Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Possibly Wrong and Definitely Incomplete

Background- I agreed to take part in a grant initiative for my district called Professional Growth Specialists (PGS) wherein a bunch of teachers from around the district are being trained in reflective conversations and will then be tasked with leading those reflective conversations with other teachers at our sites. It's part of the district's efforts to make improvement practices more teacher-centric and divorce them from the traditional Observation/Evaluation cycle. It's peer-based, non-judgmental, collaborative, and voluntary. Today was Day One of a two-day training (which will be followed by a four-day training later in the summer), and one of the things we talked about struck a note with me, so I needed to write about it to process what I thought. Some of the ideas presented herein that I identify as Improvement Science might not actually be identifiable as such, but they're all getting lumped in under that heading for now until my understanding changes.

Let's get this out of the way first- I can not stand the "building the plane in the air" metaphor we're subjected to in many training. I think it's a terrible metaphor mostly because it doesn't hold up to any close inspection. I mean, most metaphors don't, but this one is really bad. Like, how is the plane flying at all if it's not built? Because our plane should be built. Maybe we're updating things or changing things en route, but the plane is the plane. Rebuild the plane when it's on the ground. That's safer.

I was given a name for the kind of thinking that, in my mind, also should hate that airplane metaphor- Improvement Science. Here's what was presented to me as Improvement Science in a nutshell-

Set a Big Goal --> Set sign post goals --> affect small change --> after a short amount of time reflect and assess on the effectiveness of said small change with easy data --> adjust small change/remove small change and affect different small change --> reflect with data and adjust --> repeat.

What I like about this process is the speed of it, and how surgical it is. To openly state my bias towards this process- it's basically how I run my classroom. It's how I try to teach individual lessons, and then also how I try to think about overarching units and themes.We're always playing jazz, listening to the students around us and changing the tune to fit what they're playing. We don't want to get to the end of the song and then say "Ok, what song were all of you playing? Because I was playing YYZ and it sounded like I was getting Walk This Way over here and Bring the Noise over here and were you playing Lust For Life on kazoo? That was nose harp? Huh. Good to know."

For the above process to work data is needed, but it needs to be easy to collect, quick to collect, and actionable. Which is its own challenge right there. That means, ideally, you're not running a ton of tests to catch the data. Could it be observational? Probably, as long as your able to observe, record, and teach at the same time. Which we are, because that's what we do. Some of us (read- me) would just need to be more intentional about the recording of said observations.

The action taken because of the data would also need to be fast and flexible. I'm thinking it would be the kind of thing, again, like I try to run projects. The end goal is X. How you get there is on you. We would need to avoid prescribing actions, which should satisfy teachers because that means boxed programs as they are wouldn't work. We'd get to, instead, do my favorite thing and break those program until they work for us. Gimme this, gimme that, lemme tape this to this, ok cool. Now this works with the quick data I've got and should help. But it's taped together so that the next time data is collected it's easy to take apart without destroying (unless you tape things like some of my students tape things, in which case the verb "tape" should be replaced with the verb "laminate").

And the goals need to be small enough to be viable, but big enough to matter. I think a major part of that process would be spending a lot of time on the Big Goal at the outset, and then letting the sign post goals be alive and letting them move. That can be one of the issues with SLGs (Student Learning Goals) if your principal is a stickler. You set goals at the start of the year, then the kids change, but you can't adjust the goals enough to reflect that.

One important aspect of the goal setting and evaluation process needs to be a close, honest exploration of intent and impact. In the training that's how it was written "intent and impact". I don't read that phrase that way. I correct to it "intent vs impact". Too often we allow good intentions to overshadow what actually happened, or what was actually said. What you mean to say or do only matters to you, what you actually say or do is what the result is and that's what matters. And then honestly looking at your intent, your action, and the result and reflecting on if what you said or did actually led to what you wanted. And if it didn't, what did you do wrong? Not what's wrong with the data, but where was your mistake.

The things a school would probably need to fully implement something like this is, and always is, buy-in. Ain't that always the first sticking point? You have this great idea and then you see a vision of That Teacher/That Group and you think, "Crap, how am I gonna get them not to complain about this?" By going around them. I don't think you aim for big buy-in. It's too hard. Start small. It's a giant cliche at this point and everyone has seen it, but I'm gonna mention it anyway- That Shirtless Dancing Guy/First Follower video is a pretty strong metaphor for this whole process. Go small, grab a few followers and let it trickle in. Maybe you don't catch everyone, some resist, and that's cool. Doesn't make them bad teachers. Do what you can with what you get and be patient. Which creates a cool dynamic within the program- it moves fast internally, but it can be allowed to grow slowly.

You also need an admin who is cool with all of this. Which, you know, is hard to control. And with that comes the look at privilege inherent in your school and the system. It's super easy for me to say "We should change things, shake things up." I get away with a lot. White guy, hi. I'm basically trained to be ok saying that kind of thing and trying it. I mean, it's always been my personality, but I'm seeing more and more why that is and why it's not so easy for others. So there's an understanding that with all of this there's trust that needs to happen. And trust is hard. But starting with the small group would help with that too. A few trust me, then others trust the ones that trust me, and so on.

The key to all of this is the ability to accept and understand one thing about all of it, every action that we take and every choice me make-

It's possibly wrong and definitely incomplete.

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.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Ode to the Whiteboard Marker

Oh whiteboard marker
You write what I will say
And I love that when I write wrongs
You can right them right away

Oh whiteboard marker
Your scent is like perfume
When I open a new pack
It spreads and fills the room

Oh whiteboard marker
Why won't your cap stay tight?
I tell my students to press down hard
Yet soon you'll write so light

Oh whiteboard marker
I love how you erase
And yet no matter how I wipe
You always leave a trace

Oh whiteboard marker
In the rainbow you do come
In packs of neon, fruity, and black
But why that yellow one?

Oh whiteboard marker
You let my students show
Their work on desks or tiny boards
I can see you doodling, you know

Oh whiteboard marker
In my hand you are good luck
No wait this one's a Sharpie
Too late now, oh

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, June 11, 2018

Not the End, But Only a Transition

Man, the end of the school year is hard.

First, it's utterly exhausting. Nothing is small at the end of the year. Everything is heightened. The kids are so high they're practically bouncing off the ceiling. They're louder and have a harder time making strong choices than they've had all year. Dancing happens at random times. RIP The Floss (2017-2018). There's a million things to do, checklists that are updated daily, but added to instead of checked off. Report cards to write. Inventory to take where the hell is that book did I ever even have that book I don't think they gave me that book in September I'll just check the box that says I have it it's fine. Depending on how your school's summer cleaning goes, there's boxes to pack. They're re-doing the floors in my school over the summer so literally everything that touches the floor needs to be labeled, packed, and put up. There's dear future 4th grader letters to write, dear future me letters to read, field day to finish planning and to do and, for my 5th graders, an end of the year field trip to SkateWorld, and skits and and and all the other things my team and I have come up with that are both educational while also being oh sweet David Tenant just stay busy and not too mad for a few more days.

I'm exhausted just thinking about that paragraph.

And none of that is the real hard part of the end of the year.

The real hard part is that there is no way I'm ready to be done with 5th grade with these kids. They're going to middle school. Middle school! It's a whole new world! Do you remember middle school? And I had to prepare them for that? It's not that they aren't ready, but I'm not ready for them to be ready. I didn't finish teaching them yet. There's so much we didn't get to. So much I didn't hit as hard as I needed to.

Some of them still aren't editing their writing well enough. I can help fix that. Why didn't I help better during the year? I had them all year, why are some of them still not sure where the comma goes and which word that should be, and why are some still turning in first drafts? Didn't I teach that better?

Some still can't multiply decimals. Not as well as they should. I didn't teach that right. Maybe I should have given homework. Maybe we spent too much time building stuff with cardboard. I am right, those skills translate into other, more basic educational skills. I think.

I know my kids enjoyed the year. I kept a class of 5th graders mostly engaged, mostly smiling and laughing, mostly on task, mostly creating and learning, for an entire school year. Were they wholly any of those things? For pieces of time. Most of the time. Some more than others. I did my best.

We laughed a lot. My class was hilarious this year. So creative. I got to be surprised so many times in different ways. So many came out of their shells, became more who they will be going forward. That's one of the things I love about teaching the bigger kids- personalities blossom as maturity grows. Those who matured. *significant look to camera*

Was I more creative? Was I better with data? I wanted to be. Those were my goals to start the year. Their data didn't all shake out like I wanted it to. Like I needed it to, because even though I don't care about data and I know that it doesn't represent the learning of a whole child, I care about data because it's a snapshot of things that matter. Matter to me? Yeah. I want my kids to be able to read fluently. Matter to me as much as the data matters to others? Let's put it this way- my job, my passion, is that the 30-some odd kids in my classroom learn as much as they can in the time they're with me.

Did they learn as much as they could? Because of me or in spite of me?

We had a good year. They're ready for the next step. I'm ready to send them on their way.

Next year I'll be better.

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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Draft

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My school has a check-in system in place for students who need a little more positive adult interaction and accountability. There is a fourth grader who checks in with me twice a day, every day. First thing in the morning, and then right at the end of the day. He was having impulse control, respect, and aggression troubles. Rather than have him constantly in trouble- check-in system. We have a quick chat about what his plan for the day is and then how his day was. I try to ask specific questions about choices he made during the day and we work together to make sure those are good choices, and we celebrate when they are. There's a form and he can earn a 0, 1, or 2 in each subject and for the four main school rules. Lots of accountability, but all geared towards positive reinforcement and student reflection. When he started with me he was having a rough year, but now, nine days out from the end of the year, he's been doing great. Really the last month or so has been excellent. Almost all 2s every day. It's cool.

Yesterday I asked him which teacher he wants for fifth grade. It's always instructive to hear what kids who aren't in your class/grade say about your class/grade. What impressions leak out of the classroom doors and into the hallways. His response was something I'd never heard and loaded with layers.

"I dunno. I just hope someone picks me."

Holy brutally honest, Batman.

Let's unpack this, dear reader. On the most basic level, this student is under the impression that teachers pick students for their classrooms for the next year, like an academic NBA draft. "With the third pick in the 2018-2019 School Year Draft, Mr Robertson takes..."; or like picking kickball teams on the playground. I don't know how your school does it, but in every school I've worked in near the end of the year grade levels get together and make Pinks and Blues (I know, but let's stay on topic). Then we shuffle those cards into however many classrooms there will be the next year. Let's say it's the fourth grade team making classes for fifth grade. There are two fifth grades next year, so the fourth grade team is tasked with making two classes as balanced as possible, while keeping in mind which kids probably shouldn't be with which kids and so on. But they aren't putting them with teachers. The groups are blind. We are making classes, but we don't know who's class is which. That's an admin thing.

That kids, and most likely parents, don't know this is a failure of communication on our part. I bet this kid is not alone in his assumption. We should be more transparent at the end of the year when students ask which teacher they'll get next year. Now, as a fifth grade teacher, my students are heading to middle school so I honestly have no idea who their teachers will be aside from a very general idea of the middle school faculty. "Here's the website, check it out." But it should be fairly simple to make that explanation part of one of the End Of Year spiels in the grades where the kids aren't moving to a brand new school.

And on top of that impression, this kid is pretty sure he's getting picked last. Look at that answer. "I just hope someone picks me." I'm not taking artistic liberties with the quote. Those are the words that came out of his mouth. "I just hope someone picks me." He's talking about us. He's talking about, as far as he knows, me.* And it wasn't like in a movie where there's that long look with the upturned eyes and big blinks, played for laughs. He said it straight, looking down, tone resigned.

Oh dear sweet Jean-Luc Picard. This kid thinks none of us are going to want him in our room. What have we done? Almost all my interactions with him have been positive, even when he's come to me after a hard day full of poor choices. His teacher this year is an excellent teacher. But somewhere in all that his self-worth has reached a point where his honest answer to which teacher he wants next year is basically, "I just hope there's a teacher, the person in my life charged with my education and with whom I will spend a massive chunk of my time, that wants me."

Friends, dear readers, I was struck momentarily dumb. I quickly explained the way we actually make up classes to assuage at least that part of his worry, and then made sure to tell him that I'd love to have him in my class. But it was the end of the day, he was heading to the bus. If this were a movie I'd have knelt down next to him, put my hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes, and said, "Any of us would be lucky to have you in our class. You're an awesome kid and you're going to have a great year next year." But I didn't. We were in the end of day swarm. We were on the move, like we were in a Aaron Sorkin show. I'll remind him today.

How many of his behavior choices stem from that one sentence? How long has he held that belief? How did we not express in some way something that wouldn't make him feel like that? Every year I'm dedicated to making sure the kids in my class feel welcome and know I'm happy they're there. I give high fives in the hallway and chat with kids in all the grades, and part of that is laying the groundwork for those who will be in my class in the future (the other, bigger, part is kids are awesome and hilarious and fun to talk to and high five). But that's not the same as making them feel like I hope they're in my class. Is it?

*I'm teaching 4th grade next year, but he doesn't know 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 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, May 29, 2018

The First Thousand Songs

"The first thousand songs are the hardest."
- Aaron, my bass teacher

Back in February I decided to fulfill a lifelong wish. I'd always wanted to learn to play an instrument, but for reasons I go into in this post I never did. Since that post I've found a bass teacher and have been taking weekly lessons. Fun story about finding the bass teacher- I used the internet and found a bunch of people local to me, then asked the music teacher at my school if she knew anyone and she pointed me at one person specifically. I picked him, because my school's music teacher is awesome and knows her stuff, and I haven't regretted it for a second. People in my Building 1, Internet - 0.

While I didn't decide to learn the bass to become a better teacher, I did figure that the process would help me teach. I can't help it. I think, like a lot of us, things we do every day leak into the classroom. That I'm literally learning to do something only makes the connection more direct.

One of the big lessons that I'm taking away from learning to play the bass is the current demonization of repetition and possibly boredom-inducing practice. That's seen as a Very Bad Thing. Kids should be constantly engaged and interested and if they are bored that's our fault and should be fixed. It's the main argument against worksheets. Here's where I get to play in the area between extremes, which is where education should lay- I agree that boring our kids is bad. I agree that worksheets and similar repetition lessons aren't always ideal. BUT, I also think they are tools that can be used to great effect.

Some can say "learning to play bass isn't the same as learning to read". And they're wrong. I'm learning to read music. I'm teaching my body the motions that are required to perform. None of that happens on the first try. I'm upstairs every night working through things, playing the same bit over and over and over (and over and over and over) until I get it right. It's hard. I've never done this before so not only am I learning the technique, I'm also getting that technique into my head and hands so the next time something comes up I don't have to think about it. Like learning a new way to do math, or how to read, or write. The skill is new, and thus needs practice to be understood. But once it's understood it also needs practice to be done without thought, so that thought can be spent on something else, something that makes the base (bass) skill better. I am typing this, but I'm not thinking about typing it because I've practiced typing so much, so I can focus on the words. That only comes through repetition. Which can be boring, and is often frustrating. Stupid fingers not doing what I tell them to.

It's ok for my students to feel that way too. That's the productive struggle thing, but once you get through the productive struggle I think there's still more repetition to do. Now, I don't think mindless repetition is the way to go either. To go back to the typing example, I'd rather have my kids writing than on some typing website, but those typing websites have drills that will make them better typists, and will also be kinda boring. It's about balance.

When I'm learning bass out of my book, I'm doing a ton of drills. The book that I own, Electric Bass Method Vol 1, is great. But it's also almost all drill. Which is what I, as a new player, need. I need to see the pieces and parts. Practice them in small chunks.

But now that I'm moving along in my playing, I'm starting to learn songs. I finished Vol 1 of that methods book and before starting Vol 2 Aaron had me pick out three songs to learn (I chose London Calling, by The Clash, Walk This Way by Aerosmith, and Ace of Spades by Motorhead). Because if you learn enough songs you'll start to see how all those pieces come together. For teachers, this makes perfect sense. Learn the skill, practice the skill. Learn another skill. Practice that skill. Put those two skills together and practice. Eventually create a whole and practice that. Repeat. Even the way Aaron talks about learning bass makes sense to me. "There's only so many ways for notes to go. You listen to music, so you know when a song should go up or down or stop. You can predict that. Like watching a movie, 'Oh here's the part where they fight'. Learning songs will teach you to see that more clearly." This is teaching my kids to read, or do math. Sometimes it's boring.

"The first thousand songs are the hardest. After that the patterns get pretty clear." I love this. It's not really meant to be motivational, but it's also just hyperbolic enough to be funny while still making its point. That's a lot of songs. It's a lot of practice. The mountain is tall and every time you reach a summit it reveals yet another climb.

Part of my job in upper elementary is helping my kids make that first summit, while preparing them for the next climb. It’s getting them not through the first thousand songs, but maybe the first hundred or so. They know the notes, can read the music, and have the muscle control to play basically what they want, so now it’s all about finding new and creative ways to combine and use those skills. Which takes a lot of practice. Even Frank Zappa and Geddy Lee had to practice scales.

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, May 21, 2018

Your Journey Home by Brian Costello

Guest Blog by Brian Costello

We are going to look at the Hero’s Journey, yes it’s been done and done some more, but in a way that you’ve probably never looked at it.

For most of us the year is coming to a close. Take a moment, breathe it in. Now exhale a giant sigh of relief (I won’t tell anyone) because despite what you may have been told, you are on the return journey, you are heading home. It is a time to celebrate, to reflect, and most importantly to begin a process of renewal that most of us need in order to be able to do it all over again.

I thought about making this post about any number of epic heroes, movies, cartoons, or nearly anything else, but when it comes down to it, I want this to be about you. So I’ll skip the Shrek references for now and save gifs for the chat. This is about you. You are a hero.

I know what most of you are thinking. Doug is probably thinking it right now (that’s right I am in your brain). “Oh god here comes the teachers as superheroes thing again…” To which I say, you couldn’t be more wrong. You aren’t a superhero (unless you are and I am not outing your secret identity) but you are a hero. A hero isn’t someone with some incredible superpower, but someone who has grown, struggled, lost, learned, and become better in some way if they managed to survive the journey. You are a hero. So is the person in the classroom next to you, so is each and everyone of your students. All of us is the hero of our own story. So now, you need to take control of that. Each of us needs to own it. Something awesome, great you should celebrate. Something awful, how can we recover? For many teachers it can be hard to accept praise or think of themselves as the most important character in their story. We are generally wired to care about others. So much so that we have dedicated our lives to helping young people in a variety of ways. No matter what we are doing, you cannot escape the fact that YOU are the center of your story and no one else. So accept it and let’s move on because as much as what we do is about kids, your story, your journey is about you. That part may seem hard to swallow given all we think our kids deserve, but it gets harder.

YOU ARE NOT ANYONE ELSE’S HERO. When you try to become the hero for someone else, you take away from them. As educators we need to stop pretending that we are the hero in anyone else’s story. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can’t. That does not make me the central focus of your story. All I get to be is a character in the story of others. I get to choose what kind of impact I want to have on kids, on teachers, or on other people in general. What kind of impact do you want to have on others? Do you know? It is ok to say no. You can figure that out. Hopefully the generic answer is a positive one, but from there we return the focus back to you. What skills do you have, what experiences? How can you actually be a positive influence on the lives of others without trying to be their knight in shining armor. No more saviors. Saviors imply we don’t have the ability to help ourselves. Instead let’s focus on what we have that makes each other better. Do that. You don’t need to be anyone else’s hero but your own.

Now let’s get back to the celebrating. You are almost there. But, the world won’t be the same place when you get back next year. You will find the people have changed (they are smaller than you remember) and there are less doors (I think) and those doors might even have rocks for your safety. Going back to the beginning will be hard, so for #WeirdEd tonight let’s focus on who YOU are, who YOU want to be, and how you can prepare yourself for the next journey you are about to undertake.

If you like what you read, or the chat, or you hate it all and you want to scream into the void of the internet, please take a look at The Teacher’s Journey . It is filled with stories of my struggles and growth, as well as those of many others. The Hero’s Journey (or the monomyth) is told by many cultures and in many ways. My book takes a look at how those themes are told through education and how understanding them can help us become better.

Buy Brian's new book here!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Rube Goldberg Machinations

I'm a sucker for a good metaphor. I love a good metaphor like Hugh Jackman loves literally any script that will let him sing and dance.

It's because of this that I love the Rube Goldberg Machine project my class did for MakerFaire last year and is doing again this year.

At the most basic level, a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex series of actions and reactions that result in the completion of the most mundane activity. You know, like getting kids invested in learning dividing fractions, and then explaining why dividing fractions works. I sometimes feel like my classroom is just a series of Rube Goldberg machines running in tandem, while also all somehow part of a larger Rube Goldberg machine.

Because education isn't simple and it's never easy, you see. To that end, never trust anyone who says "just" before giving you advice to make your class better or more effective.

To back up, since we started in the middle *sings* a less good place to staaart *mercifully stops singing*, for the last three years my school has hosted a MakerFaire. It's a massive undertaking combining a science fair, TEDtalk symposium, film festival, and check-out-our-learning Open House. Students are invited to create their own projects, and teachers are inviting to create class projects. Last year, thanks to the wonderful OK Go video for "This Too Shall Pass", I decided my class would build a Rube Goldberg machine.

We learned a lot and I thought of ways the project could be improved over the course of the build, so I was excited to do it again this year.

Today we started our journey.

I broke my class up into eight groups of four students each. I choose the groups. Depending on the project and timeframe I'll let the kids choose their groups or I choose for them. This needs to be done quickly and in well-balanced groups, so I'll take the reigns for this part, thank you very much. I ordered the groups one through eight. Then I set them the challenge-

Thou shalt create a Rube Goldberg machine. Each group is responsible for a section of the machine, and each section must include at least two action/reactions. For added difficulty, each group must also ensure that their section of the machine connects with the sections on either side so that the machine requires no no NO human intervention once the initial reaction has been triggered. Your section must be started by the end of the previous section, and your section must end with the triggering of the following section. 
Dude. That's a lot. I admit that's a lot. And it's not easy. That's why I love it.

There's so very much engineering built into this project. If you leave students to their own devices, as I learned last year, they will design a machine that should be, if built properly, seventeen feet tall and uses gravity and marbles and that's all. Everything will be downhill, all the energy transfer points will be basic, and nothing will be interesting. So I get to show that music video and we take close looks at exactly what is happening. I focus in on the section below, from 0:42 - 0:50. Just eight seconds. Everything the kids need to know about what they should do happens in these eight seconds. Here, you watch. Again, 0:42, where it's cued up to already, through 0:50.

Did you see how much happened? How many different types of energy transfer there are right there? There's the rolling tube (inertia) which drops (gravity) causing a weight to release (gravity/pulley) which lifts the cupped lever (lever) which is holding a marble, returning the energy back to a height so everything can continue using gravity (gravity). In eight seconds.

Suddenly options open up. Suddenly we're having this detailed conversation about energy transfers and simple machines. They don't know the words, but I can give them the words. Those eight seconds gave them the ideas. Now we don't need to build this giant, tall behemoth. Now we've got variety. We've got choice. Because it's not enough to say "You are able to learn. Go forth and learn, and then apply that learning." That ain't even Guide On The Side. That's Guy In The Room.

Back to the metaphor thing, I mean look. Not only are they building a Rube Goldberg machine, but the process of building it is almost Rube Goldbergian. There are so many moving pieces! So much communication and compromise and co-planning needs to take place to be successful.

FIRST- The group must plan their section. They plan it alone, just the four of them, without worrying about any other group. It's too much to think about if they start being concerned with everyone else. The group of four must decide how creative and challenging their section will be, what simple machines and energy transfers will happen, what tools they'll use. They must design and blueprint. They must compromise with each other until everyone is satisfied.

SECOND- They must talk to the groups on either side of them. This immediately throws their plans out of whack because "What do you mean you want your marble to be triggered by a car? Ours doesn't have a car. Ours ends low, and yours starts high. Crap. Now what?" Revision. Natural, organic, collaborative revision. Lots of communication about these engineering concepts. And remember, every groups except the first and last has to go through this process twice.

THIRD- Bring your blueprint to me, whereupon I'll break it down with simple questions like "Why is this ramp floating in space, where are your supports?" and "How long are these parts?" They have to go away and revise again. Rethink again. This is by far the most difficult build of the year, that's why it's the last one. They've built tree kangaroo traps and arcade games and wind-powered cars and trebuchets. They know the process.

I'm not going to say 100% of my kids are 100% engaged with their groups 100% of the time, but I am going to say that even without my stepping in, I'd bet those numbers are up around 90%. These kids are excited and locked in. They're talking and designing and planning and revising without my having to sit on their shoulders and tap them in the foreheads with a spoon*.

And all of this is before they have cut a piece of cardboard or measured a section of string. If I can get them on board and invested in the design process, the build process is so much easier.

Not that the build process is easy. I approved a few plans that aren't going to work in practice but look good on paper, or work in student heads because they don't understand that a marble will not carry enough weight to crash into the toy car and get it to roll forward far enough to trigger those dominoes. That's fine. Build a simple version, run a proof-of-concept (yes, I use that term with them), and revise as needed.

Part of this is the panic that comes with trying to eat the elephant on a time limit. Embrace the panic, expect it. Last year I was positive the machine wouldn't actually work up until five minutes before it actually did. We got three good runs in and then someone accidentally bumped something and we never got it realigned properly. But we still succeeded, and you should have heard the room explode. Have faith. Not faith that you'll succeed, but faith that the real goal, the learning, will be accomplished.

This year I learned from last year. By front-loading the simple machine concepts, by forcing the planning in more detail, I hope to prevent the last minute stress. I'm pretty sure it still won't work until the last possible second, but one can hope.

Take a risk. Understand that teaching is the stringing together of many complex, disparate actions to create something simple on the surface. Use that to help you think around corners and solve problems in new ways. Come play.

*I've never literally done this, but we all figuratively have.


 Today we successfully finished our Rube Goldberg machine. It was four days of hard work, planning, revision, panic, frustration, and finally joy and relief. I did some documenting of it on the twitters so I'm going to link to those.

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