Monday, October 24, 2016

Well THAT Didn't Work
Because I think I have all the time in the world, I started a new blog that I'll be moderating and occasionally contributing to (unless it goes over like a lead balloon, then I have a new blog that'll be collecting digital dust in my blogger dashboard).

Rather than explain it here, why don't you just go there and read about the idea? I'll probably make this the topic for #WeirdEd Week 126 too.

Monday, October 17, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 125- Post-Debate Decompression

This Weds marks the third and thankfully final presidential debate. It's scheduled to run from 6:00pm to 7:30pm pst. This means it runs a half hour into our normally scheduled #WeirdEd time. Because I feel like a well-informed populace electing the president is of importance, I'm pushing the first half hour of our edchat and instead it'll only be a half-hour, from 7:30pst-8:00pst. Even if they don't talk about education a presidential debate is still educational, and we, as educators, should treat it as such.

I don't think this last debate will change any minds. The internet tried to make a hero/joke out of undecided voter and red sweater enthusiast Ken Bone, when instead we should have been spinning around asking him how he could possibly still be unsure at this point in the game. Justifiably, we've all collectively forgotten about him now. Still, his turn at fame does help explain how some of the population took their eye off the ball long enough to let the vulgar talking yam (credit to Charles P Pierce for that) get this far.

Still, even though most all of us have made up our minds one way or another, watching the debate makes us part of the national conversation. You can go on about how individual votes don't matter (the first election I cared about was Bush2 v Gore, so if anyone should feel that was it's my age group), or how you hate both candidates, or how you wish Dr Stein or that other guy who won't win got to be more involved in the process, but the debate gives one of the candidates a chance to verbalize her ideas and the other a chance to make mouth noises with his face until you want to chew the arm off your couch. This is important. Even if they don't mention education, and don't expect a deep conversation about that, no one wants that conversation except us*, watching a debate is educational. I've got fifth graders who pay attention. They know it's important.

The chat will be a chance to decompress. I will be on an airplane flying to Regina, Canada to deliver the opening and closing keynote and the SMYA conference, so my partner in crime Shawna Briseno will be moderating the half hour. There will be no questions. It'll be open forum to talk about what the two candidates talk about. Respectfully. We can do that even if they (read: he) can't.

*oof, I wrote that back in January. This election season will never end

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 124- Books

This week's post is written by longtime partner-in-crime and regular #WeirdEd co-moderator Shawna Briseno.

Books are my life.  Have been for as long as I can remember.  Actually the written word in any form.  As a somewhat shy child I would lose myself in the stories I surrounded myself with.  Now that I’m older but not necessarily wiser, it still holds true.  They are my escape, my opportunity to imagine myself in another world and another life.  And as a teacher?  I’m constantly searching for books I can share with my kids.  I want books that will make them laugh as well as make them cry.  I want books that will teach them life lessons and let them walk in another person’s shoes.  And even though I have my own personal list of tried and true favorites, I’m always on the lookout for new ones to add to my collection.  So let’s  help each other out.  What books do you like to share with your kids?  What books do you go to when you want to impart words of wisdom?  Because stories are magic.  And who doesn’t need a little, or a lot, of magic in their lives?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Teacher's Home Is Their Classtle

Some may say that I have delusions of grandeur. An out of control ego.

Nothing of the sort.

I just want to remake my world in mine own image is all.

This isn't technically true (though it makes for a fun lede). I am more interested in remaking the world in the way that best suits my students. My world, our world, is the classroom we share. It's where we spend most of our day, our home base, our home. Certainly feels like I live there sometimes. It's where I expect my students to learn and be comfortable and form a community. Yet it's trapped within certain constraints. I can't make it physically larger, the walls are pretty stuck. I can't do anything about the built-in storage space. I can't knock a wall out for another window. I have so little control about so much with regards to the learning space of my students.

Yet, I have taken as much control over it as I can. I should preface this with the note that I have a very open-minded principal who trusts that there's a method to my madness and who allows my foolishness to take place in her school. She doesn't have to and I'm sure there are many reading this who don't have such a forgiving environment. This is my fourth school over my eleven year career and I think it's the first one where I'd have been allowed to go this whole hog. Maybe in Hawaii, where I spent most of my six years in a portable so far from the office students would need a snack and a water bottle to take up a note. I also want to note that I didn't ask permission to do any of this. I don't know if that makes me a bad role model for other teachers or not, but I do a lot based on the belief that it will be better for the kids, they'll be enthusiastic about it and it'll positively impact their learning. If my changes accomplish those two things, I figure it's harder for even the most stick-in-the-mud administrator to make me change it back. But I don't know your admin, maybe s/he's more stuck in the mud than most. Still, give over my email, I'm happy to chat. Why not?

My changes started two years ago. I wrote about it here, so here's the short version- I was having a rough year and so were my kids. We needed to mix things up and I was willing to try anything. So I took the legs off almost all the desks, the ones I didn't I either left the same or raised up as high as they would go. I went to Goodwill and bought pillows and built my first Donors Choose to get beanbag chairs, wobble stools, and backjack chairs. And it worked. My kids loved it, it totally changed the environment in my class. It made the flexibility I was seeking in their attitudes physical.

That was my last year at that school. After getting hired at my new (and current) school, the first thing I did was modify the desks. I think I even told my principal that would be Classroom Design- Step One during my interview. Hey, you want to stand out? Tell your potential boss you're going to take the school's stuff apart. I told her this because a) it was the truth b) I wanted to see how she'd react and c) it worked last year and I wanted to brag on that, because that's what you (I) do in interviews if you (I) want the job.

There's nothing like watching students and parents come into the new man teacher's classroom and watching them absorb the long blue hair, the weird desks, and the lack of normal chairs all at once. And that's before they notice the puppets.

To supplement my own supply of alternative seating, I allow students to bring in their own. Seating rules are simple- If it's a community seat it changes students every day. I don't track who has what when because I don't want extra paperwork, so we run on the honor system. If it became a problem each seat would get a check-in form. The community aspect of the classroom is stressed hard and, much like the seating makes my expectations of student flexibility and comfort physical, it also brings the sharing community expectations into the real world. If students bring in their own chairs they may not share. That is theirs from home, their parents paid for it, their parents are allowing them to bring it to school, they may not share. This is how I avoid having angry parents in our classroom complaining that so-in-so broke their kid's chair and now they better pay for it.

So that's desks and seating sorted. But that still wasn't enough. I wanted more change. How else can I modify this static box in which I teach and we learn to better fit our needs? With a TV, of course. This is where I sound spoiled- When we moved from Hawaii to Medford, OR the moving company we used was run by the Yellow M&M if he was a real person, and he hired M&M minis with the care to match their size to do the actual moving. So our very nice flatscreen TV arrived in Medford broken. My mom and step-dad were just about to buy a new TV, so they lent us their old one. Once we moved from Medford to where we are now in Portland we bought ourselves our own TV. And, rather than give my mom back hers, I stole it and hung it up in my room.
Classroom flatscreen

Yay, Chromecast! Now showing YouTube videos and movies is so much easier. The screen is too small to cast Documents or Slides with text to if I want everyone to see, I still need to plug into the projector for that, but it makes my life so much easier. Plus, I can cast from my phone, so when we're playing music during worktime that's me casting Spotify through the class TV. I didn't ask to hang a TV up in my room. I brought it in, along with the mounting supplies, found the custodian, and asked him if either he could do it or if I could borrow a drill so I could. He's cool beans so he did it.

I have a wall with holes in it above my sink. I hate it. It's ugly and the wood is hard enough that
staples bend rather than penetrate. Last year I covered it with butcher paper and planned to do something with it, but never actually did. When I got to school this year I found two of the teachers I work with painting their's. One was painting the Milky Way and the other a cloudscape. Of course! Wife loves painting. She brought the Weirdlings in for a few hours during two of the set up days and painted my wall. We went with cityscape at night. It looks cool, and when you look at a cityscape at night you should immediately think about superheroes. Why? I don't know, but I do so you should too. I didn't know if I was going to do anything with superheroes on it, but at least it looked cool. When my student teacher, Veronica, came in and told me she needed to do a project with the class where they talked about who they are, I told her about my superhero idea, and together we built an assignment where the kids drew themselves as superheroes and wrote a thing about why they choose the powerset they choose. Veronica laminated the drawing and now we have a Wall O Heroes in our room. An ugly, hated piece of my room is now an original, personalized display place for a fun assignment.
Check the sliding whiteboards hiding storage

Now my room is complete. Except not really. I added the small white board you can see in the above picture to my back wall for more writing space (the whole front of the room is whiteboard, and I've got sliding halfwall whiteboards on the wall opposite the TV wall with storage behind them), but that really wasn't enough for me. I had two big pieces of butcher paper up along my back wall with MATH and LANGUAGE ARTS diecut labels. And I never really used them as bulletin boards or a place to display student work. A lot of our final products can't be hung on the walls like that anyway.  After a conversation with Jon Corippo, who was preparing his CUE Classroom Cribs camp, I realized that what I'd been wanting was more whiteboard space back there. I want kids moving. I want all the space to be usable. I have a front of the classroom because that's the direction my projector points, but my kids should have freedom. Just like with my seating. Just like with my assignment choices. But whiteboards are expensive, so I went looking for cheaper alternatives. It was my wife who, through the power of her Google-fu, discovered that galvanized steel sheets can be written on with dry erase markers (side note- so can classroom desks. My kids use their desks as whiteboards all the time). They are also cheap, at under $10 for a 2ft x 3ft sheet. We went to Lowe's and bought five, plus screws. Again I showed up at school and asked my custodian for his drill and again he came through like a champ and did it for me. Again I did not ask my principal first if I could put more holes in my walls.

I love my silver boards. (Principal is cool with them too.) They look cool, and they do exactly what I wanted them to do. In fact, I want more. As soon as I can financially justify it I'm going to buy at least five more sheets. More for the back wall and there's some space on a side and front wall that could use it. I also started more regularly using my big window as a student work space.

Yeah, it's kind of hard to see if the sun is just right, but the kids get a kick out of writing on the window. They clamor to do math. They're excited to do the work and display the work. And that means when I stop the work and have them return to their seats we're surrounded by work. Which is pretty freaking cool.

I'm not saying you should go out and buy balance balls and take the legs off your desks and hit up Lowe's for some steel sheets. That's not what I want you to take from this post. What I want you to take is that I saw potential in my space, in the world of my students, and I took steps to exploit that potential. I am trying to remake my classroom in a way that will best suit my kids and the community we are creating together. This will never be done. My room will forever evolve in steps big and small. Once I get more sheets I might be done changing things this year. Unless I see a need or get a bee in my bonnet.

Find ways to own your space. Brick walls, no admin faith, tight constraints, find a way. Make your room yours and your students'. That's why it's called Classroom Design. Because it's an art. My classroom doesn't look like anyone else's. But, piece by piece, it's starting to look like mine.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

It's the Quiet Ones...

This wonderful post is a great piece I'm happy to host on my blog and a #WeirdEd Week 123 blog post. It's by Mari Venturino, who wrote and will be co-moderating this week's chat (Weds 7pst) as well.

Trends in education focus on buzzword categories of students: English Learners, special education, homeless/foster youth, gifted, etc. If we’re not analyzing data, then we’re busy talking about getting students to collaborate and work together more. What happens when a student doesn’t prefer to work with a group? What happens when a student is an introvert?

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, discusses how western culture has made a shift from the “culture of character” to the “culture of personality” where extroversion is dominant, and introversion is considered inferior. She names this the Extrovert Ideal, defined as "the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight." [Ed. Note- *waves*] These are the values we intentionally and unintentionally translate to our classrooms, schools, and workplaces.

The biggest misconception about introverts is they have less to say. In reality, the major difference between introverts and extroverts is that extroverts prefer to process the world externally via social interactions, while introverts process the world internally via quiet thinking. Introverts have just as much to say as extroverts, but won’t readily speak it out loud.

In social situations, there may be extroverts who will not wait for others to speak, and overpower the quieter voices. We call these steamrollers. In any sort of collaborative grouping, an overpowering person can be dangerous for the group’s process and rapport. Helping these extroverts identify when they tend to steamroll is just as important as empowering the introverts to advocate for their own needs.

Many introverts, such as myself, can be “functional extroverts” for short periods of time. If you’ve met me in real life, you might not automatically know I’m an introvert--especially if I’m at an edtech conference. However, after I get home, I need plenty of time to decompress. This is a learned skill that took time to develop.

In our classrooms, we value students who are collaborative and vocal. It seems that we’re condemned as “bad teachers” (gasp) if we don’t have our students constantly working together. After auditing my own classroom, I see how many of my lessons that the voices of my extroverts, and leave my introverts quiet and alone. I’ve been more intentional to build in opportunities for both introverts and extroverts to shine.

So with this being said, how do we provide our introverts with an authentic voice in our classroom and world?

PS. Not sure where you lie on the introvert-extrovert continuum? Take this free Myers-Briggs Type Indicator quiz to find out.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Take a Knee

This is going to be a strangely formatted post, and also the guide for #WeirdEd Week 122. I'm going to write my piece, then the fantastic Christina Torres emailed me her take and I'm going to put that in. Much thanks to Christina for writing this on request and super fast. She's one of the best. 

A few weeks before school started 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a quiet protest. He started refusing to stand for the national anthem, which is played before every sporting event in America. At first he sat, and then he decided instead to take a knee. He is protesting the killing of innocent men by those charges with protecting them. He's saying the anthem doesn't speak to his reality. Talking heads lost their minds. How dare an athlete use his fame to protest, they say, hiding the copy they wrote praising Ali after he died. Slowly, other athletes, both within and outside of the NFL, have joined him. Not all take a knee, but they signal that they too feel the United States and its anthem is not speaking to their reality.

I have a lot of students who play football and watch football. I teach fifth grade outside of Portland, Oregon. My class is mostly a mix of white and Mexican students, and I have some students of color as well. Oregon is not known as a place with a lot of people of color, but we're also not as blazingly white as you might expect. Mostly. Anyway, I was fully expecting one of my students to bring up Kaep by now. I know last year I had at least three kids who would have. We would have had that conversation in the first week, probably after the first assembly, which is the first time in the school year they would have stood for the anthem. I don't do the anthem or the pledge in my class, you see. Having children face a flag and pledge allegiance to it doesn't work for me. Never have done it, not in eleven years. Unless it's at an assembly when the whole school is doing it. And even then I don't say it. I stand respectfully, hands clasped behind my back. And in eleven years no one, not a student, fellow teacher, or administrator has ever asked me about it. I'll let you guess reasons that might be.

I expected it to come up. "Mr Robertson, have you seen that Niners QB who won't stand? Why do we have to?" I was ready to wade delicately into the conversation, letting them lead and research.

No one has mentioned it though.

And neither have I.

I slip a lot of social justice into my class. I do it on a regular basis. It's not hard. We teach LifeSkills and talk about bullying and you can fit pretty much any social justice topic until that umbrella. Be smart about it, let the kids come to the ideas, don't preach but allow conversation and research. But I don't feel like I can directly bring up this particular protest. I can't find a way to naturally fit it into the conversation and flow, while still being able to use the standards and curriculum to defend myself if a parent goes to my principal with concerns (which has never happened to me but never say that out loud). And I'm pretty confident in this choice. Later in the school year I'm going to read a wonderful books called One Crazy Summer and that will bring up a lot of the topics that would come up by talking about Kaep. The kids will be older, and the might be more prepared for the conversation then. That's why I hold the book until after Christmas. There's a lot of growing that happens in fifth grade.

Students should learn about protests. There's a much longer post in here (that'll probably someday grow into a book chapter) about suffering from what Dewey Finn* called stickittodamanitis, while also being The Man. And this is where I hand it over to Christina Torres, who delves deeper into this idea.

When I first started teaching, my biggest fear was the same as most new teachers: What happens if the kids don't do what I tell them? What if there was mutiny in the classroom? What if they realized there were 25+ of them and only one of me?

I look back at that teacher and can't help but laugh. At the time, I was acting under the same patterns that I had been educated under: teachers are the authority in the room, fiving us knowledge that we held onto as students. For that to happen, it meant we needed to be obedient and attentive.

Now, the face of education has shifted a little. We hear buzzwords about "flipped classrooms" and "student-centered learning." We push on with the notion that giving students the chance to read through the powerpoint or lesson they made is the education of the future. 

Don't get me wrong: I think the concept of student-driven learning is, in fact, the future. My concern is if we only look at this at its shallowest level, such as letting kids design the rubric for their paper. That's an important practice, but in fact truly student-centered learning means focusing on the whole of a student, not just their actions in your class. 

Furthermore, we know that students are affected by so much more than what they see in our classrooms each day. The way they, their families, and their communities are treated absolutely affects how they perceive their worth in the world. As teachers, we must not forget that the act of educating other was, at times, considered a revolutionary act. To educate the disenfranchised gave them power, which meant that, at its roots, being a teacher inherently means disrupting or questioning some aspect of the social order.

 So, what do we do when students realize they may not be getting a fair shake?

What scares us when our students want to discuss things like the demonstrations in Charlotte or Ferguson or on a field filled with football players?

What scares us when our students express interest in taking action themselves?

In many ways, organization and order are needed to help a school run effectively. Having that stability can be an important anchor for many students. It's important to ask ourselves, though, if we are willing to give up the revolutionary act of educating our students for the sake of ease and control. We need to realize that "student-centered" is so much more than a lesson plan; it's a mindset that allows us to make spaces where our students can feel empowered enough to think, analyze, criticize, and even actively disagree with us.

So, here's my question: How do we create schools and policies that allow students to fight injustices, challenge each other, and see their power and potential?

Christina Torres currently teaches 7th and 9th grade English and Drama at University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. She previously taught in Los Angeles, and worked on Teach For America – Hawai‘i staff. Christina holds a Masters in Education with a focus on Digital Education from Loyola Marymount University, and more info can be found at’s also writes ‘The Intersection,’ a weekly column for EdWeek Teacher.

*SCHOOL OF ROCK is one of the best movies about teaching ever made

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Doing It Different

a #WeirdEd Week 121 post

I'm beginning to think I don't teach like other teachers...

You (we) never really know how we teach compared to anyone else. Teaching is one of those things that's hard to compare. Not because it's impossible to tell a good teacher from a bad one, though sometimes the bad ones slip through on charisma and noise, but because when do we have time to see someone else teach? Ideally a coach will come in to our class, take over for an hour, and we get to go hang in room 15 for a bit and learn. But we all know that's not how that works. For a myriad of reasons. Maybe your coach is overworked. Maybe you never think to make that plan. Maybe the teacher you want to observe doesn't want to be observed. Roadblocks, speed bumps, barriers. Besides, sub plans are a pain in the planner. Easier to stay in the room and keep on truckin'.

This is one of the reasons I ask to have a student teacher. I want another set of eyes in my classroom. Right now I have two (kinda). There are two student teachers at my school- Veronica and Jill. Veronica is placed in my class and Jill is placed in a second grade class. Every few weeks Veronica and Jill will switch for a week to see how the other side lives. Right now we're on a switch and Jill is hanging out in my room getting her teach on. I've talked briefly about Veronica already. Jill was a substitute teacher before she became a student teacher so she's coming to us with a unique perspective on the whole thing. She's got some classroom experience, and their ain't no experience like substitute teaching. She's got ideas she wants to try and a good energy. She's not afraid to ask me my rationale for doing things after I've done them. I welcome all of this because it's how she learns and how I get better. Forced reflection is good.

Conversations with the two of them remind me that my classroom, my way of doing things, is...somewhat unusual. I want to be clear here, I do think I am a good teacher. I know we're not supposed to say things like that, I should be falsely modest and disingenuous "I don't know why they are giving me a student teacher, I'm not doing anything special." But you all know that's bull. I'm pretty good at a lot of things. But I also want to be clear that my unusual way is not better than anyone else's way. I'm not saying all of you should be teaching my way, I'm not even telling Jill or Veronica to teach my way. I'm very purposefully giving them opportunities to find their own teaching voice and style while with me. "Try something. Make a lesson that catches fire and crashes into the swamp. It's fine, you can't break my class. We can put them back together after a bad lesson." And my room communicates that, with my unusual desks and alternative seating and sheet metal dry erase boards and blue hair. This is a laboratory.

And it's different. Not better. Different. But I wonder why more classrooms aren't different. Why are so many classrooms basically the same? I mean, I see conversations about taking risks all the time. I see costumes and bulletin boards and book studies about being different. But I don't see a lot of different. One more time, to be perfectly clear, I'm not saying, "why aren't more of you taking the legs off your desks"? I'm saying, "Do you think your room is different?" And is it important to you for your room to be different?

I think that might be a me and people like me thing, to be honest. I don't want to be like you. I want to be like me. I want to chase the dragon, so to speak. Pursue a classroom unlike any other. While always keeping my kids and their learning and comfort in mind, I really honestly want to create a classroom that doesn't look like any other, doesn't sound like any other, that gives adults at the least a little cognitive dissonance and at best a small panic attack because look at the piles and where are the kids sitting and what the heck is going on in here? I like that.

I know we all teach differently. I know my differently is very visually differently, which makes it easy to spot. I also know that the teacher up the hall and across is teaching his class differently in a much quieter way and his kids are killing it. So, much like a teenager full of existential angst, I'm wondering if we're all different. Are we all striving to be? What I'm scared the answer is is a flip, "Hey, it's Common Core, so we should all be the same." That's not what it means and you know it, stop making excuses. Not even in the Dark Days of No Child Left Behind, my first year of teaching, when a woman from the district would come by my classroom and check to be sure that at 9:30am on Tuesday I was on the Vocabulary Section of that week's story just like everyone else teaching third grade (true story), was every classroom exactly the same.

Our kids deserve classrooms that are different. We deserve to make our classrooms our own. How do we do that? How do you?