little more serious the second time and they do because they got to play once. 

I'll have to think on it...

*It probably won't be death metal, I don't like much straight death metal. It might be melodic death metal, or maybe black metal, or maybe blackened trash, or perhaps experimental jazz black metal, or maybe Taylor Swift or "Weird Al". 

** no idea why I'm not paid to write for bigger education publications

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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, September 1, 2020

Mental Health Math


Welcome to the hardest year of every teacher's career. I think we can all agree on that. The most fun thing about that statement is, for many of us, the year hasn't even started yet. For the rest of us it's still as fresh as a Prince of Bel Aire. And yet, if you asked 100 random teachers what the hardest year of their teaching career was, 98% of them would say the 2020-2021 school year. Two percent would kick you in the shin and walk away in a huff.

I, of course, can only speak for myself. I have found, through this blog and through my books, that my experiences are often more universal that I give them credit for. So while I don't pretend to know for certain how everyone is feeling and coping, I can tell you how I'm feeling and coping (read: pretending to cope) in hopes that you find some common ground and at least feel less alone. Teaching is a solitary pursuit, no matter how good your grade level team, your staff, your extended community on social media, we're all in this alone. Just us and the kids. I would bet that's how most of us prefer it most of the time. Sometimes, though...sometimes all that does it make it hard to tell if we've gone right round the bend or not. When there ain't nobody in here but us chickens how do you know when you clucking eggs are scrambled?

So how am I feeling? And, by the commutative property laid out in the previous paragraph, how might you be feeling?

I am of two minds. Two minds that are actually three. Picture, if you will, a circle. Hold that image in your head. It could be a square or a rectangle if you must be that kid. Draw a line down the diameter of the circle, perfectly bisecting it. (You square/rectangle people- just cut it in half.) You now have two halves. Hopefully I'm not leaving anyone behind yet. Now, perpendicular to that line, draw another line, breaking one of the halves in half. You should have one full half, and two quarter sections. 

Let's start with the full half section. I want you to label that section the title of this post. Yes, I see you writing "The Title Of This Post." You're very funny, everyone laughed. You know what I meant. Call it "Free Fallin'" please. And let's shade it in blue. You know, like the sky that we're falling through. 

I feel overwhelmingly like I'm free falling. My district has a strong leader at the top, and many strong links in the chain of command from the top all the way down to the school level. Nearly every link is strong, competent, and capable. That is not enough for this year. This year, even with a great team at the top, excellent coaches, and principals who are doing their level best, things are not coming together like they should be. I know we are not alone in this. I do not know why every district feels the need to make the same mistakes as their cousin districts. I feel like most of us could be watching the districts that opened first while taking copious notes and asking many questions in detailed emails, then taking that information back home and not falling into some of those same pits. I also do not know why some districts have not involved teachers in the planning process from the beginning. I want to be clear again here that I like my district very much and I respect much of our leadership and I know this is an impossible position they have been put in by Cheeto Hitler and Dolores Umbridge (Hey, what's the difference between Betsy DeVos and Dolores Umbridge? At least Umbridge wasn't scared to walk into a school. And Umbridge was written to be an awful human, Betsy comes by it on her own.)

But because there hasn't been much teacher feedback and input into the process a lot of the information we're now getting feels incomplete or unfeasible. Much of it doesn't seem like it will survive that first week with students. Now, I am not a person who expects something new to work the first time. Or even the first few times. But I am the guy who will be standing in the front, along with my fellow teachers, when the fecal matter strikes the ventilator. And I'm not looking forward to clean up on aisle 14 for however long that takes. 

I think things could have been done better. What things is a different post and requires a much deeper level of specificity than I'm willing to get into right now. I also acknowledge that "I could help do things better" is an amazingly egotistical thing to say and I do not in any way know what would make things easier for middle or high school. Those worlds are mysteries to me. But I would bet that there are teachers at those levels who feel like I do and with our powers combined we could create Captain FigureItOut. 

Without all of that I'm in freefall. Freefall without a chute that I packed myself. Someone packed it. I saw bits and pieces of how it was packed. It's not how I would have packed it. Now I'm falling and starting to think about grasping for that ripcord and I don't know what's going to happen when I pull it.

Which leads me to the first of the two quarter sections of our circle. Let's keep getting negative so we can end on a positive note. Color this section red, please. Name it "WTF Am I Gonna Do?"

This part of my brain is overwhelmed with What Am I Gonna Do? I keep stumbling over my pre-planning because everything I do, my entire classroom environment, is built on being in the room with the kids. Giving them access to the materials and time they need to learn how I believe they will learn best. Allowing myself to drift free on the winds of whim and inspiration. Surfing atop piles of cardboard as we take the boring story in the Journey's book and turn it into a week-long build that allows for deeper learning than we would have gotten otherwise. Starting the year with spaghetti and marshmallow towers that immediately sets the tone for how groups will work collaboratively and how every activity will be tied to deeper and more complex educational ideas than they can even glimpse on that first day, but I know what's coming and how the project will echo all year. 

I can't do that from home. Some well meaning person on twitter suggested I make regular packets of materials to send home to kids so I'm not burdening the parents to buy things or have things and that's great. Completely unrealistic, but great. Because yes, if they were in my room I'd be buying these supplies. I'd be supplying them (see what I did there?). But I'm not paying bi-weekly postage for thirty-something kids. I can't. Cheeto Hitler has stolen all the mailboxes anyway. 

So what am I gonna do, man? How on Earth can I pivot my class to completely online and do anything like what I normally do? Be anything like the teacher I am? Build relationships, establish bonds and trust, read the body language that kids speak fluently (but each one speaks differently, and it takes time to learn to translate). How, man? I'm panicked. I'm freaking out about a lot right now. And let's not even bring up that my parent brain is also freaking out about my second grader and my kindergartner going through the same thing downstairs with my wife while I'm upstairs doing it with my class. Let's pretend that that hooey about "leave your personal life at the door" is a real thing people can do. Even though for distance learning the door is my house. So the metaphor falls apart immediately. 

Let's look at that last quarter of the circle. Yes, or square or rectangle, I didn't forget about you I was just ignoring you. What do we label this possible saving section? The only part of my teaching brain that is keeping me from full blown DEFCON One hiding under my desk and rocking back and forth. Let's call it "I Thrive Under Pressure."

I've never encountered a year like this. None of us has. Anyone who says they know what they're doing is lying. *Looks back a few paragraphs when I say I could help solve this* I said "help solve", not "I know exactly what to do." Anyone telling you they know how to teach and build relationships and weather this distance learning storm, anyone who says that with full confidence while looking you in the eye, is a liar and should never be trusted to petsit a goldfish. They don't know.

What I do know, though, is that I'm a good dancer. 

In my head that's how I think of what we do when we encounter a bunch of unknown problems. When the classroom is going to hell and nothing is working. We dance. I dance. I search for any beat, any flow, and I try to follow it. I stay light on my feet, I listen for the changes and watch my (thirty-something) partners for clues to when they want to lead. This year I'm gonna have to be Ginger Rogers. Yes, Ginger. Look up what Fred Astaire said about what she was doing when they danced together. This is a quote you should know. 

I can, too. I'm good under pressure. When the room is going bad and the coffee isn't working and the air conditioner is broken and it's the week it rains randomly right before recess every single day and I forgot my lunch at home and the kids have had enough, I know how to teach. I can find a way. That's all I've got right now. 


I've got faith that I know what I'm doing. I know I don't, not this year. But I know I can figure it out because I have to. I know it'll be bad. I know it won't go right all the time. I know I'm gonna be banging my head against my desk and I'm going to be working myself silly to be sure my parents don't hate me and hate what their kids are being asked to do and to be sure my kids don't hate this kind of school. I don't know how yet. I have glimmers. Sparks. Embers. I haven't chased them yet because they're still formless. I'm in freefall too. Nothing on the classroom level can be planning with any detail yet because I'd be best laying plans like a mice or a man. Man plans, unpredictable wifi laughs. 

But I'm pretty sure there are some rabbits in my hat. (There was one of two places I could pull an idea out of and I went with that one. You're welcome.) I don't know where the rabbits are, what they look like, or how fast they'll run off. But every year I doubt my ability to teach and every year I can.

I was telling my therapist that I have anxiety in a lot of situations. I wrote about this too, not long ago. I have helpless anxiety nearly everywhere except in my classroom. I do not get anxious in class. Ever. I'm clinging to that right now, my friends and readers. Holding tightly to it. Because I am anxious. I'm not sleeping. I'm snappy. I'm stressed. I'm way more negative about way more things than I'd like to be. And I know the why for all of that. I bet we're all feeling it. Yours might be manifesting differently than mine, but I bet it's there. 

So I'm going to cling to the rock of Faith in Myself in the middle of these rapids. I'm going to get dunked and half drowned and rolled and bruised. But all I've got right now is that rock. 

I hope you have a rock. If you don't you can borrow mine. We can do this. It's gonna be rough. It's just starting. But we're good teachers. So we can feel our feelings, but inside hold that rock tight. It's only a quarter of my brain, but it's all I've got working for me right now.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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, May 12, 2020

Monday, February 10, 2020

Hiding Behind Bad Jokes

Let's clear something up right now: Putting "Satire" or "Funny observations" does not absolve you of the responsibility of being coherent and responsible in your education tweets. For every anonymous education account that tweets well there are a dozen that are terrible at it.

That's right, friends and readers- this is a blog about education twitter. Strap in.

There are more anonymous education twitter accounts that I prefer to think about. Most of them hide behind handles like @LOLTeacherProblems or @MindYourMindset or @YourDumbAdmin. They have bios full of weasel words like, "meant to amuse" or "these are jokes" or "satire" or "just observations meant to be inspirational". Things that attempt to distance them from the content of their feeds or brush off tweets as "just jokes" as protection.

Here's the problem with that- "Jokes" are not the same thing as "complaining about your job and/or students with a winky face". It's just not. I get wanting to complain. I get wanting to have a space to do that freely. I don't think that is a bad thing in and of itself. Where my problem lies is when the account, framed as a source of insight or comedy, supplies neither. The funny isn't that hard. Correction- One funny isn't that hard. Three funnies, especially about teaching (an incredibly funny profession), aren't that hard. An entire account dedicated to the funny? That's hard. Before deciding you should create an anonymous account with all your clever education observations try to be sure you have more than a half dozen of them. Because once the well runs dry you'll still have that account sitting there and you and I both know you'll want to use it.

What happens to those accounts? Let's take two recent examples. I'm not going to call either account out by handle because that sucks, and I'm not going to link to the tweets. I won't link to the tweets because both accounts have since deleted the tweets under pressure of push back. Not bullying, push back. Response in a public forum to what they said publicly. One even wrote a (terrible) non-apology, then deleted that, then deleted an even worse poor me apology, then deleted that. Courage of your convictions and whatnot, I guess.

The first account example frames themselves as a funny account. "Check me out, I have clever things to say." Most of the tweets are boring at best and sucrose or cotton candy at worse. Until the account decided to post (I'm paraphrasing) "You know what I hate about my students? When they use slang." The they gave an example of a slang phrase that literally anyone would say (and did), "Wait, are you mocking the way a student of color speaks?" That's a problem, but maybe the account could have added context. That's not what happened. What happened was the tweet went mini-viral and pretty soon (white) teachers all over were adding the annoying things their students say that also sounded like they were singling out students of color. This thread got longer and longer and more and more racist. Like openly, easily racist. And when the account who started it all was called on it they got defensive, they started blocking people (not me, even though I straight out called them racist in an RT to 21.7k people, but accounts run by teachers of color did get blocked). Eventually they deleted the tweet and posted the two non-apologies I mentioned earlier.

There's a lot of problems with this. First off, if the student's quote was taken out of context it's the responsibility of the account posting it to provide the context needed and asked for. Secondly, and this is more important, if the responses to your thread get increasingly more racist it's your job to shut that down or at least try. There should be replies from you to the offenders telling them what's not welcome in no uncertain terms. An artist can absolutely cull their followers. I point to the easiest example- Nirvana post-Nevermind. Nevermind was the biggest album on the planet and Nirvana exploded into places they never wanted to be, and suddenly people who should never have been in their fandom found them and decided to like them. So on the next album, In Utero,  they put this in the liner notes.

"If any of you hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us- leave us alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."

You can't control who buys your stuff or follows you, but you can be very clear who and what is unwelcome. The second a twitter thread you start becomes toxic it's on you to at least try to stop that. "But I'm just trying to be a funny twitter account." Sorry dude, you started this, now own what you said.

The second type of account I want to talk about isn't sure what they want to be. They want to be funny, sure, but they also know that fauxspiration goes a long way towards those sweet sweet interaction metrics. So they will post what I suppose is supposed to be funny and mix in a nice helping of pablum and platitudes. The best kind of platitude? The kind teachers in February really want to hear? "Exhaustion means you're working hard. Being exhausted means you're a good teacher."

Holy crap, we're still doing this? I'm more of a martyr than you because I'm more tired? I love my kids more because I hate myself more? Pain makes teachers great? This is not a Thing! It has never been a Thing. Stop trying to make exhausted happen, Gretchen, or you can't sit with us anymore.

Again, lots of push back. Lots of tired, concerned teachers feeling the need to raise their hands and go, "Uh, this is a bad narrative and you should stop."

"Jeez, you guys are all so mean. I'm just trying to *mumble mumble argle bargle*." Hiding behind inspiration and, when that fails, hiding behind "it's supposed to be funny." If it's supposed to be funny then it ought to be. Don't be Ricky Gervais. It's possible to be shocking or edgy and funny, not just preachy and obnoxious.

As a bonus type of account, we have the sunshine and rainbows ones that pretend at understanding mindset but only to the depth of a splash pad in mid-winter. I saw, and I swear this is true, an account about mindsets tweet "Feeling overwhelmed? Switch to excitement! Don't think you have to do it, think you get to do it!" Oh, that's all it takes to stop feeling this tired and overwhelmed? It's just a mindset issue? "You're depressed? Have you tried not being depressed?" This reduction of depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, and exhaustion to simple "Well you just aren't trying hard enough to be happy" wouldn't fly on My Little Pony (one of the best cartoons about friendship and relationships and conflict out there today)*.

I want to make note that I'm not going to go after the anonymous part of these accounts, just their content. Honestly, I would rather everyone speak with their own face because that forces you to stand behind what you say, but I also understand the reality of some school districts and how some teachers might not feel safe speaking their truth with their face exposed. So, while I prefer to say everything with my face and voice out there in the open, I understand why some don't and I won't fault them for it.

Keep the focus on content. Education twitter accounts of the world- I cannot tell you how to tweet (the last thousand words to the contrary, I know). What I can tell you is what we see and how it makes us feel. Oversimplification, reduction, and hiding behind "It was just a joke, omg" are weak covers that do nothing to disguise a lack of content. Not to say everything everyone says on education twitter needs to have some deeper meaning. Imma tweet about Star Trek and my kids and my band and music I like as much as I tweet about education. But my bio doesn't pretend that I'm anything other than that.

Satire isn't that hard. Funny isn't that hard. Inspiration can't be that hard. Pretend I went to Target, browsed through the cards for a long time, and mailed you one that said, "Get better." Not because you're sick, but because you'r not very good at this.

*The Mane Six ranking goes 1) Pinkie Pie 2) Rainbow Dash 3) Rarity 4) Twilight Sparkle 5) Fluttershy 6) Applejack. No I will not be taking questions about this except to say Rarity sometimes jumps to number two because she's secretly the funniest pony. and The Great and Powerful Trixie is the best re-occurring pony because the idea of a stage magician in a world with actual magic is freaking hilarious and Trixie calls herself "The Great and Powerful Trixie" in the third person and I want to adopt that.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Learning to Fret Less (OR A Post About Bass, Projects, and Risk)

If you are a regular reader of this blog or of my twitter feed then you're probably aware I spend a lot of time talking about Making in the classroom. STEAM is one of my teaching passions and I feel very strongly that there is no learning like hands-on, get it wrong, then reflect on what you learned and generalize it to everything else learning. I do not ignore the textbooks in my classroom, I'm not an extremist who thinks ditching normal tools makes sense, but I do lean hard in the Explore And Do To Learn camp. I love telling my students that they're going to make a cardboard arcade and then stepping aside and letting them figure it out over four days. I love fielding student questions like, "How do I make this arcade game do this thing I want it to do?" with "I dunno, I've never made a game that does that. Draw out what you think, building it, then revise it until it works." It's the same reason I like teaching coding. Coding is all about revision and generalization of rules.

I love watching my students do this. I love the risk I feel I'm taking as a teacher by letting them do these things.

But is it a risk? I mean, I believe in this method. I have actual years of experience doing it with students. I've seen the positive results over and over. I have faith in the process even in the midst of freaking out about the process not working this time. I call it a risk because making often throws a classroom into what looks like chaos, but it's really a messy but controlled working environment. Making in the classroom isn't a real risk for me.

Especially since I'm not the one making anything. I'm supervising.

If you're not a teacher who does a lot of making you might think this is a strange way to do things. "I wouldn't have my students do anything I wouldn't do" and all that. But here's the thing- there's a lot to watch and be aware of when a classroom full of kids are making something. When I'm making something I need to focus. It's kinda the same reason I don't silently read when my kids silently read. I wouldn't be able to stop when the timer went off. I wouldn't be able to stop working on my thing to help a student deal with whatever their thing is. Also, students tend to follow their teacher's lead, even independent students. They are trained to assume that the way you're doing something is the "right" way. So I don't do anything, unless a specific skill needs to be modeled. I don't let them just drown. I'm the teacher, after all.

But here's a secret about me- I'm super confident about making things out of cardboard. Cardboard is easy and cheap. However, I get kinda freaked out making things that are real. I don't like changing my own oil and I'd rather pay someone. If I go to IKEA and buy a flurgenshiglet my wife will be the one to build it because she likes that kind of thing. I'm just now learning to love Lego. My "creating" creativity happens at a keyboard and, more recently, on my electric bass.

Which is why when I got the wild hair to turn my cheap starter bass into a fretless I had significant concerns. What if I screw up my bass? What if I do it wrong? I don't know how to do this, I've never done it before.

You know, excuses I wouldn't tolerate from my kids.

I prefer the direct human touch to YouTube tutorials, so after watching a dozen how-to videos that ranged from a five minute video of "I Used A Kitchen Knife To Make A Fretless Bass" to "Part Seven of Fifteen: Choosing the Proper Sand Paper" I texted a buddy of mine about it and it turned out he'd done it before. Through a longish, patient text conversation he convinced me that it wouldn't be that hard, I could do it, it's pretty cheap, and he'd be a phone call away if I needed it.

That's all it took. I'm hesitant to start projects like this, but I'm also of the personality that when I decide I'm going to do something I jump directly in and go. I decided I was going to do it on Thursday night, and Friday after school I hit the craft store for supplies and, after putting the Weirdlings to bed, got to work.

A little context for those of you who might not know what I'm talking about- guitars and basses are fretted instruments. The frets are those metal bars that go up the neck. They allow the player to know where the notes are and they cause the note to ring out in tune as the string is pressed against them. A fretless instrument has, as I'm sure you've figured out from the clever name, no frets. You can buy a fretless where the neck was built without them or, if you don't have the cash to throw around on a new-to-you instrument, you can convert a fretted instrument into a fretless by, well....pulling the frets out with pliers and filling in the gaps.

See the silver lines? Those are frets.

The first fret removal. It has begun.

It's a pretty straightforward process. You might be able to see where my trepidation would come in though. I own two basses- this one, which was my first bass and cost, along with a tiny practice amp and a junk gig bag, just over $200, and a Geddy Lee Signature Series Jazz bass that cost a lot more. So I only have two, my good one and my old back-up. I'd rather not ruin the back-up. But if I'm going to experiment on something it ain't the nice one. And this is a way of revitalizing an old, kinda junk instrument without getting rid of it or spending a ton of money on it (I think there's an education metaphor here too).

The frets are held in with some glue, so I took our clothes iron, set it on high, and heated up each fret. Then, using needle nose pliers, I gently wiggled the fret free. Repeat 22 times. Next, I bought a sheet of 1/32" basswood, the narrowest sheet available. I still had to sand down both the fret gap and the sheet of basswood, then cut it into small slats which filled the gaps. I added a tiny bit of superglue just to be sure nothing would move, but those things were in there tighter than a [REDACTED].

Once the whole neck was filled in I had to trim the pieces shorter and then go at it with progressively finer sandpaper. I started with heavy grit to cut down the tall slats and as they got closer to the neck switched to finer and finer grit. It still took quite a bit of sanding and I know I took some width off the neck in the process, which is ok because the bass kind of had a baseball bat neck to begin with.

What's nice about this process is once you're here you can't screw it up any more. Like, you can, but it's too late to fix it or take it back, so I could relax and go to it with the sandpaper.

By the time I finished the neck was nearly perfect. It's still not perfectly smooth, which means I will occasionally get some weird buzzing, but the friend who talked me through the process to begin with is sending me a radius block that I can use to finish the sanding. I also need to file down the nut *waits for the giggling to stop* which is the metal post at the head of the neck that keeps the strings in place. When the neck had frets the nut was fine, but I was pressing the strings down onto the frets, not the neck. You wouldn't think that that tiny fraction of an inch would make that much difference, but it does. So when I get the radius block I'll also file the nut to lower the string action and make the bass more comfortable and cleaner to play.

What does all of this have to do with teaching? I constantly challenge my students to take risks. I'm always asking them to do things they don't know how to do and have faith that they'll learn from it. But I rarely do that. Learning to play the bass starting two years ago was a big moment for me in my journey of continuing learning. When do I learn from making? What's STEAM in my life? When did I do something I wasn't sure I knew how to do and used my resources to figure out anyway? Yes, we can be constantly growing our practice by attending conferences and reading new books, but what concrete things are we doing that can reflect in our practice? You cannot expect to put something into the world that you do not first internalize and actualize.

I think this bass will eventually need new electronics, the knobs are rubbish and cheap, and probably new tuners, and then new pick-ups, and maybe a new bridge. Eventually it'll be the Bass of Theseus*. But the thought of dealing with wires and electronics freaks me out. I've never done that before.

Which means I probably should. For myself. And for my kids.

*no, I won't link to it, you Google it if you want to know what I'm talking about

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. 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.