Tuesday, August 19, 2014

#WeirdEd Week 19- Ferguson

By Doug Robertson (@TheWeirdTeacher)
With help from Samantha Bates (@sjsbates), Sarah Thomas (@sarahdateechur), and Rafranz Davis (@RafranzDavis)


*deep breath*

Here we are. My silly little edchat where we talk about all kinds of issues great and small through my own personal lens. We’ve talked about our students (and ourselves) as aliens. We’ve spoken in the voices of ourselves as children. We’ve remembered a fallen favorite actor by connecting his work to our own classrooms. We’ve rhymed an entire chat to talk about classroom flow. We were Alice Cooper.

And after two school shootings in one week we talked about guns and school safety. Because #WeirdEd is about more than just how we teach our kids math or what behavior plan to use or how data is important. #WeirdEd is about us, our kids, and our lives together. Our connection. Anyone who has read anything I’ve written about education knows I’m firmly and loudly in the Relationships First camp. And school shootings impact that connection.

And now we are here. As I write this a town in America is being torn apart by its own police force. Next Monday morning* the students of Ferguson, MO are supposed to start school. In that morning's light, by foot, bus, bike, and car, children will pass canisters of tear gas, looted businesses, spent shells, and drying blood on their way to their first day of school. 

Teachers are supposed to welcome these children into their classes. We know what the first day is like. Everyone is nervous. What’s the new teacher going to be like? What are the kids going to be like? I hope she/they like me. 

You settle them in, play an ice breaker, start putting names to voices and faces, go over rules and expectations, practice routines. The children are, at least in my class, very quiet those first few days. Still feeling me out. Still trying to understand me and learn the tricks of the classroom.

But the children of Ferguson will have so much more on their minds than that. So much more stress and anguish and anger and fear. 

How can you possibly teach to them? How can you start building those relationships? How can the children ever trust an authority figure ever again? How would I do my job in a situation that is so much more than how to line up and is this where the dull pencils go?

#WeirdEd Weds at 7PST/#WeirdEdE Weds 7EST is going to be about Ferguson. It has to be. We cannot close our eyes and pretend it is not an educational issue. Twitter is about immediate response, and the tragedy in Ferguson continues, compounded now not only by police overreach and violence but by the children having to return to school. How can we not talk about this?

This chat will not directly be about the murder of Mike Brown. It can’t be. But it also won’t shy away from hard topics and issues. This is part of the reason I brought in Sarah and Rafranz. I respect them very much and in this topic I feel I needed more voices, more input, which I’ve seen them provide on this topic for over a week on twitter. 

As with our chat about guns in school, I insist and demand complete respect from all participants. I can’t kick anyone off a hashtag but I will encourage muting or blocking of disrespectful tweeters. And I will take disrespect towards someone in #WeirdEd/E personally. Like with the gun chat, we can disagree, that’s how we learn, but we must remain civil.

I do not think that is a real concern with the teachers who come to #WeirdEd. I have said before and honestly believe that #WeirdEd collects the best group of educators on twitter, which is why we continue to grow. But with a situation like this, a topic like this, safety must be guaranteed for all participants. I trust everyone who comes to the chat to know this already, since the gun chat was even more respectful than I ever could have hoped.

My thoughts, our thoughts, are with the students of Ferguson, their families, and the teachers who must begin a school year under a dark cloud of anger, fear, and tear gas.

*Ferguson School District announced due to the unrest they will postpone the start of school a week. It was supposed to start this Monday.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#WeirdEd Week 18- Robin Williams

THESIS: As I wrote the questions and blog for this and looked at Robin's most memorable roles one thing kept popping up-These were characters going against the grain to find ways to be true to themselves. They are different, the weird kids, outsiders who are ok with being on the outside. I'd never realized that before and am starting to realize just how deeply his movies must have influenced me. One more thing to thank and love him for.

Robin Williams was, to me, the ultimate Weird Kid. He was out of his mind in the best possible way, kinetic to the point of explosion, and faster than a ferret on angel dust equipped with a warp drive. He was, to be cliche, a true original. There was no one else like him before, and we'll never seen anyone like him again.
I had a different topic planned for today but that can be pushed backwards a week. We need to talk about the brilliant, side-splitting, and ultimately heart-breaking Robin Williams. His work, and how he influences teachers across the world.
I'm young enough to have missed the early madness live and have had to catch it on albums and video like "A Night at the Met" and Mork and Mindy. I was probably first introduced to him the way a lot of us were- through ALADIN. And then I followed him through MRS. DOUBTFIRE, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, PATCH ADAMS, DEATH TO SMOOCHY* and HOOK, going backwards and memorizing huge chunks of GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM in the process. To this day THE BIRDCAGE is one of my favorite comedies of all time. When he would release a new special, like Weapons of Self Destruction, my sides would ache and I wouldn't be able to remember half of what he said because I was laughing too hard at the other half. So many words. So much brilliance being fired in every direction.
Robin was either the best or worst interview you've ever seen, depending on what your goal for an interview is. If you want to be entertained he's the best. If you want a straight answer to any question he was terrible. Watch and part of his Inside the Actor's Studio interview (YouTube doesn't have the full one any more). Free association doesn't begin to describe how his mind worked. He called it, "voluntary Tourette syndrome." And I think we have students like that. I know I do. Kids who say things that are obviously part of a much longer conversation that they have been having all day, which you are supposed to be aware of but aren't. I can't imagine that Robin was an easy student to have. No comedian is, I'm sure, but I think we can all agree that he would have had even the most patient of us pulling our hair out and sending home letters, "Dear Mrs. Williams, I am trying very hard to help Robin focus, but he's very...spirited. Please speak with him at home about the value of paying attention and not calling out every time a thought pops in to his head." Shows what we know.
Teachers love to quote his role as teacher John Keating in DEAD POET'S SOCIETY because he played the kind of teacher a lot of us want to be and managed to reach the students in a way we want to reach our own. I personally gravitated to what he said at the end of MRS DOUBTFIRE (not this clip, but this is how I want to teach a lot of the time, even though it would drive the calm kids crazy), a quote which I can't find anywhere online but amounted to, "Don't talk down to children, just talk to them." That is perfect.
I could go on and on, but rather than do that let's just leave it at I loved Robin Williams. I wish I could operate at half his speed. I wish we hadn't lost him.
But even though he's gone, we still have our memories of him and the laughs and inspiration he has provided. Let's use his light to guide our teaching.

If you or someone you love is thinking about suicide, please call this number. 1-800-273-8255

*SMOOCHY is darkly hilarious. Completely underrated film.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

#WeirdEd Week 20 - Asking Questions

Riddle me this, #WeirdEders- What is it that we expect our students to be able to do, but rarely give them a chance to so?
Give up? Because it's too vague to be a good riddle?
Oh no, you know because you can read and you noticed the title of this post? Asking questions, you say? Well done, Dork Knight! You've foiled me once again!

Teachers, whether we admit it or not, operate under a paradox. We have, or the kids think we have, All The Answers. But we don't we know we don't. We also don't want the kids to see us as a fount of all knowledge. We want them to see us as a gateway, a tool, a guide to knowledge. We want them to learn to ask us questions. We want to not give them the answer, but give them the inspiration to go find the answer. Or an answer. Or to write their own answer. How amazing of a feeling is it when a student does something truly original. A new thought, a new question, and new insane, impossible, ridiculous, beautifully original idea?
But those thoughts must start with a question. And questioning, for most people, needs to be taught. We are a curious species but some of us are not natural questioners.
So let's practice questioning. This #WeirdEd(E) will be backwards. Lauren (@LTaylorELA) and I will not be asking questions. We will be providing answers and you must write a question you think connects to that answer in some way. Practicing backtracking is practicing asking Why. The sky is blue. Why? The engine makes the car go. How (I know that's not a Why but it's a question)? Your eyes face forward. Why? I should read He's the Weird Teacher. Why? (A- Because it's awesome. Nathan Fillion riding a comet through a storm of lightning bolts and howling wolves awesome.)
So again, because I know some of you will be confused (yes, this is how I introduce things in class too), we will NOT be asking Qs. We will be giving As and you provide the Q.
Do not be confused.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Duncan's Lack of Classroom Experience Shouldn't Be Held Against Him

One argument that gets thrown around every time someone wants to complain about the state of education in America, or about Common Core, is Sec. of Education Arne Duncan's supposed lack of experience in education. These arguments are predicated on the assumption that someone in charge of education for the entire nation should have some experience at the ground level. He should be been a classroom teacher or an administrator. Maybe a superintendent would be acceptable, but we have all complained that our own superintendents are too divorced from what actually happens in the classroom, so it probably wouldn't be good enough.
Before we talk about whether or not the Sec. of Education should have been a teacher, lets's check out the history of the position and previous Sec. of Educations. Grab a snack, kids. This might take a minute.

The Department of Education was first created way back in 1867 for the purpose of data collection so the government could help teachers teach better. Yeah, is was created to collect data and help schools be more effective. So that's not new then.
It went through a few evolutionary phases before becoming the Cabinet position we know it as today. Congress made it Cabinet-level, and thereby necessitating a Sec. of Education, in 1980. As far as I'm concerned this makes it a fairly young position. It also means there aren't as many Secretaries to go through as you might have thought. I'm sure most of them were teachers though, right? They had to be.

#1: Shirley Hufstedler (1979-1981)
Appointed by Pres. Carter
Hey, we start with a woman! That's rare for politics, so points to us right there. But was she a teacher?
Nope. She was a lawyer and a judge. She did teach law after she left the position though.
Verdict: NO

#2: Terrel Bell (1981-1985)
Appointed by Pres. Reagan
He was a teacher! High school, then administration, then superintendent. He was one of us. During his tenure Reagan tried to reduce funding to the Department of Education and he was expected to dismantle it but ran into legal issues. He's one of the architects of A Nation At Risk, something many of us might not be fans of. He eventually resigned because of disagreements on the funding issue.
Verdict: YES

#3: William Bennett (1985-1988)
Appointed by Reagan
Lifetime politician. No mention of educational positions in his bio until he is appointed. He did chair the National Humanities Center and the National Endowment for the Humanities. No classroom/administrative experience in schools. He was pro:
  • Competency testing for teachers
  • Opening the teaching profession to knowledgeable individuals who have not graduated from "schools of education"
  • Performance-based pay
  • Holding educators accountable for how much children learn
  • A national examination to find out exactly how much our children know
  • Parental choice of schools
Guess we dodged a bullet there, huh?
Verdict: NO

#4: Lauro Cavazos (1988-1990)
Appointed by Pres Reagan/served under HW Bush
He taught not at the lower educational levels but in the collegiate levels at Tufts University and the Medical College of Virginia. He also served at dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. Let it not be said that teaching college students isn't teaching. He also resigned early for misusing frequent flyer miles.
Verdict: YES

Right now we are at 2 NO/2 YES

#5: Lamar Alexander (1990-1993)
Appointed by Pres HW Bush
He was a lawyer and then Governor of Tennessee. He was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988-1991, but never faculty. If being Sec of Education doesn't count as being a teacher then neither does being president of a university. It looks like he made a lot of money in office and not much else.
Verdict: NO

#6: Richard Riley (1993-2001)
Appointed by Pres Clinton
Never a teacher, always a politician involved in education as Governor of South Carolina. He helped get the internet into schools and was a major player in improving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Verdict: NO

#7: Rod Paige (2001-2005)
Appointed by Pres W Bush
Classroom teacher, college dean, school superintendent, Doctor of Physical Education. As superintendent he launched charter schools and introduced teacher pay being impacted by test scores in his district. Under him the "Houston Miracle" happened, where test scores rose dramatically, and was celebrated as a hero. Those claims turned out to be false. He was also in charge when No Child Left Behind went into effect, which we all loved so much. 
Verdict: YES

#8: Margaret Spellings (2005-2009)
Appointed by Pres W Bush
She worked in an education reform commission in Texas. Not quite teaching, that. She was also an Associate Executive Director of the Texas Association of School Boards. So not in a school. Not on a school board. So not a teacher in any way.She did advise Bush during his gubernatorial campaign and as governor.
Verdict: NO

#9: Arne Duncan (2009-Present)
Appointed by Pres Obama
Never a classroom teacher, Duncan served as CEO to Chicago's Public Schools and was executive director of the Ariel Education Initiative. So involved in schools on not a ground level, but seemingly more hands-on than many previous Secretaries. Also accused of increasing charter schools and leader of Race to the Top.
Verdict: NO

So what's the final score?
YES- 3
NO- 6

Which means attacking Duncan for not having classroom experience is historically ridiculous because there is little precedent for the Sec. of Education actually having classroom experience. In fact, there's barely any precedent for the position to have any educational experience at all. 

Do I think there should be a former teacher in office? Yes. I want decisions impacting teachers to be made by a former teacher. But the fact is it's a political appointment. Secretary of Education is not elected. If you want to be The Man you need to leave the classroom and either become a Governor or lawyer or adviser. You need the president to know who you are. The Secretary of Education is not a teacher anymore. They are a politician. S/He makes policy and deals with reporters and sits in Cabinet meetings and gets yelled at all the time. S/He doesn't deal with students. S/He is not a teacher or a principal or even a superintendent.

There might be reasons to complain about Arne Duncan. His lack of classroom experience simply isn't one.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014

    #WeirdEd Week 17: The Public

    Ah, the court of public opinion. Thanks to the internet everyone is allowed to express their views in a manner that makes them easily share-able, mock-able, and get-unreasonably (or, rarely, reasonably)-angry-about-able. And because we are teachers we key in on public opinions that have to do with us. Naturally. We don't really care what everyone has to say about plumbers. Not in a deep, meaningful way. If your neighbor makes fun of his plumber you laugh along with him. If your neighbor makes fun of his kid's teacher we take to the internets to blog with great vengeance.

    If it sounds like I'm mocking people who blog with great anger I'm not. I'm the guy who made this, this, and this. To be fair, I try not to be negative that often and I also made this and this. But we do like to get angry at the general public for their views on teaching. And we really like to get angry (or get behind) famous people. Because famous means better informed, I guess.

    The first of our two favorite celebrities right now are Louis CK, who tweeted a rant against Common Core a few months ago and was crowned King Of Education Policy by people who have no idea he also has a five minute long "suck a bag of dicks" routine (which is hilarious). And I like Louis CK, but come on, if a parent at your school ripped on how you taught you'd ask them how long they went to school to be a teacher. He's a comedian and a parent. An excellent, smart comedian, but still not actually an expert in what we do, how we do it, or how those decisions get made.

    The second is Whoopi "Guinan" Goldberg, who is in hot water because she said on her show that she's against teacher tenure for bad teachers. For the record, I like tenure, it's an important protection we have. But, her argument, as poorly thought out as it might be, is being lost in the outrage. As far as I can tell, she's against bad teachers having it.* Which leads us down the road of define a bad teacher, rate a teacher, no you suck and your show is dumb.

    We overreact when famous people talk about our cause because we don't feel our voices are loud enough on our own. Famous people own megaphones much bigger than any we have. Millions (I assume) of people saw Whoopi talk about tenure on her show. 3.6 million people follow Louis CK on Twitter, most of whom are probably real people. But we forget that these people have no idea what they are talking about. Or we remember that and it pisses us off more. Because they are talking to people we have to deal with. Our parents watch those shows, follow those people, see those clips online out of context. And we know people are teeeerrrrriiibbbblle at context. It's one of the reasons we (I) teach deeper reading so hard. So my kids grow up knowing to look closer at an edited video clip presented as whole.

    So let's talk about the court of public opinion and what we can do about it. How do people feel about teachers in general? Education in general? What do you think? Are there things we can do to sway the public? What's a good way and a bad way to get people to listen to us? At what point do we become unprofessional about it and lose public trust that way? At what point do we become Chicken Little and lose credibility because Everything Is Awful All The Time? At what point do we say, "Screw them, they don't get it." How deeply do we, should we, could we engage? How deeply do you engage? Online? In the newspaper (people still read those?)? In person?

    It occurs to me this might not be as silly a topic as some others. Sorry kids, can't have ice cream all the time and this is important to education.

    *For the record, she's wrong. But not for the reasons she's defending herself against. And the massive hatewave doesn't help us at all.