Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Tom Petty- An Education in Rock and Roll


Soundtrack for this post

I'll be honest, tonight I don't want to deconstruct Tom Petty's music. I probably could, but you could probably read more professional rock writers do it better with a simple Google search. I want to celebrate his music. I want to tie it to education, but in the most fun ways possible. Mostly I want to enjoy the songs he gave us.

I want to talk about that guitar part that opens American Girl. And the brilliantly simple drumming in Listen to Her Heart. And how it's physically impossible to not shout "BAY-BEE" in Breakdown.

I want to talk about how Tom Cruise is forever linked to Free Fallin' but I'm ok with that because it's one of the best needle drops in any movie. I want to remember what a weird ass video Runnin' Down a Dream is.

I think Mary Jane's Last Dance is my favorite Tom Petty song, but I don't know why. I think it might be the first song that I realized was his. I think it might be because I discovered the song around the same time I found out that marijuana was sometimes called Mary Jane and then it felt somehow mischievous to sing along with it because omg he's singing about *pot*. (I don't think that's what the sing is actually about now, but it might be.)

And then I realize he also wrote Refugee (with that amazing vocal delivery in the opening verse), Even the Losers, Here Comes My Girl, Don't Do Me Like That, and I Won't Back Down and I just get angry I never got to see him live and have those, "Holy crap, that's right, he wrote this too," moments over and over.

He even got the nod from "Weird" Al, who parodied Stop Draggin' My Heart Around with Stop Draggin' My Car Around.

In writing this I realize that Tom Petty hated the suffix "-ing". Draggin'. Fallin'. Runnin'. Jammin'. It's kind of amazing the song isn't called Waitin' For Tonight.

I don't have a deeper educational point in this post. I don't know if I have any educational point at all. Maybe that we should appreciate the beauty in the simple, and the amount of work it takes to sound so effortless. Maybe it's that what we really need to be inspired is right there in the world around us, and it's up to us to take that world and reflect it back to make it brighter somehow.

Tom Petty will be missed, but his music will live forever.

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 the just released 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

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Pushing Persuasion


The entire lesson felt off. We were working well. The kids were asking good questions and showing effort and learning. They were accomplishing the goals of the lesson.

But still, something was tickling my Teacher Sense.

We'd just finished a story in our reading text book called Off And Running that was all about a class election. (sidebar- This story is harder to read this year because it features a debate between a super-prepared girl and a popular but lackadaisical boy with no ideas. Guess who the students in the story like more. Right.) We had already practiced debating, and the students had done a good job with that. Now we were moving on to other ways to persuade people, this time by creating posters. I went with my first instinct, which isn't normally ideal but sometimes in the day-to-day rush of teaching that's what you (read: I) end up with- I decided to create a mock election for the class. Together we built five possible positions the students could create campaign posters for: Class President, Treasurer, Secretary, Technology Director, and Time Keeper. We sketched out generally what each hypothetical position would entail, the students choose the position they would run for, and got to work.

We weren't actually going to go through with the election, but I was going to let them display their posters and the class would vote on the most persuasive, lending some reality to the process. By letting the kids choose a position to campaign for I was moderately satisfied that there was some student choice, and the kids had helped come up with the list so there was student voice. Still, the whole time the voice in the back of my head was nagging me that this project was pretty mediocre. I didn't get a chance to listen closely to the voice until the students were already rolling and had bought in, which meant by the time I was getting nice and dissatisfied there was plenty of work being done and pulling the plug would have been unfair. I'm not adverse to stopping a project that doesn't work, but this was technically working. I'd create some animosity if I let them work hard for twenty minutes then had them toss the work.

I brooded during lunch. I knew what I wanted them to make persuasive posters about, but I had to persuade myself to go there. It didn't take long to give in.

I like to think I'm a reflective teacher, and it helps to have someone to reflect against. Not in a competitive way, but in a "I look up to your ideas" way. At the top of my What Would X Teach This Like list is Jessica Lifshitz, a fifth grade teacher in Chicago. To put my level of respect mildly, if I could send my own children to anyone's classroom for fifth grade, Jess would be my first, second, and third choice. And our Vote For Me Persuasive Posters did not pass the Jess Test. Jess would push the kids harder. Jess would make the lesson truly real.

At the end of the day I told my kids to take their posters home, finish them, and bring them back the next day. I needed to honor the work that had been done. However. "We are going to try again tomorrow," I said. "I think we can do better. I don't mean you're all doing bad work, you're not. But I could guide us to better, more challenging posters."

The next day I dove in, and the kids were ready. Nothing whets a student's appetite like telling them that you the teacher could help them make something better and more difficult. I announced that Vote For Me was too simple and shallow, and we were better than that. That I know they could push further. "With that in mind we'll be making persuasive posters about real life topics." I would take suggestions, but first I put two seed ideas on the board.

Should phones be allowed in class?

Should athletes be allowed to kneel for the National Anthem?

The room went silent. One kid gave voice to many of their thoughts. "Are we allowed to talk about that in school?"

"I am not allowed to preach at you. I can't tell you what to think. But I'm not. I'm trusting that you're smart, mature fifth graders and you can handle this. I know you have opinions. I've heard them. So defend them."

I wrote the phones one first because I knew some of my kids wouldn't even know about the Anthem controversy. I knew some that did wouldn't want to talk about it. All of them would have an opinion about phones. But my real seed was the second one. This was the real example. When I said I want them talking about real things, I meant it. Inspired by the two seed topics, and with a few false starts and weaker topic ideas - "Should we get free time on the computers?" - we eventually built a fairly strong list.
List- Should phones be allowed in class? Should athletes be allowed to knee during the anthem? Should people be made to recycle? Plastic bags v Paper bags v Cloth bags? Should schools have dress codes? Should schools have uniforms?

Concerns from students melted away as they chose their topics and got to work. It was actually easier this time to get them to write detailed reasons. Part of that, I'm sure, was because this was the second persuasive poster in two days. But I believe the bigger reason is they had something to be passionate about. The two most popular topics were For/Against School Uniforms, a few kids had been in schools with uniforms and they were strongly against, and For/Against Phones In Class. A surprising number of students argued against phones. I'm looking forward to extending those conversations, since most of the reasons revolved around, "Students will be distracted by their phones." "Oh, so you're saying I shouldn't trust you with tech? Or you're saying I shouldn't trust your friends?" And at least two of my girls picked Dress Codes and jumped all over, "Dress codes are always about girls, and never about boys. What's up with that?" Their points, I didn't say anything.


Only two kids went for the Anthem topic. Interestingly enough, they're best friends, or at least best friends in class. And they took opposing sides. They sat next to each other and had a polite conversation as they made their posters, hashing out their views and reasoning. The only guidance I had to give was clarifying the reasons behind the silent protest. I didn't tell them how I felt (of course they should kneel, how is this a debate) They both were struggling with the deeper issues within it, which was the point of the assignment. Most of the students ended up thinking deeper and harder about their posters than they had the day before. We practiced real skills. Success!



I'm not sure if there will be any fallout from this. You never know. Last year I talked about attending a Women's March and had to explain myself to a few parents, but nothing happened. It's possible there will be parents who won't be happy we were thinking about this stuff in class. My admin has my back, and I've got curriculum and standards to stand on. I can't build lessons overly concerned about what parents might say. I keep the parents in mind, but they're behind the kids and the best way to get at the learning. Finding the truth and the real in assignments is one of the big goals of education. Occasionally you need a second chance.

Sometimes you need to turn back not because the road is too difficult, but because it's too easy.

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 the just released 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, October 3, 2017

A Classroom of One


When you have a student teacher you have two classrooms. The classroom you now share, full of children waiting to learn. And the classroom of one, you and your student teacher, also waiting to learn.

The most powerful thing I've done as a teacher is to be a mentor teacher to a student teacher. To bring a future educator into my class and do everything in my power to guide them through those rough seas of early teaching. Every time I've done it I've reflected more fully and more deeply than I do when I'm alone in my room. I'm forced to. It's part of the contract I sign with my student teachers. I will prepare you as best I can to be a teacher all by yourself, and to do that I will expose every form and function of my practice to you in the hopes together we can best understand how to do this thing.

I think I'm a pretty good teacher. I'm not the best, and I've got plenty of weaknesses in my practice. I do everything in my power to be sure that my students get the best possible education, just like anyone reading this does. And just like most of us, I worry about what happens to my students when they leave my room. I wonder how I could leave a bigger imprint in education. Not for myself, not how can I be more EduFamous. But how can I make my ripples bigger?

I believe we need to go to the source. Books and blogs and chats for current teachers are great. People can grow and change. But I want to get to teachers before that. Enter student teachers.

Student teachers are the most malleable of educators. They have no practice, and if they have an educational philosophy it's ripe for refining. I'm not saying they don't know what they want or what kind of teacher they want to be. I am saying that knowing those things and putting them into practice are two different things. By taking on student teachers I, we, can nurture those instincts, hone and sharpen them, and hopefully help them become the teacher they want to be.

I'm not trying to turn my student teachers into me. I am trying to get them past the awkward early years of teaching where you're finding yourself and finding your voice while they're still with a mentor teacher, rather than all alone facing a roomful of kids. To experiment and risk with a net below them. I tell my student teachers, "Try things. Break the class a little. It's ok. We can put it back together." If this becomes habit, then when they are left to their own devices they won't need to learn it. It'll be there.

I wonder if all mentor teachers feel the same. I always hesitate to question how someone else teaches. But I do know from many conversations with student teachers and current teachers that the student teaching experience was not always the most helpful or safe. That many mentor teachers do not feel the way I do about handing their class over to an untested college student. And that is too bad, because it weakens the student teacher, which weakens us as a whole.

A Classroom of One is written for student teachers who are ready to but nervous about taking the leap into teaching. It's also written for mentor teachers and potential mentor teachers who are often not given much guidance from the universities their student teachers are coming from. The purpose of the book is to help both groups grow together, and become stronger.

When we strengthen student teachers and allow them to strengthen ourselves, we better serve our students, current and future.

I am lucky enough to have gotten ten short stories of student teaching from current educators, which are included in A Classroom of One. These contributors are Knikole Taylor, Sarah Windisch, William Chamberlain, Patrick Harris, Josh Stumpenhorst, Megan Schmidt, Rusul Alrubail, Scott Bedley, Shana White, and Jose Vilson. Their input broadened the messages and viewpoints of the book in the best possible ways, and I can't thank them enough.

While the explicitly intended audience for A Classroom of One is mentor and student teachers, I believe there are universal lessons within that would benefit any teacher at any point in their career. And if it inspires you to reach out to your administrator or local university about taking on a student teacher, mores the better for all of us.

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 the just released 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 26, 2017

Data Is My Leg Day

Listen, if I'm writing a post about data, I'm using a picture of Data. That's just science.
As I have written in the past and will probably continue to write, the weakest link in my teaching chain is my ability to best dissect and use data. For many years now my two main self-improvement goals have been 1) Teach math in more interesting, engaging ways, and 2) Be better at data. We can talk about what it might mean that those have been goals of mine for multiple years later. As for now, let it be known that while I continue to try, and I am getting better, I'm still not where I want to be with either.

Data collection and dissection is one of those teacher skills that has never connected fully for me. I simply don't think like that, so whenever I'm presented with a stapled packet of colored graphs and spreadsheets it's a struggle for me to remain fully engaged. Part of my brain always wants to go, "See you at the commercial break. Good luck." I don't indulge this impulse, but it makes staff meetings or PLTs harder than they should be.

My schools recently lost our Title One teacher because of budget gymnastics and various state shenanigans. Naturally, we didn't lose the kids who most need Title One services. Which means all the stuff that teacher used to do has fallen to us. My principal is doing her level best not to drop a million tons of new on us, but she also can't avoid having to lead data meetings that go much deeper than they used to, and making us teachers make calls we never used to have to make because we had an expert on staff who would make those decisions.

Last week we had the first of those meetings. Pages of data was placed in front of myself and my teammates. My admin and another district office person launched into their spiel. I became immediately confused. I took massive notes, trying to keep programs and reasons and numbers and scales straight. I asked questions. I still didn't follow everything. Which is frustrating on multiple levels.

I'm a college-educated educator who fancies himself fairly intelligent. I should get this. This is important for the education of my students. I should get this. They're not going that fast. I should get this. My colleagues seem to be keeping up. I should get this.

Then I was saved. One of the other two members of my grade level team stopped the show. "I'm sorry, I don't feel like I'm being given enough time to make these decisions. Can we slow down, please?" I couldn't help it. I sighed, "Thank you for saying that." I felt like my students with IEPs must feel when I get rolling too hard in class. New appreciation earned. Better reflection engaged. Still lost though.

At the end of the meeting all my red zone and yellow zone kids (*DIGRESSION ALERT- this is the other reason I've struggled with data, it reduces my kids into colored bands. I understand why it does, I get the purpose, I know it can still help. I don't know if I'm using my distaste for this as a justification for my struggles. "My kids aren't colors and numbers, which is good because I totally don't get the colors and numbers thing.") had been placed in reading fluency programs I'm to be putting into practice in class. I did manage to ask to observe my teammates when their programs are in action because I want to be sure what I'm doing is what they're doing. I work with two outstanding teachers, and observing them makes me better.

But I didn't know why my kids had been sorted how they had. I was like that student in class who says, "The answer is 47. Because it is." Not good enough. So once again I did something with my principal I'd never have done with any other administrator I've ever worked with. I went to her and said, "I'm very confused, and I need help." And to her credit she said, "Ok. Thank you for advocating for yourself. Let's meet after school."

Together my student teacher, my principal, and myself stepped slowly through my yellow zone kids again, and the programs suggested for them. I asked specific questions about the data I was presented with. Questions to which a lesser admin would have said, "Aren't you a teacher?", but mine said, "This is only your third year here, isn't it? We had huge training on this stuff, but it was five years ago. I forget in the rush of everything we don't catch all our newer teachers up on this."

I still don't understand everything about everything. I still get an ill feeling in my stomach when I read that we're going to be looking a data in a meeting. A feeling of inadequacy and discomfort. I can talk about student choice and freedom all day. Ask me why I'm doing something in class and I'll talk about how building with cardboard is allowing the students to self-level and work to their ability while pushing themselves and look at the cool stuff they're making, go ahead and ask what they're learning. That's my wheelhouse.

But that's not good enough. I don't need to read another blog, another book on project-based learning. Not right now. Right now I need someone to hold my hand and walk with me into fields of numbers and specific assessments and make sure I don't drown.

Data is the thing I know I need to do but would rather not because it hurts and it'll hurt tomorrow too probably. Data is my leg day.

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 the just released 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 18, 2017

The Second Line


"The first line is easy. It's the second line that's difficult, because it's the second line that give the first line meaning."
-Nick Cave on songwriting

The first lesson of a new topic is relatively easy. Finding that special Into that gets the kids excited, catches their attention, fires them up to know more.

But that second lesson, that's where the teaching is.

It's true with just about anything. Once isn't as painful as you think it will be. Anyone can write one blog post. Go to the gym one time. Take one guitar lesson. Start a diet.

Following through is the hard part. Finding a way to maintain. To do the same thing without doing the same thing. Doing the same thing but finding a new angle to attack it from. I'm not even talking about from year to year. Teaching that lesson again next year isn't that bad. You've got a whole year to (maybe) think about how it went and (perhaps) come up with a better way to do it. Still, that's just the one lesson. Oy, I just realized I've constantly got old lessons cycling through my brain, just waiting for the curriculum to get back there again, so I can take them apart and try them anew.

Learning doesn't happen all at once, no matter what some of our pacing guides might suggest. Yes, the students might need to see that material again. But not in the exact same way. No matter how much that jerk part of your brain might want you to try it, teaching the same thing but LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R doesn't actually work. It's teaching the follow-up in a way that engages the kids who got it the first time while bringing along the kids who didn't that's the hard part. And the fun part.

"So how can I make the second lesson better?" you ask. This stuff is some of my favorite parts of teaching. Taking a lesson apart and turning it this way and that until I can see it in a new light. or taking it apart and focusing on smaller bits. That's always a great way to get a fresh look at a lesson. Besides, the odds are that the kids got chunks, concepts, ideas. The second lesson is workshopping through the Big Idea step-by-step like a mechanic or a doctor. Following the internal flowchart we have. "Do you understand this? If yes, go here. If no, go back and take this path."

The second lesson is where student choice and voice become a vital part of the teaching. If I can't see the way, maybe if I give the kids the ultimate goal and tell them "Ok, go!" they'll find their way to it. This has pros and cons. How can I ask the kids to discover what it is they don't understand if they don't understand it? But how can I not guide them to that skill, since it'll be so important outside of school? Ah, the beautiful, maddening balancing act of education.

I supposed this is the point in the post where I'm supposed to use the word "grit". So...grit. There. EduSpeak box checked. Moving on.

It's the second lesson that moves the first along. A popular term, at least among the curriculum I'm using, is "spiraling". As in, "This curriculum spirals. If the kids don't get it the first time it'll come back around." Which is fine in concept, but you can't start a fire by getting the wood smoking then moving on to pitching your tent and assuming the smoke will still be there when you're done.

Chase that second lesson. Cherish the ideas that come to you during the first lesson when it's too late to use them, the ideas that come on the drive home, the ideas pilfered from social media friends, and the ideas that wake you just as you're falling asleep.

Teaching is often working as hard as you can, and then immediately thinking, "Now what?"

Now what?

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 have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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 12, 2017

Hooked on a Feeling


The Guardians of the Galaxy would be either the best or the worst teaching team ever.

Let's imagine they were all on the same grade level team. Quill would decide he was the team lead, even though he didn't have the seniority or organizational skills. Gamora would know she should be the team lead, because she does have the organizational skills and is more competent. Rocket wouldn't care who thought they were the team lead and would be off doing his own thing, grumbling, and either fixing or breaking the copy machine. Groot would have no interest in being in charge of the team, content to be every student's favorite teacher whether they were in his room or not, and whether they understood everything he was saying or not. And this would be Drax in every meeting.

Picture your team at school. If you can't figure out which one of you is Drax, guess what.

But under it all they all have good hearts. Each of the Guardians comes from a broken place, and they each have dealt with that in different ways. Bad pasts, bad leaders, bad experiences being created.

Rocket and Gamora became what they are against their wills, and they both harbor a tremendous amount of anger about that. As someone who bangs on and on about the mentor teacher/student teacher relationship, I am worried about creating Rocket. But it doesn't stop him from doing what is right, even though he's going to gripe the whole time. Not exactly the best person to have on a team, but he does get things done. Gamora turned her anger into a more productive energy, laser focused and deadly. I know teachers who I would not get in the way of when they're on a mission.

Quill felt abandoned and mistreated, and so he learns to depend on himself only. Like, say if you worked at a school with a terrible administrator who didn't threaten to eat you, but might as well have. Doesn't stop you from being good at your job, but doesn't exactly instill a sense of authority in you either. Still, who needs authority? Until you find yourself in a position of authority. At least a negative example is an example.

Groot and Drax are the easiest teachers in the school to get along with. Especially once you get over Drax telling you exactly what he thinks about your lessons. Like that time he saw your book report packet and didn't respond encouragingly.
I do know one thing for sure- this grade level would have the best music coming from their rooms at all times.

Thinking of ourselves as Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a good teacher mindset. Guards are passive. They wait for something to come after them. Same with Avengers and Defenders to be honest. Our superheroes are all reactive. Because in fiction it's the baddies who attack. If there were no baddies, the Guardians would bum around space having a good time. Heck, they'd probably become the baddies just to have something to do.

Teachers are aggressive. We attack ignorance. We diagnose and pursue. We defend our students, but we teach our students to defend themselves. Unlike the Guardians, who will move on to another planet, it is our students who will move on. We can't save them, we can't fix them, those aren't the jobs and aren't what's needed anyway. We can prepare them.

Teachers aren't guardians. We aren't superheroes. We are preparing others to be their own superheroes.

I guess that makes us Nick Fury?
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 have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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 4, 2017

On The Eve



On the eve of another first day, another year, another class. My thirteenth, their sixth. All weekend, and of course it's a long weekend, I've paced. I've fidgeted. Jiggling leg, ready to go.

I wonder what they're doing on the eve of their first day. New grade. New teacher. New room. With strange desks and off chairs and are those puppets we saw at Open House? "I heard he doesn't give homework." "I heard he plays music in class." "I heard there's something about cardboard."

"I heard he's fun."

On the eve of another year I take stock again of what's important. What'll be new? New student teacher. That's exciting. It means more opportunities for learning, for the kids and for me. New computers, 1:1. Something I've wanted for years, now I have. Ball's in your court, Robertson. Time to show you know what you're doing. Again.

So much pressure, on the eve of another school year. Pressure from myself, to be my best. To find yet more creative ways to teach, be more flexible and responsive to the kids and what they need. Pressure on myself to finally get better at my weaknesses. "I will collect better data," I say to my understanding admin. She knows my room doesn't work that way, but I know the district does. So much pressure to find a better balance between the two, better than last year or the year before.

Of course, this is the eve of a whole new group. So the center of gravity has shifted once again. Which is part of the fun, balancing on a moving platform.

On the eve of the year, trying to find more goals. But goal setting in teaching is strange. The goal posts move, and there are so many. Each kid has dozens. Each classroom, each subject. I will be better at teaching math creatively. I will be better at assessing reading explicitly and recording it. I will use my class set of computers. But not too much. But not just to substitute. No digital worksheets. Unless there's a sub. Maybe.

On the eve of new building, new creation. A whole new start with a whole new crew. I hope they like me. I mean, it doesn't matter if I'm their friend.

But still.

Another marathon. But marathon is a bad metaphor. In a marathon all you have to do is run. There's so much more to it than that. Triathlon? Still too easy, too simple. Decathlon then. But without the breaks, and over and over, with different weigh discs and hammers, different height hurdles. And all with a smile and a laugh.

On the eve of another community. How well will they gel? Last year we struggled. This isn't last year, this is new, fresh, shiny. Use last year, absorb, integrate, move forward.

On the eve of so many long days and long nights. On the eve of another adventure bundling joy and stress together. Finding ins, finding paths, finding the wrong way to say something on the way to the right way.

An eve of I hope I remember how to do this.

An eve filled with excitement and nerves. It'll probably never go away.

I hope they're excited this eve. I hope they're ready. I hope I am. I am. I hope.

Let's go already.

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