Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Days of "Stick To Teaching" Must Be Over

I saw Alice Cooper in Hollywood on his Brutal Planet tour. Alice is, was, and always will be great live, so there's no way I'm going to miss this show. I don't care who the opener is. In fact, I didn't even look to see who the opener was, so imagine my surprise when The Knack hit the stage. You might be thinking, "Who are The Knack?" They're one of those bands where you might not know their name, but you know at least one of their songs. You know all the words to at least one of their songs. After you find out what that song is it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Here’s your pre-emptive you're welcome for that.

The Knack are playing away and all of us are patiently waiting for them to stop so Alice can die for our amusement yet again. They weren't bad. But they weren't special either. The Knack was The Thing Between Us And Alice Cooper. And we were getting tired of the barrier. So, right between two songs, in that dead moment of silence, when everyone in the arena including the band could hear it, a guy behind me shouts at the top of his lungs, "PLAY 'MY SHARONA' AND GET OFF THE STAGE!"

Education conversations can get like that guy. Play your hit, and shut up. We know the thing you do- you're the funny one, the coding one, the Google one- do your thing, stay in your lane. It is happening all over media right now. Sports writing and movie sites are going through the same transition. Like that Ringer headline says, we've reached the end of Stick To [Blank]. For a variety of reasons, social media and the immediacy of information is moving us out of our silos and forcing us to engage with the real world.

Which is good. Putting sports and movies aside, education is all about the real world. I've heard it dozens of times and so have you- "We're preparing our kids for the real world." But then we aren't confronting the real world like we should be. More importantly, we aren't confronting the poison in the profession.


Those are teachers. We work among them.  That's members of our profession talking about our kids in a public forum in the most disrespectful, racist way possible. When we silently agree to Stick To Teaching, we allow this to happen. We encourage it. Every time we don't call out hate we enable it. None of what I'm saying is new, but it should still be said again and again.

We are responsible.

We are responsible for so much. Education is a political act. Teaching critical thinking and problem solving, these are political acts. Maybe you don't see it that way, or don't want to see it that way, but the skills we are giving our students are much more likely to be used to parse the lies of an administration than to deconstruct a novel.

If we teach behavior standards and expect certain things out of our students, but don't call out adults like those above, we are hypocrites of the highest order. I will not tolerate bullying in my classroom. But because I'm a teacher I should stick to teaching and not confront other teachers? It's not a free speech issue either. Like xkcd explained so succinctly, free speech does not protect you from being called a racist for what you say. And don't argue racists deserve a chance to be heard. When someone is advocating the destruction of another group of people, you really don't need to hear them out. They aren't going to get to a point that makes you think, "Huh, you might be right." They'll just be spreading their hate, and you'll be letting them.

Silence is worse. Stick To Teaching encourages silence. It says look the other way and pretend that all things aren't connected and who you are outside of the classroom isn't who you are inside it. Silence is permission while being too scared to give it or to deny it.

It's on us. Personal responsibility for my students' learning, for their behavior in and out of my classroom is easy. It's expected. Personal responsibility for the fitness of the profession is also on us. I wonder why I don't hear more good cops decrying the actions of the bad ones. I know they're out there, but it makes it hard when I can't hear them calling out their fellows. The silence from the GOP every time 45 does or says something is deafening. We, teachers, need to be tasked with protecting the sanctity of teaching. We defend each other and we come for those who are openly, blatantly, joyfully against our students.

Just so my position on this is clear, I believe the teachers in that Facebook thread should be fired and their credentials removed. They are openly admitting that they do not create a safe environment for their students, that their students are not equal in their classrooms, and that they have remarkably low expectations of and remarkably high contempt for their students and their families. These are inexcusable.

Many teachers moved past Stick To Teaching a long time ago. The #educolor crew has been banging this drum and standing on the front lines alone for far too long. "But Doug, my admin watches my social media and they don't like me to be political." Ok, first- they don't want you to be calling out racists? They're worried your parents or students might see you calling out racists? Like that's bad? I get it though. Everyone speaks up in certain ways. Maybe being loud on twitter isn't your thing, that's fine. Unless, you know, you watch someone be awful and don't say anything. Then you're enabling. Do it in your own way.

But we now live in a world where Stick To Teaching can't be the only option. Don't say to other educators, "Man, I wish you'd just be funny and do your education stuff." Really? Tough. I wrote more songs than My Sharona. I’ll talk about the women’s march I went to with my students because we’re reading about the American Revolution and marches and protests are a part of our history. We’ll look at the Constitution for found poetry, a sneaky way to get them to read something they won’t have to read for years yet (plus doing black-out poetry on the Constitution reminds me of what this administration is doing to it, but I don’t tell them that.) And I’ll be loud on social media because I don’t know how not to be. Because I love this job and most of the people in it. And because we can always always always be better.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in longform. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

I Might Be Projecting

There are many benefits to having a student teacher. The biggest of which, and I've written about this at length, is that it forces me to be a reflective educator. I'm constantly thinking about what I'm doing and justifying the choices I'm making, both to myself and to the student trying to learn to be a teacher from me.

But there are other benefits, especially if you have good student teachers, and I do. A student teacher brings energy to a classroom. New ideas, a willingness to try things, to see how ideas they have work in the real world. I should pause here to add the caveat- If you, as the mentor teacher/cooperating teacher allow and encourage that, and why wouldn't you, don't you want them to be prepared and excited about teaching? One thing that's happening more in my classroom than has happened in the last few years is the Big Research Project. These would be happening without Veronica (my primary student teacher). I got some great ideas at ISTE over the summer and had a list of things I wanted to do with my class when I started this year. But I always have a List of Things To Do. A list that grows and lives and changes throughout the year. It's just that some years I'm better at getting to those things than others.

Here's a secret about me that's probably not much of a secret- I rarely do the same thing the same way more than once in the classroom. I try to evolve lessons and projects. Something didn't work? I take it apart and make it work. Something works? I pick at it to find the loose threads and cut them loose. I like that, but it also makes teaching harder than it needs to be because I don't have a file of Things I Do Every Year that I can reach into with ease. It also doesn't help much that in my eleven years of teaching I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade in three states and four schools. Makes it tough to cut-and-paste projects if you want to be responsive at all, and I do. Not to mention I'm constantly getting better with technology and finding new, better ways to do old things. Projects must evolve with that growth as well.

With Veronica's help, my class is in the midst of their third Big Project of the school year. We started with the Hobby Project, then moved to an Animal Project, and our current project is a Scientist Project. And there's one thing Veronica and I are learning together- Building good projects is difficult.

I have a list of Do's and Don't's (that looks wrong) for these things, which I outline for Veronica before we start planning.

  • I DO want student choice. 
  • I DO want a presentation. 
  • I DON'T want a slideshow (slideshows are good for three kids, and I have 36 and that makes you want to take a Sharpie to the eye, not to mention no one actually likes slideshows). 
  • I DO want opportunities for creativity. 
  • I DON'T want surface level, wiki research. 
  • I DO want us to find an interesting angle for the project before giving it to the kids.

Do you know what's nice about a list of constraints like that? They force you to be creative. Never forget the lessons of JAWS. The shark never worked, and because of that we got the best monster movie ever made (I will fight you). Spielberg was forced to work around his constraints and that made the movie better.

But there are other sneaky things we need to think about when designing projects.

  • What skills are actually being assessed with this project on top of the Big Skill?
  • What kind of time commitment are we talking here?
  • How much class time will be given for this project?

Yes, I want them to learn a hobby, but what other skills are stacked on top of that, and how can we be sure to capitalize on skills the student is already good at while being sure to improve those skills as well as the places they are weak? A tri-fold bulletin board doesn't do that very well. I don't make those part of project expectations. I don't like them. What's funny is kids will bring them in anyway. In our first project I didn't explicitly say "Don't Do Tri-Fold Boards" and kids did them. Why? Experience in other classes? Their parents read "Project" and heard "Tri-Fold Board" because that's what school was for them? Either way, I need to be aware of the subskills that are built in to projects, which I may or may not intend.

I don't like giving a lot of time for projects. In general, in my experience, the kids who finish with five minutes to spare would have finished like that with a one hour time frame or a one month time frame. Extra time isn't helpful. So we give a compressed, within reason, time frame. Three weeks, max. We do not build anything that takes longer than that. With three weeks a student can have soccer practice and a family trip and still have time to finish, but not so much time that the Due Date feels waaaaaaaaaay far off until it's suddenlytomorrowholycrap.

And that plays into the second one- how much class time will be given? My answer- Not much. We have other stuff to do in class. I will spend some time in class giving specific instruction in how I want the presentation, and I will give computer lab time for research, but the majority of the work is not to be done in class. Which is where I run into a thorny problem that requires me to be a grown up and hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in my head at the same time. I don't like giving homework. It's not a thing I do anymore. My student still have homework, but it's simply "Read at least 30 minutes each night, and practice the math skill you're weak on." But I don't send home reading logs or worksheets. I'll know if you're reading at home because your reading at school will improve. I'll know if you're taking responsibility for improving your math if your math improves. I don't want to give homework. But I also can't feasibly take chunks of classtime for a project. I have too much to teach. I need to remember that I am asking the parents to help their child with research and project design, and the parental situation is different for every kid. I need to make a blanket expectation as a baseline, and then flex that expectation depending on each kids' life. I need to communicate with parents, while instilling in my students that they are fifth graders and the expectation is that they do this because I am giving them all the tools they need to be successful. I won't lift them to the gold ring, but I will put out my knee for a boost.

Suddenly the statement, "I want my kids to do a project" is a major undertaking. And we haven't even talked about building and explaining rubrics because I don't want you to dose off.

I love Big Projects. A well-designed one does so much. It gives the students initiative and choice. It sets a goal but allows them to find their own road. It leads the student to topics and learning they might not naturally have gotten to. It gives a final Thing at the end, a culmination that isn't a test but still demonstrates learning.

A well-designed project is art and creation. The teacher starts with an idea, a standard, and from that creates a project. That project is given to a student where it becomes a standard again from which the student can create learning. A well-designed project is a cycle of creation.

**a #WeirdEd week 137 post**

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


*Note about #WeirdEd Week 136- There's a lot of serious we could be chatting about right now. Devos, the ban, the wall, the pure insane fascism, punching Nazis, and more. And we will get to a lot of those and how they impact us, our schools, and our kids. But not every week. Not all the time. It's not healthy for me or for you. This is also a place for weirdness and joy and some good crazy. Sometimes the only way to deal with the darkness is to laugh at it. 
They're everywhere. On our TV screens. In our movies. Our books. They are even enjoying our carbonated beverages. Stephen Colbert tried to warn us about them for years. Did we care?

It's time I leave the cave and face the grizzly truth- Bears are out there. I'm embarrassed I haven't written about them before now. But recently I've been thinking I should. It's like a phone rang in my brain and when I answered it the koala shouted, "BEARS!" If it happened to you it would be ursine.

It makes me blue that we, as a profession, have ignored how bears impact us and our students. The topic has been unbearable to many of us for too long. It's our responsibility to roar from the mountains to the mauls what bears bring to teaching and learning.

By baring my soul like this hopefully we can come together. I feel naked. (Could be worse, I could feel like I'm wearing a teddy in front of you.) I can be willy-nilly and silly no longer. If anything, I should have mentioned them back in October after the Cubbies won the World Series. At least then the conversation could have Ben gentle. But now we might need to gryll each other.

Talking about something this serious requires quite a lot of calm. Frankly, a yogi would be better suited to it than me. I'm kinda the polar opposite. I hope that's not too much of a bother. If we're careful and don't make a boo-boo I think we'll be able to come through with some learning. It won't be a picnic. Conversations like this get easier with practice, like kung-fu.

Honestly, I think you're all smart people. You've probably already had these conversations and they were great. You see the necessity. I'm not trying to panda to you, I really believe that. These issues may seem black and white, but they aren't. Before I wrote this I had to go outside. I had to waka lot before I broke the the bearrier.

I think I should wrap this post up before you think I'm filling it with Paddington. Soon a satellite dish will pop out of my head. I'll leave you with this- the whole country needs to recognize the jam we in. I take a page from the Bill of Rights and extend my hand, my whole arm. I welcome into my classroom my brother bear.

*I couldn't get a stupid gummy bear joke to work so it's the header image instead.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Need Unstructured Play: A Global School Play Day Post

this post is written by Eric Saibel for #WeirdEd Week 135 and to support the Global School Play Day Initiative.

As a father and 20-year educator, I observe the inexorable role of play in the daily life of children. Play is a child’s default setting, interrupted only by some natural cycles (like sleep) and other quotidian obligations. At my school I see students running and playing every spare moment they can. The need for play - as both creative outlet and survival tool - is a tectonic force deep within us. So why does the idea of play seem so contrary to the idea of school?

At some point, society began to see play as separate from serious learning and work - the opposite of productive endeavor. The traditional model of school reserves play as something to be done at set times and places, or as a reward for good behavior. Articles in major publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times have highlighted overwhelming amounts of stress for teens in highest-performing schools, which can contribute to a higher susceptibility for depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. Now more than ever is an ideal time to reconsider the critical importance of free play in school and life.

Research strongly supports this; play is a catalyst for connecting synapses, developing empathy, nurturing creativity and bolstering happiness. So how can we tap into that magic potion in our decades-long struggle to improve education?

In early 2015, a group of educators saw a TEDx talk from Dr. Peter Gray about the decline of play in our society and decided to create a day - just one out of 180 in the school calendar - dedicated to unstructured play for kids. A month later, with shoestring promotion through social media, the first ever Global School Play Day took place on February 4, 2015. Over 65,000 children from six continents participated; last year, the number rose to nearly 180,000 children.

Play isn’t just for the youngest kids; why shouldn’t high school (or college) seniors feel just as joyful about their learning as kindergartners? Education needs to rethink its age-old mindset that fun is frivolous and that free choice is somehow contrary to rigorous learning. We must also remember another important fact: adults thrive and learn through play as well.

Play is a design laboratory, an exercise in problem-solving and collaboration. Play builds physical muscle and emotional resilience. Play is our first - and best - learning methodology. Help your local school reinvest in the power and potential of play by encouraging them to sign up for this global event on February 1. This year we hope to see more schools and districts embrace play as an essential element of learning. Instead of 180,000 students, why not 180 million? Each and every one of them needs play as much as the other.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Vote With Your Wallet On 1/20

image by Sarah Windisch

Inauguration day is not going to be a happy day. I mean, sure it'll be fun to laugh at how Komrade Trump couldn't even get a cover band to play and how he had to pay seat fillers. But at some point during the day he will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and just typing that makes me want to throw up.

It's terrible. Just that it's happening sets every single civil rights battle we've ever fought back. It's a slap in the face of millions. Sure, some people voted for him, and those people are ok with racism, sexism, bigotry, hate, fear, and a complete and utter dedication to ignorance. "Doug, you're painting with a broad brush." Well, when you're on the same side as the KKK, Nazis, and Putin you're on the wrong side. Face it.

What can we do? What can I do?

I have three books. They're independently published, which means I control everything about them. Maybe there's something I can do.

I decided to make Jan 20th, 2017 as good a day as I can. I have a stack of He's the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You're Welcome), and The Unforgiving Road sitting in my office. I get them from my printer at a pretty good price and I keep them around to sell autographed copies and take to conferences and whatnot. On Friday the 20th, the profit from every book I sell from my stash* will go to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I'm going to split the profits right down the middle and donate half to one, half to the other.

So if you don't have one of my books, or you want to give one as a gift, send me an email to with your order on 1/20/17. I'll figure in shipping and send you a total price. You send that payment to a PayPal account I give you in the email. I send you books, and send your money (minus the cost of the book to me) to PP or the ACLU.

I can't do much. But I can do something. So can you. Don't stand by and watch the worst of us pretend they're what America and humanity is about.

*This only extends to books ordered directly from me. It does not include books purchased through amazon or iTunes or other online retailers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When I'm Not A Teacher I Become A Better Teacher

this is also the #WeirdEd week 133 post
I promise a picture of myself as the header
 image is relevant and not just an ego trip.
I like to ride my motorcycle. I do it every chance I get. It's my main mode of transportation unless the weather is awful or I need to get supplies to or from school. Riding a motorcycle makes me more aware of my surroundings. Not only the unique way I experience the world, the vivid smells and views, but also because a motorcyclist always has to keep their head on a swivel. You people in your cars can be scary and in a contest between the two of us you'll always win. Perched on two wheels, I see more, smell more, experience more, and am constantly aware of those around me. I think this heightened awareness and appreciation comes into my classroom. It's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

I write for fun. If you come over to my house after my children have gone to bed, odds are good I'm upstairs writing. Writing for the CUE blog I edit. Writing for this space. Writing another book, be it education-focused or fiction. Writing is a constant process of creation and revision. It's working when you don't feel it and it's reflecting on what you've done in order to do it better. Writing is failing and struggling. All the writing I do helps me appreciate the process I'm asking my students to undertake when I send them away with suggestions to "try it again, but with this." It means when they say they don't have any ideas I have experience with that feeling and how to get around it. I don't write in class, I don't write for my kids. I write for me. But it's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

I'm obsessed with music. I can't get enough. I've got my preferred genres, like anyone. Given the choice I'll pick Ozzy's Boneyard on XM and air guitar and headbang my way to my destination. I know those songs backwards and forward and I like thinking about them, dissecting them. I like picking apart Master of Puppets as much as I like delving deep into the texts we read in class, and it's the same muscle so doing one makes me better at the other. In the same vein, I like finding new music, things that challenge me. That band or album that makes me think, "I have no idea if I like this. But it's so interesting, I must hear it again." Using music to push myself and challenge myself and open myself to greater understanding or different forms of creativity. Like when I ask kids to take a risk on a new skill. Like when I decide to take a leap on a different form of teaching. I've trained myself to experience something new, not get it, and keep at it until I figure it out. I don't play Frank Zappa or Sun Ra or Run the Jewels for my kids. But what I learned learning to listen to them comes into my teaching and my classroom. It's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

This list could go on. The books I choose to read. The ways I'm learning to parent. The movies and tv shows I watch. The vacations I go on, theater I see, people I choose to hang out with, tattoos I have, my politics. None of those things have anything directly to do with the students who come into my classroom every day and the way they learn, but all of them are a part of me, so they are a part of my classroom. Not long ago I wrote about writing my first novel and how I brought that to my kids to talk about what I learned by writing it. That was a great conversation that wasn't in the curriculum, except it is. Sometimes we bring who we are openly into the classroom. But not everything. The building blocks of personality that are so much a part of us that we might not even know they're in our classrooms.

When I reflect on teaching and learning, I try to see those blocks. Because I know that I'm not a Teacher. I know that teaching is what I do, it's what I'm called to do, and what I love doing. But it's a part of me, not Who I Am. How I'm not a Teacher makes me a better teacher.

How are you not a Teacher? How has that made you better at teaching?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Quick Build: Wind-Powered Cars

"Teachers need to give specific instructions," I say to my student teachers. "Model model model. Be clear in your expectations. Tell them what you're going to do, tell them/have them tell you what you're doing, tell them/have them tell you what you did. This is a good rule to follow."

I look at my students. "We're going into the MakerSpace. Using only the materials you can find in that room, each partnership is going to build a wind-powered car. This is all the description I'm giving you. You have an hour. Go."

Teaching is all about bending rules. They'll learn that too.

My class has been struggling with responsibility as a whole this school year. We tend to not make the best choices. Due to that, we haven't spent as much time in the MakerSpace as I'd like. There are 35 of them and one of me (unless Veronica or Jill is with me). That didn't feel like enough eyes considering the choices that enough of them would make in our own classroom.

But this is a new year. We started 2017 by picking our own desks and having (yet another) conversation about expectations and responsibility. We talked about why we hadn't been in the MakerSpace. And we all agreed that we could be better.

Can't have a conversation like that and then not put your money where your mouth is. I booked an hour fifteen in the MakerSpace the next day and went looking for an easy project to do in there. I didn't want a free-for-all, but I also didn't want to start the Big Project I have planned. I needed something to get us back into the groove. A few Google and Pintrest links later and I found some lessons about building wind-powered cars. As is my whim, I took the part of that plan I liked (the final product) and tossed what didn't work for me (everything else).

What I wrote above is exactly what I said to my kids before we went in. Veronica and Jill had created groups of two and three, students got into their groups, and in we went.

I like contracted time frames for projects. Jon Corippo describes lessons as being like a gas- they expand to fill the space they're given. Give students three days to build wind-powered cars and most groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Give them an hour and the same groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Plus it's fun to watch them plan, design, build, test, and revise as quickly as possible. Teaches efficiency and creativity.

It was interesting to see what students went for. A bunch started cutting Styrofoam into circles for wheels. Others found the Lego sets and pilfered wheels from there. Some found cardboard or wooden circles. This is where most ran into their first, and biggest, problem. Almost to a group they fixed their wheels to an axle and then fixed the axle to their car body. But they did it with tape, or by putting a hole in the body. And when they tried to make their car roll nothing happened. NOW the learning really starts. What's the problem? The axle isn't letting the wheels spin.  How do we troubleshoot this? Bigger hole? Rubber bands? There were all kinds of solutions. Only one or two groups used the straws they found as the fixed axle which attached to the car body, and put toothpicks they'd glued together inside the straw, connected to each wheel, allowing the wheel to spin freely. Most groups just made the holes bigger or figured out a way to get the wheels on the axle loosely enough that they'd spin but not come off. Hey, they solved their problem. I didn't say the car had to be elegant. You're not getting elegant in an hour. You're getting working.

The next major problem was the wind power. Once the wheels where on I caught a bunch of groups laying on the ground blowing as hard as they could on the back of their car, trying to make it go. In a moment right out of MEN IN BLACK one group finally noticed the fan sitting unused, plugged it in, and stopped hyperventilating. The others came over quickly, "Can we get in on that?" But they still just turned the fan on the backs of their cars. I did a little prodding, "Why do you think it's not working? Can you think of something else that is wind powered? What's that have that yours doesn't?" "A SAIL!" one group exclaims. Soon the idea to mount a sail spread across the room, as good ideas often do.

But that wasn't the end of it. Testing continued and, "Our sail isn't working, Mr Robertson." "Hmm, turn the fan on it again. What are you seeing it do?" Some sails became flags, others were too tightly straight. One-by-one groups realized their sails weren't catching any wind and they started testing ways to keep the sail from being a flag and ways to catch more wind. Curved sails began to appear. But none looked like another. Rectangles, triangles, big, small, paper, fabric, tin foil. Every car was different.

At the end of the hour, and I want to stress again that all of the above design, building, testing, revision was done in under 60 minutes, we sat and watched each group go, marveling at the breadth of the creativity in the room. Two groups were unsuccessful in their builds, but they knew why and were on the right track. With a little more time they also would have had working builds. Some cars only rolled a few feet. One tipped onto its nose immediately and fell over, but the group noted that the Lego man they put in the front was throwing the weight off, removed him, and had a successful second run. And two or three rolled impressively far.
"Why does your car have a spoiler?" "Spoilers are cool."

"We call it the Egg Roll."

Afterward, back in class, we wrote reflections, talking about the process, struggles, successes, and reasoning behind the choices made.

This is a project that I could go back to if I wanted to. We kept the cars, I'm going to display them in a case at the front of the school reserved for projects. We could continue to revise. But I like having proof of what's possible in a short amount of time. I can use that lesson in class for other things. And I was shown that my kids were ready for bigger projects in the MakerSpace.

All in all, a very successful hour. I think more Quick Builds might be in our future. I wonder what they can do in thirty minutes...

Here's the video of the final products rolling along.