Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Favorite Things I Wrote in 2016

I don't really want to do a Top Ten post, but it seemed like fun to go back and look through the writing I did this year. These lists are culled from this blog and the CUE blog, where I'm editor. These are in no particular order. I should note that if my ego had it's way this would be WAY longer.

From this blog

CUE Blog (I write a lot for CUE, but these three are the standouts to me)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Unforgiving Road

My third book, and first novel, came out today! It's called The Unforgiving Road and I'm incredibly proud of it.

I'm supposed to call The Unforgiving Road my third book, but it's kinda not. It's really my first book. I wrote it eight years ago, back when I still had all my hair and no kids and had just started dating my wife and lived in Hawaii. It was a little shorter and much different than the book you're reading about now.

Leading up to summer break last school year I was starting to feel like all I wrote about was education, and I was needing another outlet. So I pulled this out of storage and spent the summer reworking it. I don't think I rewrote every word, but at least 75% of them.

As far as plot, it's a pulpy action-adventure set in the post-apocalypse. The main character is Dia, a brand new full member of the Riders of Rawthe. The Riders are a motorcycle-mounted army who's mission is to defend their land and the land of others from the Angel and his Disciples. Dia ventures out of the Rider's Camp with her friends- twin sisters Skid and Lid, and the thoughtful Eleven. Together they experience the world in all its twists and turns, growing and discovering who they are and who they were.

They are trained to live by the Commandments of the Riders. How well will these rules serve them out on the Unforgiving Road?

Buy The Unforgiving Road on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Createspace, and Smashwords, or reach out to me for your very own autographed copy.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 131- Elf On The Shelf

Dark forces live in our classrooms. They steal books and misplace papers and break pencils. They loosen desk legs and water bottle lids. They hide food in cubbies, ID cards deep in backpacks, and journals who knows where. What are these dark forces, you ask.


And I have it on good authority, they tend to dwell on the shelves.

I knew the custodian never cleans up there.

What are the mysteries of the classroom? The unexplained phenomena explainable only when you take into account the existence of these miniature, pointy-eared bringers of mischief. We all know mischief is a euphemism though, don't we? We know what they really are- evil doers*.

Tonight's chat will be all about the things that happen in our classrooms that seem to be out of our control. Out of anyone's control. Things that seem to happen and the only possible explanation is, "Because magic?" Naturally, since this is the chat before most of us get off for holiday break, I'll spin things in a yuletide way. How could I not? We may stray from the chosen path of elf hunting once or twice to discuss how a candy cane is most like a teaching tool, or how the War On Christmas is a made up persecution fantasy perpetrated by insecure, frightened children. Ok, maybe not the second one. To those people we at #WeirdEd HQ (meaning me) say, "Happy holidays."

This is a Christmas-but-actually-holiday chat. Sure, I'm using Elf on a Shelf as a jumping off point, but who wants to just talk about Christmas?

Strap on your jiggle bells, practice your caroling, deck your halls, prepare the yule log, close down the circus, evacuate the zoo, spin your dreidel, and let's party.

*side note- remember when a politician calling baddies "evil doers" was the dumbest thing you could think of? Good times.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Let Me Reiterate

Doing something once isn't actually all that hard.

"I'm gonna get in shape!" Great! You feel good about yourself, you pull on your shorts and shoes, you hit the road, you feel strong and proud of yourself.

Day three, when you're sore and tired? That's when the work begins.

Let me start again- Doing something once isn't all that hard. It's the doing it again that's the tricky part.

This is a lesson we learn again and again. And again. And again. And we have to keep learning it because often it's one of those lessons we learn in one part of our lives that doesn't easily translate to other parts of our lives.

Iteration, repetition, is the key.

Take working out. Eventually that cycle gets easier. Eventually it becomes habit and the iteration of the workout system takes hold. Then the trick becomes including creative iterations within the system to keep the body guessing and growing. This is a learning system.

Students struggle mightily to iterate their learning. Because students are people and, as we established earlier, people need to learn their lesson again and again and again. And again. One of my jobs, and my biggest challenges, as a teacher, is to guide students to a place where they understand and accept this fact of life. This unchangeable tenet of learning- that you gotta do it over and over.

It's one of the reasons I love teaching coding. Coding tricks kids into doing this on their own. They code something, make it happen, see, in real time, where the problem lies, and fix it. Over and over. They keep trying. Because it's fun, it's like a game.Which is great for me. Build those muscles in the game, kids. I don't care, as long as you're working them. I do the same thing with reading comprehension strategies. I conspire with parents during conferences. "He needs to be reading every night, and he is of course because I ask him to. If you could ask him questions about what he's reading, good, detailed, WHY questions, what will help him in school. You know, you could also do that with TV or movies or video games. Yes, I know! It's the same muscles. Doesn't have to be books. He should be thinking critically about all the media he consumes anyway. And let's not fool ourselves into thinking the majority of that media comes in the reading he does because I ask him to." Coding works those iteration muscles.

My job, then, is to make them work in math and reading and science. And writing. Oh yeah, that's a big one. Projects and writing is where iteration, the strong ability to go back into drafts and fix, that's a skill that's going to play into their lives forever. So I use coding as a springboard for that, but that's not enough. Because I am a giant ego-case, and also because I like using what I know in my classroom (it works better than using what I don't know), I talk about my own writing. I bring my challenges and struggles and life lessons into the classroom and try to help my kids see how I use the skills they are learning. "Is this gonna be on the test?" "No! Because I almost never give you tests, you know that! It is gonna be a part of everything you do in class though!" "Oh...ok. So I should write it down then?"

I just finished a book. It will be out very soon. It's a fiction novel that I've been working on for, depending on how you want to count, over seven years or about seven months. I wrote the first "final" draft seven years ago, put it in a drawer, thought about it all the time, wrote other things, and then over the summer I dug it back out and basically rewrote the entire thing. And rewrote it. And rewrote it. Because real writing is a giant pain and it takes forever and I love it. A writer, google has failed me who, said, "Anyone can write. Writers rewrite." Because that's where the real art of it comes in.

And here's the thing I'm going to bring into my classroom from that- I did a final final final final pass of the full text this week. Like, this was the third time I've said, "I finished! It's really done!" And I found a ton of stuff. Not even story things. Little silly errors. Grammar and punctuation and words that were wrong. This was after I'd read it who knows how many times, and a bunch of other people had read it, and they'd made corrections and suggestions, and then I'd read it again and fixed more things, and then there were still more things. Now, does this mean that I'm a bad self editor? That's the risk I'm taking here, right? By telling my students (and you, dear reader), that after multiple passes I still found problems, I'm telling you I must not be very good at the whole editing thing.
The final final final final pass notes
Or maybe it just proves my point that there's always more to fix. After all, this book is over 78k words. That's a lot of words. So it takes a lot of combing. The bigger message here is I thought I was done three times. And still I went back. Because I knew it could be better. I knew there was more to fix. (Important Note- There's always more to fix. da Vinci* said "art is never finished, only abandoned".) I'm not trying to make my kids maniacs, obsessing over every little detail, but I kinda am. And to do that I'm going to talk about my journey. Because they like me, they respect me, and I think sometimes it's ok if teachers teach by telling stories from their own lives. That's a whole other blog post, but storytelling as teaching is probably the oldest form of the profession. Take advantage.

How do we get kids to reiterate? We help them to have pride in themselves and their work so they want it to be better. We give them things of value to do, so they care when they do it. And we also show them that iteration is hard, it's where the work really is. We show them in a dozen different ways big and small. We make our work more transparent. We show (and we believe) that it's a process. And that it takes time and can't be rushed. It's where we learn and practice patience and accept fault. Because fault is a part of it too. It's about honestly finding fault, assessing it, and correcting it. In small ways and big.

Every project I give my kids, writing or presenting or whatever, I pound the "First Drafts Aren't Done, Second Drafts Are Done" drum. But it's not enough to say it. I'm finding ways to teach it, to show it. A big theme emerging in our class this year is this idea of practicing something and dedicating ourselves to improving it, in small bites and big chunks. I think it's a combination of the kind of group I have and having two student teachers (one main, and an alternate that's in every few weeks) with me.

Doing isn't that hard. Getting good. Going again. That's hard.

*how pretentious am I, huh?

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 130- Hour of Code

This week's blog and questions were written by Angie Kalthoff since this week is Hour of Code week. My personal feelings on teaching kids to code have nothing to do with Preparing Them For Jobs Of The Future so directly. When I watch students code I see them thinking around corners in a much more concrete way than they might during other assignments. Coding encourages iteration, experimentation, and risk-taking. Coding makes kids think in specifics while also being creative with solutions. It's a logic puzzle with real-world applications. I like Hour of Code and I use it in my class. I also move beyond it with apps like Wonder and Tickle and bots like Dash and Sphero and Parrot drones. This is never going to be a space to shill for a special EduWeek or EduMonth just because it's that time. Hour of Code is the real deal. Like everything else, it's not the ONLY deal, but I encourage the leap to check it out at with your kids whether you know how to code or not. You don't even need to set up a class account, though that's real easy too. It's one of those great things you can put them on with zero prep and say, "Now, learn how this works." And they will, even the littles. I've seen it with my own two gorgeous green eyes. Then your job is to tie it back to everything else we do. Which is pretty much 90% of the job anyway.

Q: 90 % of families want their kids to learn about this, but only 40% of schools teach it…By the year 2020 there will be an estimated 1.4 million jobs in this area with only 400,000 graduates. Can you guess what it is?

Computer Science! While technology is changing everything and it is a big part of our future, many students are consumers of technology instead of creators. By introducing computer science to our learners at a young age, we can help close the gap! This week we celebrate Computer Science Education Week with a kick off of the Hour Of Code. During this time educators will introduce their students to computer science through activities that can exceed, but don’t have to, one hour of time. The goal is to expose students and share this topic with them, we don’t expect students to become experts in one hour. If you want to learn more or try some cool activites, you can visit . If you want to attend a free in person workshop aimed at K-6 educators, you can check them out at . Check out #HourOfCode and #CsForAll to connect with your peers!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 129- No Ideas

Welcome to The Time of the Year, at least for some of us. That special time between Thanksgiving break and Christmas break that's just long enough to do something cool but not quite long enough to do something cool. Just a few weeks. And the Space can set in. The kids are spacing, we're spacing, it's hard sometimes to push through the holiday break. We've been pushing hard since the start of the year and there's a pretty significant part of our brains that is positive the school year just started, like, three weeks ago. How could it possible that it's already almost December? There's so much I haven't taught yet.

Anyway, it's easy for the tank to be running a little dry about now. And for good reason. So let's talk about that feeling. Sometimes talking over something together makes it easier, and gives us the boost we need. Note the difference between this and a bitch session. Those allow negativity to grow and fester, they celebrate the things we don't like. This is a coming together, an understanding, and a moving forward.

We aren't the only ones who might be running out of ideas. Kids do too. How often have you assigned something thinking, "This is so creative! They'll get to share their voices! Look at the freedom I'm giving them!" *five minutes pass* "Mr. Robertson, I don't know what to do/say/write." And we remember that original ideas are hard and getting started can be harder than that. There's so much fear and apprehension involved in adults and kids in starting something or following some thread. These are things that can be taught. Must be taught.

So the idea for the next chat is about having no ideas.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Share Your Blog

Sometimes we feel a little silly self promoting. Well, when I say "we" I mean "people who aren't me". Because I self promote all the time. But I understand that's not everyone's way and we should go out of our way to help others get the word out about their stuff. So I sent out a tweet asking people to send me their blog, and I'd promote it. And it worked pretty well. Got a lot of new reading material. I storified it, so now even if you missed the thread it's all here.

And if you've got a blog I missed, throw it in the comments. Share good things, share what you do. It's how we grow together.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Scryber Pals

Pen Pals are great, but postage over and over can be a bummer. Not to mention forgetting to bring a envelope, misplacing your stamps (why do you still have stamps?), or any other not-that-big-but-still-annoying excuse you can think of. Who still sends letters anyway? 1832 wrote, it wants its only form of long-distance communication back.

We have access to Google Docs, in all its Sharing glory. Why not turn that into a way to have global pen pals free of charge? "But Doug," you say. "Why not simply have students send emails?" I agree, Hypothetical Reader, that would be ideal. The most direct line from analog pen pals to digital pen pals is email. However, I have yet to work in a school district that allows students in the grade I teach to have access to their gmail. Middle schoolers get email, I'm in elementary. We are allowed to use Drive and all that entails, but for some reason sending emails is verboten. Yes, I know that's silly. They have many many emails from me arguing the point, and will get many more. Still, necessity, like Frank Zappa's band, is the mother of invention. Thus, pen pals via shared docs.

Because nothing online counts unless you brand it, I'm giving the practice of hooking up with another class and communicating via shared folders and Docs a name- Scryber Pals. It's a portmanteau of "scribe" and "cyber". It's very clever. We'll use #ScryberPals on the tweets to search and find classes to play with and to share coolness.

The idea is simple-

  • Have each student in your class create a folder which they will share with full editing rights with a student from another class (and you, of course). 
  • Go on the Twitters or the Books of Faces or even, science forbid, Google+, and find a friendly teacher who wants to play. This would be like finding a Mystery Skype, but maybe even easier because hey, writing practice! Maybe it's even a first step to a Mystery Skype. Though, I guess it would take the Mystery out of the Mystery Skype if they already knew about the person they were Skyping. Still, I stand by my now weakened but still viable position.
    • Because we're not worried about postage, no nuts with your search. Take it global. Sure, Scryber Palling with a class two states over is cool, but it's so much cooler to talk to a class in a completely different country.
  • Pair kids up, get them writing and sharing. You're still teaching them letter writing skills in a real world environment. Maybe even more so, because who uses traditional letter writing conventions in most emails that they write? Doing it on a Doc would make it more like writing a letter, thus making the practice more effective.
  • You could even challenge the pairs- 
    • "Ok, this time you need to write like you're business associates and it's a professional letter."
    • "Now you're Civil War soldiers." 
    • "Now you have to find the same book in both your classrooms and agree on a cipher, then send the letter in that cipher like spies."

We're getting technology practice, writing practice, typing practice, reading comprehension practice, meeting new and different people, growing empathy through exposure...we're pretty much rocking and rolling here with this.

The rules for using the brand/hashtag are- use the brand/hashtag. Take the idea, bend it, break it remake it, use the name, don't use the name, whatever. If you like it, make it work for your class. It might end up as a chapter in the next book I write about teaching, or at least in one. But the book won't be about it, and I don't know why I would be uptight about you doing things a certain way. Do things for kids, not for credit. Besides, the odds that I'm the first person to think of this are pretty low.

Scryber Pals- Coming soon to a Shared Folder near you.

And as always, the internet hive mind has better ideas than I do and builds on things brilliantly, so use the comment section to add your ideas.

Monday, November 14, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 128- Puppies, Kittens, Otters, and Hedgehogs

Last week the election happened. It kinda screwed me up. I know I'm not the only one. I know it didn't hit me as hard as it hit others. I'm not trying to speak for anyone but me. I'm not trying to discount anyone's experience by talking about my own.

There are going to be repercussions because of this election that we can't even see yet, and that freaks me out. I'm what you might call a control freak about a lot of things. I know it doesn't seem like that, especially if you've seen my class or hear me talk about freedom in my teaching. But I'm in control of that chaos. What happened last Tuesday is a different kind of chaos. And over the last week, as choices and decisions begin to roll out, it becomes clear that what we knew to be true during the campaign was only part of it. And I'm not talking about the blatant white supremacy and overt misogyny.  All that was made real clear. But the echoes in all the other levels of government. The murder's row of names being bandied about for positions of power read like Captain Planet villains. But real. With actual power. Making them less funny and ridiculous and more scary.

I'm torn. I want to keep fighting the good fight. I'm angry and disgusted and need to feel active, feel a part of the movement for good. I thought I'd been doing that. I'm doing it in my classroom. I try to do it here, in the space we've created together. I tried to do it the day after the election, with an open chat to talk about how we were feeling.

I also can't stay like this for four years. Or even the two more months that we have before the real night starts. It's too dark for me. It's not healthy.

So I'm torn. I'm angry and I'm not giving up the fight. But I also want to write about silly things and be funny. I feel, like I feel in most things, that balance is the key. Balance in all things. I believe it's possible to hold two thoughts in your head at once. For example, I can be disgusted and furious that one of the guys closest to the next president is basically a Nazi. I can also write dumb jokes about teaching. Dumb jokes are one of the ways I stay sane. Both of them together are true.

I've always held edchats to a high standard. For a variety of reasons, most of which can be simplified to, "If you're calling it professional development and you're taking an hour of people's time, you better be kicking ass and giving quality." Some do, some don't, many recycle the same topics over and over. And over. And over, yes we know you think homework is evil, we heard. And yes, connecting is wonderful. I guess if my pony only knew one trick I'd make him do it a lot of times too.

But this week we needed more than that. I went on about this already on twitter, but allow me to be clearer and more detailed- I don't think we have to talk about the election and what it means every week. No one wants that. I could, but I'd hate my own chat and so would you all. We need breaks. But we also need to confront bravely and openly. I expect teachers who say education is the most important thing in the world, who preach risk taking and making lessons real world, to actually follow through. You're scared of the conversation? Good. It's a hard conversation. You should be scared. Take a risk. Talk about the real world. Or are those just blog post topics, keynotes, and book chapters? I don't expect everyone to touch the election in the exact same way. There's too many of us for that. Have your own voice, your own take, your own angle.

But to ignore it? That's disappointing to say the very least, and with less four-letter words than I'm used to using. To pretend that it doesn't touch us here in our EduTwitter bubble? I know there's some who are watched by districts and parents and who fear speaking their minds because of that. That's terrifying to me, honestly, that we'd be scared of being honest in a public space on our own time, but that's the world we live in now, I guess. I'm rarely smart enough to be that diplomatic. But I'm not going to tell someone to risk their job for a twitter chat.

I also know, very well, that I'm speaking from a position of privilege. If I were a person of color or a woman or both and I said the things I say online I'd have a heard of trolls filling my mentions. But white dude gets a big pass. I still get the occasional jerk, but it's not the same. Not in the same universe.

I know there are reasons some speak up and some don't. And at the end of the day I see those who get the most flack still speaking, still writing, still going for what's right. And I see some of (not all) the safest amongst us writing chats about connecting via twitter, or homework, or what a classroom should look like. That's one of the many in the How We Got Here column- Heads in the sand let it happen.

I will say that if you love teaching the civil rights movement but you refuse to bring it up in your chat you're playing a double standard. Why can we have a conversation with children we can't with adults?

We gotta fight loud and hard. We should be brave and be better. We should at least be having the conversation. Don't pretend the election didn't happen. Don't pretend the new guy didn't say he wants to take apart the Department of Education. That, at least that, you can talk about. Please. And when we do start to talk, we can't forget to also invite and to listen. We forget those two steps too often. Invite everyone, and listen with respect and a willingness to learn from a variety of perspectives.


And this is where I sound like a hypocrite. Because I've felt pretty crappy, and I'm trying to feel better. Not normalize. Not accept and move past. But feel better. I'm not checking boxes, "Yep, had the election chat, moving on." But I can't make #WeirdEd a solely political chat. It's also where we put on our clown shoes and throw pies at the stiffs (educational, political, and otherwise). Laughing at some of these people is a great weapon too. They're too weak to be laughed at. Not to get all Patch Adams, but it's a great healer. Heal to keep fighting. Heal to stay strong.

So this week #WeirdEd will be about all things cute as hell. I'm not kitten. We all otter be able to laugh. I'm going to be dogged in my pursuit of this too. If we don't go crazy we'll all go insane. We're going to be like the mighty hedgehog, an animal which Sarah Windisch pointed out is, "adorable, but also pointy."

Monday, November 7, 2016

Find a Hobby, You Kids!

*cracks knuckles*

*clears throat*


Did I get all the buzzwords out of the way? We'll see.

A few weeks ago I made my students learn a new hobby.*

That's it, that was the assignment. Learn a new hobby, something you've never done before. Something that sounds interesting. Something you've wanted to learn maybe. Anything that tickles your fancy. You have three weeks to get as good at it as you can get. You must journal the process you take daily- how are you feeling, what did you do, that kind of thing. And, at the end of three weeks, you must stand in front of the class and demonstrate what you've learned.

I made it very clear that I did not expect them to be experts at their hobby. No one gets to be an expert in three weeks. In fact, that was one of the major lessons I wanted them to take away from the project (this I didn't tell them until the end). I wanted them to realize what the learning process is on their own terms. I wanted them to choose something, be excited about it, and let that excitement carry them through those first few days of failure to that first breakthrough.

I made the definition of hobby as broad as I could. I wanted it to be something they did with their hands. Writing a book, while a hobby, isn't what I had in mind. Juggling, sewing, knitting, ventriloquism, these are hobbies that were suggested. But if the student had another idea and it fit in the basic outline I'd created I let them go at it. As long as they journaled progress and had something to show for it at the end.

I went into this project with some trepidation. You never know what kids will bring back. I compressed the time scale as much as I dared, and I gave no time in class to practice. "But Doug," you gasp. "That means you gave *glances around nervously and whispers* homework!" I did, reader stand-in! I did assign homework! In that I assigned work to be completed at home. Because how else is this project going to get done? It's about learning on their own. It's about learning about learning. It's about freedom and passion. So it has to be homework. Was I sure what it would net me? No. But that doesn't often stop me. Sometimes your castle has to burn down, fall over, then sink into the swamp. Then you build another one. I was prepared to build another one.

I did constant check-ins. Kids reported what their hobby was every few days. Many changed hobbies mid-stream. Is this in the spirit of what I intended? Not really. But Passion-Based means sometimes Passion Changes. Fine, "But you're presenting on this day," I'd say. "Be ready." And nearly all were. Only one didn't bring in anything, still hasn't. Mom and dad say he's got something, but no amount of coaxing or flexibility has gotten him to demonstrate it to me or anyone else, so that's an open case. The rest? For the most part they KILLED it.

I had kids bring in sewing projects like you wouldn't believe.
She's never sewn before. This dress would fit (and look nice on) a third grader

One of my biggest strugglers academically. made a pillow and sleeping bag for her doll.

Ugly Doll. Because why not?

Instead of sewing this, she patched it. Her dog destroys his toys. She learned to sew to save destroyed toys and save money.

One of my boys made a pillow all his own.

Another pillow. Quite comfy too.
Many talents were on display as well. I use puppets in my class, as many of you know. I don't make the first effort to throw my voice. I rely on Courson and Sophie being funny and engaging enough that the kids forgive my moving mouth, and it works just fine. But having a teacher who uses puppets inspired a few kids to get their own and try to learn the sacred art of ventriloquism. And they really tried. Watch the videos. No one is as good as the famous racist guy from Comedy Central, but they all came up with bits and personalities for their puppets.

I had a few jugglers**. Another really tough skill, made tougher by the choices some of the kids made. I swear the girl didn't tell me she was going to try to juggle Barbies because, "balls seemed too easy." I would have dissuaded her of that. They all got to two. Not great two, but two. And the class was super impressed by two.

One of my boys decided to learn to ride a unicycle because someone in his family rides one and said he would teach him. Unicycle is freaking hard. And doing it in front of your classmates? Yeah. I also had a few kids learn some ASL. This I stopped the class for. "This is a hobby, but it's also a skill that will have a real impact on your futures if you pursue it. Sewing, the other skills, they are great and I love it. But ASL is learning another language. Colleges, job, they'll love this. Follow-up with this."

But my favorite hobbies, I must admit, were my fledgling magicians. My dad is a magician. I love magic. I was thrilled some kids decided to pick it. And yes, I realize that I basically turned my class into Mr Robertson's Traveling Circus- Come see the jugglers, magicians, unicyclist, gymnasts (had two girls who learned gymnastic tricks), ventriloquists, and more! And the magicians are where the power of the project landed most strongly for me.

Dacian, and I use his name because I'm going to link to the video directly, is one of my more talkative kids. The teachers reading this can decode that sentence all they want. He's hard to motivate and focus. I was not sure what I'd get from him. I wasn't sure I'd get anything. I got this. I strongly suggest you watch all of it before reading on.

That's one of the best up close card tricks I've ever seen. I have no idea how he did it. I've watched this video a bunch of times. I'm delighted every time. That sound in my voice at the end? 100% real joy.

This kid went from one of those kids to his classmate to a superstar. He's freaking Harry Potter now. I sent him to other classes to perform. I tried to send him to the office to show off, but he wasn't keen on that. "Come on, dude. This is a good trip up there." Nope. I sent the video instead.

But now I know what he's capable of. What they're all capable of. In a concrete way they enjoyed. They've shown what some freedom within guidelines will birth. I love this project and I think it'll be part of my classroom for many years to come. They journaled, they practiced, they had choice, they learned, they learned about learning, and they walked away from it slightly better than they were coming into it. In a few weeks and months I'm going to follow-up and ask who is still doing their hobbies. I think, I hope, many will say they are.

Let your kids surprise you.

*here is the Doc the kids got. I put the link at the bottom so you'd read what I had to say first.

**all the video links just go to the playlist

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?