Monday, February 11, 2019

Weather or Not


As my students left our classroom last Friday afternoon snowflakes filled the air. The weather report had been getting worse and worse all day and, even though I know they weren't checking their phones for updates like I was, they all seemed to know Snow Days Were Possible. That wonderful mix of a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of hope blended together like ice and slush in the clouds, turning them all into meteorologists. "You see, Mr Robertson, there is a cold front moving in over the mountains, and that will carry with it a 98% chance of precipitation, and since the temperature will be below freezing (thank you for teaching us that, bee-tee-dubs), the roads will become dangerously icy and perhaps even snowy. As you can tell, we probably won't have school Monday."

Friday night fulfilled that promise. It snowed good. Good for here, so a couple of inches. I know I know, all my Mid-Western and Canadian friends scoff when they hear that, but that's because I live in a part of the country that doesn't expect to be covered in snow four months of the year. They live where settlers reached, built up, got snowed on, and then couldn't be bothered to tear down and move on to a more comfortable clime. I live where people saw that snow and said, "Forget that frozen noise" and kept right on moving west. Portland and the surrounding areas are incapable of dealing with snow, and even when there's not snow we get serious ice. The Friday night in question, however, simply snowed and snowed a lot. Deep enough to build snowmen and go sledding all without reaching the grass layer. The weather report said that this would continue through the weekend and on into the next week. Before I left on Friday another teacher had joking remarked, "Well...see you in two weeks."

Then it stopped snowing. Then it rained. And everything melted away. As a precaution my school district had a two hour late start this Monday, just in case the ice needed a little more time to melt. It wasn't needed though. The roads were fine.

My kids felt so betrayed. They had been promised snow days! The internet showed days and days of little cloud icons with tiny cartoon snowflakes. Phrases like "up to ten inches" were used*. Then nothing! How dare the weather lie!

I exaggerate for comedic effect, of course. No one was stomping their feet and huffing at school today. But there was a definite sense of WTFness. Expectation unfulfilled.

Personally, I am happy there were no snow days *knocks on wood*. I don't like the snow. I grew up in the desert and then moved to Hawaii. Until I moved to Oregon I had actively avoided snow. Snow sucks. It's cold and wet and no one can drive in it. So just as a personal preference I'm glad the snow chose not to fall. But also as a teacher, snow days are awful. Most of the time. There's snow much to do and snow little time. I can't flake on the mid-year assessments, and it's easy to drift off the pacing guide with too many missed days. Snow days always result in flurries of activity later.

How should I feel about my kids being excited about not having school? Should I take it personally? Some would argue that it means I'm not doing my best work if my kids are happy about missing school. The kids should be snow excited about coming to school every day! They should love school that much. These people, who get listened to mostly because they talk with authority regardless of weather or not they deserve it, go further and accuse me of not doing my best work if I myself am happy about a snow day.

Snow days suck because they put us behind. I need every single day I can get.

Snow days are pretty freaking sweet. An unexpected day off always is. And feeling like you're promised one and then not getting it is a bummer.

I tell my kids I don't like them having any days off. Holidays, weekends, whatever. I tell them I want them at school all the time. Of course, I also tell them I want them to enjoy their breaks, relax, and try to read and get a little math in if they can. Double message? No, two sides of the same coin.

Teachers who are excited about snow days are human. That's it. Now, teachers who complain endlessly about not getting a snow day are obnoxious, even if they're joking. We all work with one, laughing a little too loudly at their own jokes-but-not-jokes-because-jokes-are-funny about having to be back while making copies. But they are few and far between.

Currently the weather report for my area says we're getting snow Tuesday night, and it might be bad enough to cancel schools. But over the last 72 hours the weather report has changed forty-seven times. Will I be sad if school gets canceled? Yes, because we've got a lot to do and I like spending time with those kids. Will I be happy if school get canceled? Yes, because I like spending time with my own family and any extra day with them is welcomed, plus the break from teaching is also nice. Do I want my students to be excited about snow days? Yes, because I like the idea that children are excited about things. I don't take it personally. I loved school, and I still loved a day off.

I'll continue to check the weather reports hourly on my phone during this cold snap. I need to know if I have to set my alarm like normal, set it back an hour, or turn it off and let my loud children wake me up instead.

*giggle

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 4, 2019

Build a Better House Pt 1 and 2


I built two cardboard houses. Then I challenged my students to make better ones that are also easily reproducible. Then I realized I'd made a big ol' mistake and had to take it all back.

(That is called in media res which literally means "in the middle of", and it's a literary device which allows the author to hook the reader/viewer with an exciting, interesting, or mysterious action in the middle of the story and then rewind to the start of the story and work towards the previously seen part. If you knew that, high five. If you didn't, now that you know the name you'll notice it all the time and annoy the people you watch TV with too.)

My school has put on a MakerFaire for the last three years. It has always been awesome, but the first year was easily the most awesome and every year since then has been progressively less so. Still cool, still proud, but not as great. The committee decided before last year's that it was time to rethink it come next year. Next year has come, and rethink it we have. Previously, the MakerFaire was a giant affair with student projects, class projects, TEDtalks, a Film Fest, an Art Gallery, and a Make and Take. Go big or go home, ya know? It got to be too much though, and we were having a harder and harder time getting teachers involved or excited about it. We'd plateaued. Perfect time to change things up.

We set two goals- A) Get families more involved, and show them what their kids are learning with STEAM and how it works. 2) Better show the integration STEAM across all subjects. We kicked around a few ideas, the best of which was breaking the Faire all the way down into two sections- A big Make and Take and a big Coding room with a bunch of computers and bots going. But then one of our number, one of those teachers that not only always has great ideas but also loves finding ways to make them work, a kindred spirit in other words, landed on a greater idea- Powell Valley (my school's name) Makes. We rebranded (I know, but the terminology works) the Faire completely, going so far as to stop calling it a MakerFaire.

The full name- Powell Valley Makes: A Cardboard City.

Oh yeah. Feel the goosebumps? I know you do.

The Big Idea- In the cafeteria families will come in and make or grab a pre-made cardboard building of some kind. Then there are ten classrooms set up, two for each aspect of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math). Families will take their buildings to each of these rooms, where they will be presented with challenges and ideas relating to that aspect of STEAM that can be done to their buildings. So in the Engineering room- make a garage door that opens or an elevator; in the Technology room- make your house light up, and so on. Honestly, we haven'y fleshed this part out completely yet because it needs to be workable for everyone and scaled so a fifth grader and a kinder can both be successful in the same room. There are staff meetings coming for this. But you get the general idea of the rooms. Because everything is being done on one building, it is a literal representation of the STEAM ethos.

The completed buildings will be placed in the gym, arranged in a city-like fashion. There will also be options for kids to make  and bushes and cars and other things you might see in a city. For realism and differentiation, you see.

The first big challenge (aside from supplies and planning the rooms more clearly), is how the heck are we going to have buildings ready for 300+ families so they don't have to spend the night building the basic building? The solution we've come up with have the older kids slowly over the next few months build buildings a few at a time. But how? Hooowwwwww? Can't just tell them to build houses, that's not clear enough for the plan. And it'll take too long.

I took it upon myself to have my class work the problem. First, I built two sample houses, seen below.


As you can see, one is an A-frameish house, and one is a wall template. The full house is a little more complicated because the design when you're adding angles like that changes things. The wall template is straight-forward, could be mass-produced, and could work for any wall or roof with very little modifications. They wouldn't be fancy, but fancy should come on the night, not with the template.

I brought these two examples to my class and explain everything that I just finished explaining to you. Then I laid a challenge before them- Build a Better House. Here's what I came up with, can you do better? This is your PV Makes, after all.

I forgot what I had been teaching my kids all year. They went BIG. Too big. I wanted easily reproducible designs that could be given to anyone, and that person would be able to look at the design and the template and build the house with no further input. I told my kids that. And then they set about building freaking cathedrals and sky-scrapers.

I should be proud. Our whole thing all year has been going above and beyond. In the words of Frank Zappa, you gotta "put the eyebrows on" your design. I've trained them to take it to 11, and now I'm asking them to hang back at a 5. Too much. Too much. Too complex.


So I had to pull the chute. Today I froze that side of the project and I revamped it. I realized that there was a disconnect stemming from the idea that someone else would be building their designs, they wouldn't be able to. So all the problem solving they do as they find errors in their design needs to be done before the design is actually completed. To be efficient that means designs should be KISS- Keep It Stupid Simple.

I hit the brakes and gave them a new assignment that looked a lot like the old assignment.

As you can see, this time we're working completely inside our room first. Student pairs will design a simple building, then they will trade designs and test the simplicity by having to build someone else's plans without being allowed to ask clarifying questions. Then we see how well the finished product matches the designers mental image. This, in theory, will force design clarity and simplicity.

We started it today.

Designs are still a little bonkers. They really don't get the line between simple and bad yet. Some are also still wildly unclear. Which brings back into stark focus something I hit on last week- There's a lot of failure in Making, and a lot of Teacher Worry. I approve all designs before they're traded and I'm going to end up approving designs that aren't ready because the group bringing them to me can not see that they aren't ready. So a bad design is going to go out, and a bad building will be made, and then a serious reflection and revision will take place. It's an important process. I need to want kids who are uber-confident in their lacking designs to crash and burn, so that they can learn why. I won't let them blame the construction workers, it'll be on them being unclear. Then they'll do it again. I have faith they can do it. I have faith in the process. I also know how hard it is.

This process will take a month probably. Once it's over *steeples fingers evilly* not only will students know how to write clear design plans, we will also have a bunch of clear designs that can be used by other classes moving forward. They'll be tested. But I'm not letting my kids think about that, I want them thinking in their class first.

We're only a day into the revised Build a Better House project. I look forward to seeing the learning that's about to take place. I also have my teeth gritted and I'm braced for impact because I know it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

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, January 28, 2019

It's So Easy

Parental Warning: It's a GnR Video, so...you know

 "It's simple, really."

Ah yes, the death knell for anyone trying to explain a new technique or philosophy to a roomful of teachers. We know what you're trying to say. You're trying to assuage concern that it might be too hard to implement on top of all the other things we've got going on. You're preemptively answering anyone who might say they aren't familiar with the baseline knowledge needed to start your simple idea.

But that's not what is actually being said. What's actually being said is, "If you don't get this there's something wrong here." Just like I try to avoid telling my students anything we do in class is "easy", why I cut off students who try to explain to their classmates, in the most genuine, not condescending way, that it's "easy". Because it might not be. And few things are as demotivational as being told the thing you're worried about/struggling with is easy. It's simple. Come on, man. Why can't you get this? The rest of us have it.

"Implementing project-based learning in your classroom is simple, and so rewarding!" the person in the video happily chirped. I could hear eyes roll. The low bass rumble of deep in the throat grumbles from certain areas of the staff meeting reverberated in my lower spine. These are good teachers. They work hard. And making stuff makes no sense to them. These are hyper-organized teachers who have worked very hard on procedures and control and their rooms work like well-oiled machines. Before I say the next thing I want to double down- these are good teachers. But they aren't all that comfortable with discomfort or the seeming deconstruction of their control. Some might think their kids can't do it, can't handle it, for whatever reason. Age, maturity, class size, The Big Test At The End, whatever. I don't think those are excuses. But I've also been doing this in my room for over half a decade (doesn't that make it sound longer and fancier than "five or six years, I can't remember exactly"). I've always been comfortable with looser reins in my classroom, I'm not naturally organized, my room would be kinda messy anyway. I have the time and experience to have faith in the process of project-based learning, and I still get to the middle of projects and have panic attacks about things not working and no one learning what they're supposed to. Projects crash and burn all the time in my room. I've learned to be ok with that.

That's not what most teachers are used to though. This doesn't make me special (it might contribute to the weird thing, though that's more the standing on desks, quoting Star Trek, randomly singing, making bad jokes than anything), but it does make me better suited to jump in to something that seems a little off-center. I like off-center. I live there. I like it when projects don't work, as long as we learn from the not working. It's real easy to say something like "FAIL- First Attempt In (At, but whatever) Learning! Let them fail! It's simple." It's easy to say. It's hard to believe, hard to embrace. As we discussed a moment ago, calling something simple rarely means it is. You know when adults tell kids something isn't going to hurt, and that means it probably will hurt? Teachers remember.

It's not simple to convince someone the process is more important than the product. It's not simple to get a teacher to see that her kids not doing a project correctly can be as valuable as them all doing exactly what they were told because the directions were super clear. Especially in the lower grades, at least in my experience. Again- NOT saying they're bad teachers. AM saying telling them "it's simple" is a bad way to convince them to do something.

Know what "it's simple" sounds like? Sales. It sounds like sales. It sounds like you think you've got The Answer and you're happy to give it to us, we're welcome. It's simple friends, it sucks as it cuts! Well it certainly does suck. It's simple, just buy this book, bring in this keynote, do this training, and you'll be on your way! Simple. Anyone can do it. Oh, then quote Yoda, a fictional teacher that took failing so badly he hid in a swamp for the rest of his life!

But it's not simple. None of it. Teaching isn't simple. The act of teaching isn't simple. Making groups isn't simple. Choosing read aloud books isn't simple. There isn't one single solitary aspect of teaching that's simple, and there isn't one aspect of it that's made easier by someone telling you to "look in the mirror and say, 'Boy, I've got some great opportunities this year!'" Yup, and it's gonna be a challenge. Ignore that and you just make it harder. Don't focus on the challenge, but don't pretend it doesn't exist either. I've said before that calling teaching a marathon is a bad metaphor because marathons suck and hurt the whole time and no one likes them and more often than anyone mentions there's accidental poo. But calling it a baseball games makes sense. It's long, challenging, there's a million tiny changes that are constantly being made, fun, and often someone in the stands spends the whole time trying to tell you what to do.

To go back to implementing project-based learning, since that's the video that got my back up in the first place and it's currently très en vogue (that's French for, I think, "three in poses*")- project-based learning, or PBL as we say in the biz, is freaking hard. It's messy. The learning curve for the teacher and the kids is all over the place. It's not consistent, that's for sure. My kids will make a rocking, amazing big project, then I'll give them a smaller palette cleanser project that suddenly has taken a week and a half and used all the tape left in my room. Projects are messy and letting students discover their learning on the way to the Big Goal is easier said than done because they need to be constantly reflecting honestly and thinking deeply. Those don't come right away so on top of learning to make, they're also learning to reflect and meta-cognate (*bing* fancy teacher word bonus). Just building projects for them to build is tricky and takes a lot of trial and error.

In the video I'm all teeth-gnashy about the teacher had smaller kids, first or second grade. She doesn't have them doing any kind of big project. She's got these wooden building blocks and half pipes and spheres and whatnot, and one of her reading group stations is making stuff with the blocks. We were shown the kids making a two level ramp with a turn. Real cool build, simple in theory, but with a lot going on. Good problem solving, good basics of construction. But the video skipped right to "So while I have a small reading group there's another group over there building the assigned whatever." Which led to the "it was so simple." Nuh uh. Your jodhpurs are alight. You skipped chapters one, two, and three. You skipped introducing it, and kids arguing over blocks, and teaching them how to use the build cards, and teaching them how to keep it down, and reteaching them how to keep it down, and taking the blocks away for two days because they didn't believe you about keeping it down and not playing hockey with the sticks, and the phone call home you made because of what Tommy made with the spheres and stick. The only way it was simple is if you've only got those five kids in the video, and even then it wasn't.

See the problem with telling us it's simple? I LIKE making stuff to learn, I'm way in on it, I'm sold already, and I can see all these things. What about the teacher who is looking for reasons to roll her eyes and nod while not actually trying it until she's forced to?  Be honest with us. Yes, it's hard. Yes, there's failure and noise and mess and struggle. Accept that and be excited about that, see it as positives. Hear the boss say she's good with you doing it.

Here's where I'm completely honest- I say all this, but I also don't have some silver bullet way to bring teachers into things like making to learn. I am not a salesman. Even when I want people to buy my books (buy my books) I don't do it by telling them it'll revolutionize their practice because ugh, I love hyperbole more than anything in the history of ever, but gross. I don't sell teachers things. I'm not getting commission. I will tell them my experiences. I will talk about things I like, like project-based learning. But I do not know how to convince anyone else to do it because I come to things in my own time, in my own way. I come to things because I see someone else doing it, think, "Oh, nifty, I wanna try." Then I try. I assume others aren't like that, but I'm not sure what combination of words is the key that unlocks the frame of mind that makes someone say, "Yes, I'm in!" If I am a leader at my school, it's almost entirely the "Lookit this cool thing. I'll come show you how if you want" kind.

Starting something new in teaching isn't easy. Doing something you've already done seems easy, but it's not either because (and this comes from having faith in all of you out there), even when you're doing the same thing you've done before I don't believe you're doing it in the exact same way. If nothing changes for you year to year at all...then I'd like to have a conversation about who's central in your classroom, because it's you and not your kids. But that adjustment won't be easy either.

Don't reduce this beautiful, complex work into slogans and cotton candy. Don't pretend it's easy to talk us into things. Be honest. It ain't gonna be easy, especially not at first, but it'll get easier, and then it'll get cooler, which means you can make it more difficult.

I said a lot of this in a twitter thread too, but I wrote the blog post to get into more detail. Rather than come up with a really deep, clever closing, I'm going to embed the twitter thread here.






*Greta Garbo, and Monroe
Dietrich and DiMaggio
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean
On the cover of a magazine
Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean
Picture of a beauty queen
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire
Ginger Rogers, dance on air
They had style, they had grace
Rita Hayworth gave good face
Lauren, Katherine, Lana too
Bette Davis, we love you
Ladies with an attitude
Fellows that were in the mood
Don't just stand there, let's get to it
Strike a pose, there's nothing to it
Vogue


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, January 21, 2019

Toxic Inoculation


"I need you both to come to my desk right now, please." I take a breath and hold it for a moment as two of my boys make their way across the classroom to my desk. This isn't the first time we've had this conversation, and I have no idea how to make it the last time. I want to make clear before we get too deeply into this that I'm not talking about bullying or racism, those get handled differently. But if I handle this well, that heads off the bigger problems later on.

"You're arguing. Again. Loudly. Rudely. Aggressively. Please explain. You first." I turn to one boy and look at him until he starts from wherever makes him look either the best or the most victimized and therefor justified. The other boy tries to chime in, but I stop him. That's how this kind of interpersonal problem solving works in my class. You listen to the other person's full story without interruption. Then you tell your version. Then we find the middle ground. Or we find the truth, because sometimes there's one version and then there's the version everyone else is telling. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems, and often it's even more confusing that a non-teacher could imagine. I've said it before, but Sherlock Holmes would quit teaching after three hours.

Once one story is told the other gets the same treatment, down to no interruptions from the other party. I can interrupt, but I often only do to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes there's a lot of those. Any other times I speak are to prod students to "try to remember, it happened ninety seconds ago."

As soon as both stories are told I do my best to let them talk to each other. Do you see what he was saying? Do you see how he could have seen that? And you you see what he was saying? How could we have handled this situation better?

Here's where it gets frustrating- Away from me, when it's just the two of them, they will bicker and argue over who killed who endlessly. They'll dig heels in and close their ears and become rock solid sure in their side of the story. But as soon as they come over to me they start talking to each other like I've modeled. Like we've talked endlessly about. They'll start using sentences like, "Oh, when you did that I thought you meant..." and "I heard you say...but now I hear you say..." The trick, I know, is to get them out of the situation. Get them out of their lizard brain fight or flight modes and into a place where they actually can hear each other. Is part of the reason that's with me next to my desk because they know if they don't find a way to cool it out and listen they might get into trouble? Maybe. I'd rather it wasn't, but it's a start. We want everything students do to be internally motivated, but my kids are ten years old. They're internally motivated about a lot, but there's a whole lot going on inside those brains right now.

This is always the point in the year when these kinds of incidents spike in my room. That's not to say that my room is some kind of Lord of the Flies battlefest, but Winter Break always marks a I'm Gonna Try On My Big Boy Pants Now phase. Aggressive tendencies come up, little annoyances get blow bigger than they should be. We work close, and there's a lot of us. I can see kids getting irritated with other kids. I can't change the situation, but I can work to change the reactions.

I understand the behaviors too. Every year I've got a student that I can see myself in, like a little time window. I can see the struggles coming more clearly for this particular student than some of the others because I was very there. I empathize with all my students, and I know that the age they are and the places they are heading will come with all kinds of struggles unique to each of them. But there's always one kid that makes me think, "Oh dude. Middle school and high school are gonna be real tricky. Find a way to get that temper under control. Come to terms with your interests being well outside the norm of your peers. Have faith that eventually you'll find some other weird kids who aren't like you, and everyone is cool with that."

The temper thing comes to the forefront hard some years. Some kids are so very angry. I had it. My parents divorced when I was in elementary school and I struggled a lot. It's about finding power, right? I've still got a mouth on me, the only difference is now I'm (a little more) able to control it. (And I'm cleverer about how I use it.)

And I wonder- How much of the anger comes from toxic masculinity. I don't remember "Boys will be boys" being thrown around too much, but I was also the kid getting picked on a lot. So how much of my anger was me trying to Be a Man and Fight Back. I've got students now who's first reaction to a lot of situations in books we read are something along the lines of "I'd pop him in the nose." I like when they say that because it means we get to talk about it. First- No, you wouldn't. Second- How would that help? Third- Why?

What am I doing to help change these thought patterns? I'm modeling it. In the example at the top we are talking through how we're feeling. We're being open about it. And we are honoring what the other person says they feel. I can't say that enough in my room, "If someone says you're making them feel some way, what makes you think you can disagree with that?" We assume the best intention first in each other. Everyone in my class is cool, and we assume that everyone is ultimately trying to be cool to everyone else. So when we get angry about something right away, we're not assuming the best. (To be clear, I'm talking specifically about my class who are all cool to each other, not groups of people who have a history of bad faith and abusive behaviors, that's a whole different thing.) We're on a journey to see everyone as a human worthy of respect and being listened to. I don't want it to sound like my kids don't already see each other with respect. They do, our class is built on that. But it's not one lesson, one conversation, and then it's over and done. It's easy to listen when you're calm, but what about when you're heated? Then we have to talk about why you're heated. How could you avoid getting heated?

And yeah, this is big with me and my boys especially. They peacock hard. Gods, the basketball games that end in arguments sometimes feel like they outweigh the basketball games that end drama-free. "It's a recess game, knock it off!" isn't good enough either. That addresses a symptom, not a root. Why do they think they can react like that in a game? Where's it come from? Because I see it in group work too. I see slights being blown out of proportion in order to what? Save face? So we talk about that. Openly, with clear language. I model listening and I make sure they listen to each other. Most of the time they can see how small the issues actually are and we can reflect on what they were becoming. Then it's about reps. Getting the work done.

All I want sometimes is for them to listen to one another. I want these small issues to be dealt with in mature ways. I know they're ten, but maturity is within reach. They learn this now, they'll better navigate through the hormonally rough seas ahead. Everything is geared towards helping everyone be better humans. But I can't beat around the bush. I can't let things slide. We know where that leads. It leads to men pretending to be victimized by a shaving commercial while also hiding behind whiteness and toxic masculinity to justify terrible thoughts and actions. The anti-Trek.

I see Star Trek as hope, as place where we should be trying to get to. My captain is Jean-Luc Picard. And it is Jean-Luc Picard who says that before we fight we must talk. And when talking doesn't work we talk some more. And if that doesn't work we keep talking. If I can run my room like Captain Picard, if I can get my kids talking to each other even if they're angry at each other, then I can get them to understand each other. There needs to be willingness on both sides. Openness. But if I can get there with the thirty-some kids in my class, then I can make a difference.

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, January 14, 2019

YouTube Teaching and Learning


As an Old, I had a hard time accepting YouTuber as a job description. I didn't understand YouTube or what it could be. What it is for an entire generation. It's entertainment at your fingertips. It's more than TV ever was to people my generation because we had to wait for our shows to be on. For a long time I thought of YouTube as a place for cat videos and nonsense. It wasn't "real" content. How could it be, it was just some thing on the internet?

I like being wrong.

As a teacher I am constantly striving to go outside of the education space for inspiration and revitalization. Not everything I do is connected to teaching at the outset, but nearly everything I do echoes back into my classroom in some way. I see this, by the way, as very different from the Always Be Teaching narrative some Thought Leaders try to sell. I don't go into things thinking about them like a teacher, but I also can't stop my brain from finding the connections that impact my teaching. It's all about operating on multiple levels are trying to be a well-rounded human person. And yes, if feels dumb to have to make this distinction but, well, you've been in those keynotes and read those blog posts too.

I think there is a lot for us to learn from YouTube and YouTubers. I do not mean this in the "Watch these videos in class way, either", though I absolutely would show them in class if I thought I could. There is a depth and breadth to critical conversations happening on YouTube that constantly has me reassessing how I teach reading text and thinking critically. I want to highlight three specific channels that I think teachers should be watching and learning from.


The first is Movies With Mikey on the FilmJoy channel. The concept behind Movies with Mikey is the host, Mikey Neumann, picks a film or occasionally a genre that he feels passionate about and deconstructs it piece by piece, investigating both why it works as a film and why it works for him. In watching his videos I've found even more reasons to love films I already thought were perfect like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (yes, and everything else Edgar Wright has ever done because he's brilliant), The Last Jedi, and the Harry Potter films, which he just finished a massive three video series on. There's a depth of investigation in these videos that any one of us would be head over heels to see from a student. The mix of personal introspection, technical knowledge, and a genuine love of film creates the perfect chemical reaction and before long you will find yourself pouring through his videos and hoping that any favorite of yours has gotten the MwM treatment.

It is through this lens that not only do I gain a new appreciation for things that I love, but I'm able to see the new ways my students and I can investigate things. The wide world of options when it comes to thinking about texts, any texts, and how students can imbue these reflections with their own personalities. Because YouTube itself is a mix of content and personality. This is not unique to the medium, television is full of people who had to not only be good that their jobs, but be creative at them, and the service industries of Hollywood and New York are littered with people who were either one or the other but not both. I have students who want to be YouTubers, and I can't scoff at that like it's not a real option. It's as viable as hitting it big in TV, although there are a billion YouTubers so you actually have to be real good to break out of the fray. I can tie that to the content in my classroom six ways from Sunday...if Sunday was a school day. Which is isn't. Check out Mikey. You won't regret it.


Lindsay Ellis also talks mostly about films and deconstructs them in creative ways. She has a relaxed we're-all-the-same-room-together-chatting style that appeals to me, and, just like the best we're-all-chatting-in-a-room conversations, all of the sudden we're talking about serious stuff, digging in, getting deep, and loving it. One of my favorite examples of the creative ways Lindsay breaks down complex concepts is her series The Whole Plate: Film Studies Through A Lens of Transformers. Yes, she uses Micheal Bay's Transformers films as a way to give a detailed film studies course. Ever wanted to know way too much about how films are made, why the choices made by filmmakers matter, and how feminism and social justice fit into all that, while also talking about giant messy robot movies that you don't have to like? This series is for you. This is the kind of appealing to the populace to make a deeper point thinking that teachers who use PokemonGo or Fortnite in their classrooms can only dream of because this comes from a place of love and understanding for all facets of the subject matter. 

One of my favorite videos of Lindsay's is called Mel Brooks, The Producers, and the Ethics of Satire About N@zis. We've all agreed that you could never make The Producers or Blazing Saddles today. But why? Is it the content, the point of view, the voice, the filmmaker? Why can Mel Brooks put a song called "Springtime For Hitler" in his movie/play/movie and it plays like gangbusters? Satire is hard to do right and frighteningly easy to do poorly. If I taught high school  or college writing there is a 100% chance I would find an excuse to use this video. It's not good enough that things work, we should think about why they work. Lindsay makes me think about that, and that translates into the stories I'm reading to my kids, with my kids, and that fill my textbooks and class library. We should investigate all those things, and YouTube creators like her help me do that better than I had before.


The third and final channel I want to highlight is not another film channel, it's a music one. Lost In Vegas is a channel where two friends, Ryan and George, watch and listen to music outside of their familiarity to broaden their horizons and in an effort understand why some things get so much love. I do not understand the Reaction Video genre as a whole. I don't get why people record themselves watching trailers or why people watch them. I'd guess that 99% of those are staged or planned in some way, they feel so artificial. Ryan and George are as genuine as it gets. 

Two confessed outsiders to the metal and hard rock genres, these videos consist of them listening to songs suggested by their followers, and then honestly trying to find the value in those songs. The reason it works is because they are open about not getting it when they don't get it, but they also never give up on a song or a band. The best example of this I can think of is the reaction video for the Cannibal Corpse song "Hammer Smashed Face". If you don't know Cannibal Corpse, all you need to know is when I say "picture death metal" what you picture is them. Exactly. Don't change a note. Buzzsaw guitars and Cookie Monster vocals. Ryan and George tried so hard to be open to this. You can see them listening intently, taking the music in, trying to find a groove to hook onto. And then the vocal kick in. 
The "WTF" moment
What you're seeing here is their faces about three seconds after the vocals start, which is right around the time it dawns on them that yes, those are the vocals. That's not an instrument or an effect, that's the singer. It's a perfect moment. They listen to the whole song, they even dive into the lyrics. They give the song more of a chance that I do, and I like (parts of) this genre of music. Complete open-mindedness, making a real effort to dig in and discover why other people like it. In comparison, their Metallica reaction videos are always right on and especially validating as a Metallica fan. Because yes, the band is the greatest metal band in the world for a reason, and that reason is anyone who gives them a chance can see why they're great. You don't need to love basketball to appreciate LeBron, you don't need to love metal to hear Master of Puppets and know it's special. 
The "I understand" moment
The lesson of this channel is keep your mind open and your ears open and who knows what you'll find to love. As a teacher constantly in search of things to do in my classroom that will challenge my student and myself, there's no better reminder. As a teacher who wants this for my students, I would love to show them these videos. I don't think I can, because I'd have to edit for language, so instead I use the channel to remind myself to be open about my journey with my kids, to model, as Ryan and George are modeling, the value of being willing to hear and truly listen. To look for the good in something that I don't understand. This doesn't mean they like everything, there's plenty of songs they get to the end of and decide, "Nope, not for me." But that's not the point, the point is in the trying of it. They've even gone back to bands they didn't like for second rounds just to try again. Oh, and they understand the power and perfection of Rush, which means they are intelligent and excellent humans. 

I am a better teacher when I leave the education space and investigate my own interests, chase rabbit trails, and open myself to things, and then allow those things to naturally find their ways into my teaching. Honorable mention to Rob Scallon as well, who I'm really into right now but this blog is long enough as it is. Watch this video of him using music theory to make beautiful music without being able to hear it, get hooked, watch all his other stuff. Do you have a favorite YouTuber you'd like to share? Throw it in the comments. 



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, January 8, 2019

Three Things To Do Many Things OR Lava, Monsters, and Art

This is lava monster art. Get it?
The week before a break is one of the more challenging weeks of any school year. Its match, of course, is the week immediately following a break of any length. Students come back and, even if they come back rested and ready to learn, there's something off about them. A blurriness. Which we of course understand. I spend all of my break screwing up my sleep schedule because daddy can't play Red Dead Redemption 2 while the kids are awake, I've got kids to play with. That cowboy needs to wait until the boys are all tuckered out. I'm ready to teach on Monday, but I also put a leeeeetle more coffee into the pot than normal.

It's important not to launch right back into heavy lift academics. That's not to say you can't do core content and teaching. The idea that relationship building and expectations are somehow separate from content teaching and learning sets up a false dichotomy. Everything in the classroom feeds into everything else. It's a closed loop, a little ecosystem all its own. Much like true STEAM is a joining of all disciplines, a classroom can make all things happen on some level at the same time. The teacher chooses what the main focus of the activity is, and that main focus might prioritize relationship building or a softer skill over straight academics, but that doesn't mean there's no connection. Part of the job is helping students see academic opportunities in all things. I'm constantly telling my kids, "Everything has a reason. It's all academic."

Then a student raises her hand and asks, "What does academic mean?" and I tell her that's an excellent question, backtrack slightly, then move forward.

Toof Telling/Spark Speaks

I love the weeks around Winter Break. As the natural midpoint of the year I get to stack a lot right there as a Leveling Up of sorts. The first big level up comes the week before break, when we do our Cardboard Arcade. The second comes right when we get back, when I get to introduce Toof and Spark.
Toof, Spark, and my Porg of Destiny
Toof is a little green monster puppet that I've had for at least ten years. He has been with me since I taught in Hawaii. He is, in fact, my first puppet and I am very attached to him. Years and years ago I started using him for something I call Toof Telling (you can read about this in my first book). Rather than use Toof in my classroom I created a backstory wherein Toof is an adolescent monster, and as such he/she/it (in my head Toof has always been he but I tell the kids Toof can be whatever they want) won't talk for me because I'm a grown-up. But Toof will talk for them. He's also bored of being in the classroom all year. Which is the other great part of Toof- the kids have seen him with the other monsters all year, and I've refused to talk about him at all, saying, "You'll meet it after Christmas." They are dying to know about the mysterious little guy by January. It's great. Because Toof has been in the classroom all year and is bored, he wants to go visit each of their homes. But here's the catch- When a student takes Toof home they must write about his experience at their house using first person Toof perspective. So they cannot say, "I took Toof home and introduced him to my parents." They must instead say, "This small human child shoved me into a bag, jostled me around, and then proudly presented me to larger humans like some kind of prize. I ate his cat in revenge." They must also bring in a picture, digital, printed, or drawn, of themselves and Toof doing something they wrote about.

I encourage students to go wild with their Toof Telling. Get creative. Yes, it's a puppet that can't actually do anything. But with Courson and Sophie, the other two monster puppets in my room that I use to teach with, we've built this Monster Canon that all monsters think they're better than humans, and they're a little mean because, well, they're monsters what do you expect. But the kids don't even have to follow that because Toof is a young monster, so maybe he's not jaded like the older ones. I will always get lots of stories about Toof beating them in video games, or skateboarding or eating all the dinner. I set reminders that Toof does not like water or pets, so please be careful. Then I Get Real with the kids and honestly remind them that Toof has been with me for a decade, and I've done this for a lot of classes and he has always come back to me completely intact. Please do not be the class that takes Toof away from my future kids.

Spark was added to all of this last year because I had the little dragon and I had no idea what to do with him. I couldn't use him because my hand won't fit. I think it was a kid who asked if he could go home too. Which lead to Spark Speakes joining Toof Telling.

There's a lot of layers in this assignment. There's patience because I've got a ton of kids and only two home visitors. There's creative writing, but first person, but from a different perspective. There's some form of visual art depending on how the image is done. There's presentation because when Toof or Spark comes back (home Monday, back Wednesday, home Wednesday, back Friday) the student must present their Speaks/Telling using the puppet. After all, the kid isn't telling the story, the puppet is. Because the puppet has no voice but the one they use to talk through the student, the voice can change depending on who is presenting. Which gives shy kids the freedom to use their own voice and get it over with, and the not so shy kids the chance to really get into it. And there's So Much responsibility. I make it very clear that I know they are responsible enough now and that's why I waited until January to start. In the end, students get super pumped about what basically amounts to homework. Bwahahaha.

That is a long-term lesson that does many things though. "What about quicker things, Doug? I need action! Hook me up!" you cry. I hear you, dear reader. I've got you covered. I also take no credit for the next two things I'm going to share with you. I'm not a Thought Leader so I've got no interest in passing an old idea off as my own or rebranding it so it looks new even though it's not.

10-1-10

A 10-1-10 for going to see Aquaman
The first is 10-1-10, which I stole off the twitter box from Breanne Kanak. 10-1-10 stands for Ten Seconds, One Minute, Ten Minutes. In the case of my class, I had students focus in tight on one thing they did during winter break. I gave them a piece of paper which we divided into the three sections you see above, and we labeled one small second "10", one small section "1", and the large section "10". Students were told to only use the small 10 box, and in it they had Ten Seconds only to draw the one thing they choose to focus on about break. Next they are told to move to the 1 box, and this time they have One Minute to draw the thing they focused on about break. And finally we move to the large 10 box, where they have Ten Minutes to draw the thing they focused on about break.

This assignment is so cool, and it worked perfectly. Dead silent focus in the room. My room is never silent. After they were done I gave them a chance to share with the people in their groups, then took a few volunteers at the overhead to show their work and explain the differences in the three pictures. Seems like a great way to talk about break, right? Sure. But wait- There's More!

As always I say to my students, "Everything we do in here has an academic purpose. What could this assignment have to do with school in general?" Let them think alone. Let them reflect with those near them. Let them share out. "We kinda ended up planning with the first two and then with a lot of time we got to put in a lot of details." "Ten minutes is a really long time, I got way more drawn than I thought I would." "When we got to take time our drawings got better." Huh...interesting. Does that relate to other things we do in here? Ahhh, the lights are beautiful. "Wait, like when we write? And you make us draft?" "Oh! And when you make us design before we build?" "And how sometimes you don't give us a ton of time to work but you actually give us like ten minutes and that's a lot more than I thought oh no did we just tell you how much we could get done in ten minutes if we focused?" Bwahaha.

I always close with a student-led reflection. They will make connections I'd never see. And I can use that. And they can use that. I just gave myself another tool and point of reference when I need to make a point in class. A point of reference they have positive feelings about.

The Floor Is Lava
The Floor Is Lava
The last project I did on this, the first day back from break, I really could have done earlier in the year. In fact, it might work better earlier in the year. But, to be honest, I'd completely forgotten about it until Sunday when my old student teacher Veronica was over at the house. When she was in my class she played a game called The Floor Is Lava with our kids geared towards cooperation and planning. Which that year desperately needed. I busted it out again this year because really, those kinds of lessons never hurt to reemphasize, especially after two weeks off.

The Floor Is Lava is a simple game. Break the class into two even groups, put each group on either side of the room. Clear all the desks out of the way. Lay down some kind of start/end marker, you can see the strip of tape on the floor in the picture above. Estimate (if you're like me) or carefully measure out beforehand (if you're like Veronica) how many pieces of paper it takes to go from the starting point to the end point on the other side of the room. Get two groups of that many papers, minus two (or more or less depending on how difficult you're trying to make it). Each group must choose a leader. The leader is the only person in the group who can touch the papers with their hands. The leader is the first across the lava, laying stones as s/he goes. The rest of the group must follow the leader's path, and they are not allowed to touch the stones with anything but their feet. If a stone gets moved somehow, then it's moved. Bummer, yo. Touch the lava and you must go to the side. Group with the most people successfully across the lava wins. Notice I did not say, "FIRST group." Students don't notice that. This is to their disadvantage, though it plays into the larger point I'm trying to make.

I gave my kids ten sheets, or stones. Plenty to easily make it across the floor. The leaders for both groups made good choices and spaced their stones well. Then the groups started to cross. And one group decided it was a race. And that's where things began to quickly go poorly for them.
Can you tell which group stepped calmly across their stones, and which group decided they should try to run, hop, and jump across their stones? You can, can't you? Soon the far group had completely destroyed their path, because with each hop they learned what Mr Newton learned about equal and opposite reactions. The further the stones slid apart, the harder they had to jump, the further the stones slid apart. Only about half their group made it across. While the other group stepped lightly and smoothly across, paying careful attention to their footsteps.

Failure is a result, and it's a good learning opportunity. We all know this, we've seen the memes. This kind of failure is immediate and soft, so it's easy to get over because it's easy to see what went wrong and how to fix it. The group who was unsuccessful was reflecting before I even asked them to. They knew what they did wrong, and the other group knew why their way worked. I honestly couldn't have asked for a better result. Total accident. I mean...I knew this would happen because I'm an amazing teacher...

So then the trick, as always, is not to get them to see where the problem lay, but how that relates to everything else we do. This was quick too. "Like, when we hurry through projects and we do a bad job. Like we tried to rush our cardboard arcade game and then we had to completely rebuild it because it was bad."Ahhh, so rushing might not be the best plan of action? Now, was the other group slow? Other group? "No, we weren't slow. But we were careful."

Then I get one of those connections I don't plan on, which is always great. "Oh! Mr Robertson! This is like that 10-1-10 drawing thing we did this morning. When we had more time, the drawings got better! Just like when we took more time here, the path stayed good." Yup, exactly my plan, yes, totally, actually you made a connection I hadn't thought of well done. And once again I've got a positive example I can go back to again and again as we work on more and more difficult projects.

Of these three assignments, the second and third are the easiest to do. They require almost no prep or planning, and if you let the kids dig in during their reflection time they will come up with remarkable things. I hesitate to say this, because the lowest I've taught is third and the highest is sixth, but I imaging both assignments could level up or down fairly easily as well for younger or older students. I'd be interested to see how college students handled them. But I will always proselytize for puppets in the classroom. I know they aren't for everyone, but the kids love them. My sixth graders loved them. When I pull one out at a PD the teachers love them. When the kids are tired of listening to your face they will refocus on the felt. This is where I shout out Sam Patterson, who is my puppet hero because he makes his own. Check out Puppets Tell Jokes too.

These three things are so simple on the surface, but can be so deeply used if you let them. I love that. I think it was a wise person, maybe Laurence Fishburne or Chuck D or perhaps the late, great Ursula K Le Guin who said, "Still lava runs deep."


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 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, December 17, 2018

The 12 Days Of Making


**sung to the tune of Jingle Bells The Twelve Days of Christmas**

On the First Day of Making, my students made with me
An unfinished blueprint or three

On the Second Day of Making, my students made with me
Two safety gloves
And an unfinished blueprint or three

On the Third Day of Making, my students made with me
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Fourth Day of Making, my students made with me
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Fifth Day of Making, my students made with me
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Sixth Day of Making, my students made with me
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Seventh Day of Making, my students made with me
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Eighth Day of Making, my students made with me
Eight grades a-sloping
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a more finished blueprint or three

On the Ninth Day of Making, my students made with me
Nine chances taking
Eight grades a-sloping
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a nearly finished blueprint or three

On the Tenth Day of Making, my students made with me
Ten minds a-leaping
Nine chances taking
Eight grades a-sloping
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a nearly finished blueprint or three

On the Eleventh Day of Making, my students made with me
Eleven triers trying
Ten minds a-leaping
Nine chances taking
Eight grades a-sloping
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a nearly finished blueprint or three

On the Twelfth Day of Making, my students made with me
Twelve dreamers dreaming
Eleven triers trying
Ten minds a-leaping
Nine chances taking
Eight grades a-sloping
Seven switches switching
Six bases laying
Five Well Made Things
Four falling builds
Three fresh plans
Two safety gloves
And a perfect finished blueprint or three

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.