Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What We Can't Say

Teaching is often storytelling. I've found, and if you've read anything I've ever written you know this, teaching something through a story is the best way to make it engaging and interesting. I'll find a story, remember a story, or reference a story that somehow relates to the point I'm trying to make. I'll use that as a vehicle to get where I want all of us to go.

We tell stories in our classrooms. We must, after all, justify why that train is leaving the station at 5:46 pm going west at 96 mph while the other train is, for some reason, heading in the opposite direction at 88 kph having left ten minutes later. I'd like to note here that every math teacher reading this just had a small aneurysm.

History is a collection of stories dressed up as facts. Science is the universe told as a story. Adam Savage used to talk about Mythbusters telling the story of science, and when they found the story that was when the show worked best.

Teachers are full of stories. Any one of us, who has spent any time with kids, has a pocketful. Go to a party with at least two teachers. You will find them sequestered in a corner, drinks in hand, exchanging humorous anecdotes worthy of, at least, Reader's Digest (who is considering publishing two of my jokes). If that's not you at a party then you are cooler than I am. Because I, hard as I try, will always revert to, "This kid in my class did this hilarious thing yesterday. I'm going to corner you at this dinner table and force you to hear all about it. But in order for you to understand why it is SO hilarious I'll need to give you background on the lesson I was teaching. Which is pedagogically sound because of these reasons I'll enumerate for you. Oh, I see you thinking about Common Core. Let me explain to you why it's not the evil you might have heard so much about. Where are you going, you didn't hear my story yet."

It's a good thing my students are trapped in a room with me. This is also why teachers look so relaxed at conferences. Finally someone who speaks English- Third period!

The ability to tell stories about our kids is not all that we share. We also share the inability to tell stories about our kids.

Each and every teacher has in her or his heart a dozen stories no one will ever hear. Stories we don't bust out at parties or conferences or even in books and blogs. Stories that live between us and a student, sometimes between us and a parent, that no one else can know. Because ethically we can't tell anyone what we know.*

Instead we bear them.

We shake a parent's hand at the end of a meeting, is it too familiar to hug them, walk them to our classroom door, and as they walk away let what we learned wash over us. The privilege and burden of teaching is to know children, to know their secrets. To see a kid in class, and to know that might not be the same kid at home. To hear mom talk about when the kid smiles talking about school and how that makes her feel. The context that gives that statement the weight that made us cry in the meeting is not ours to give. So the story sits unshared.

This isn't always a choice. It's not being coy or playing the martyr, suffering privately but look at me suffering. We simply can't tell. We don't have the words or the right.

So we hold them. They inform our teaching and remind us that what we do is so much more than it appears. So much more than anyone understands. They are another factor that makes our students Our Kids.

Our untold stories bind us.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 104- FAME

With the rise of the internet, niche cultures and small worlds are connecting in hitherto unseen ways. Now everyone has their own little corner of the web, be it on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. There's even that guy still using Google+. One of the things that has naturally grown out of this community building is some animals are becoming more equal than others.

Some people are better at social media than others. Some attract followers more quickly and, as data can* support, the more followers you have the easier it is to gain followers. So certain accounts become Internet Famous.

The difference between Internet Fame and Fame Fame is recognizablity. If you say the person's name to your mom does she know who that is? By now your mom at least has a flicker of recognition if you say, "Kanye". Even my mom knows, in broad strokes, who Kanye is. He's Famous. On the other hand, if you say "Dave Burgess" to your mom she's going to say, "Who? Is that one of your nice friends at school?" In our circles, Dave is Internet Famous. I'd bet that most teachers encounter his name in their first day on the tweets. The Blank Like a Pirate shadow is vast. However, even the teacher next door to you might not know who he is if that teacher doesn't live on the internet. And how dare that teacher not care enough about students to not be conne- *chokes on own vomit*

There are levels of Teacher Internet Fame. Some of us have even managed to rise above Internet Fame to Small Culture Fame. The Dancing Teacher in that cute video your aunt sent you on Facebook and that guy with his hair on fire are more widely known, though they still couldn't be considered famous. Maybe Jaime Escalante, he's got a movie. And the Freedom Writers lady.

Most of us aren't that. Actual teacher fame probably consists of whether or not random people recognize you at a conference. This happens to me now, though I'm blaming it on the blue hair making me easy to see.

I think a lot about how we raise some teachers up. Or maybe it's how teachers raise themselves up? How much control do you have over how Teacher Famous you get? I think we have very mixed feelings as a group about those who become more wildly recognized. And I know teachers who are seen as Teacher Famous who hate hate hate it and don't understand it and wish everyone would stop making such a fuss. Is it just that they are the loudest? They seem to have the most to say? I try to keep in mind that fame and talent do not go hand-in-hand. The deserving are not always the ones held up, and teachers are no exception to this rule.

I'll be honest, if I had to make a Teacher Mount Rushmore (something I would never make you do, honestly, that sounds awful, though my jawline would look good carved in granite), my four would be classroom teachers. I'm not judging coaches, TOSAs, administrators, or researchers. I know too many of those people to name who are wonderful and who do things that make my job easier and better. I'm saying that for me, the ones I value the most and hold in the highest regard are the ones who are in it and doing it. And here's another place Teacher Fame feels unbalanced- in-the-classroom teachers have, I'm guessing (and I have no proof), less time to do things that get us known. Less time to write and speak and travel and create. Can't travel to that conference, have 30 kids to teach. Luckily, the internet has made it easier to share what we're doing and that meritocracy is pretty nice.

Should we celebrate each other? Yes. But how far? When does it turn? Does it ever? I wish I saw some of my friends on ELLEN. Imagine a classroom teacher who is just doing good work getting that much attention. Do you even want that? That's a lot of pressure.

And how does a level of teacher fame impact the students? Oh yeah, them. It all comes back to them.

*probably, if I wanted to check

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 103- Make a Point

Let's make some points tonight.

Twitter is a great place to come together, share ideas, and get incredibly frustrated with strangers. So tonight I'll be the Cool Dad (tm) and say, "I'd rather you do it here at home where it's safe." Then hand you an eight ball.

Ill present us with some topics edutwitter loves to talk about. I'd like you to pick a side and defend it. But not to the death. Not even to the pain. Rather, can we try to defend our position to the understanding?

Here's what I mean- I'll give you a topic that's so much fun, like homework. But rather than argue pro/con, because that's easy and boring, I'd like you to find gray areas. People love to say twitter doesn't allow for subtlety because of the character counts, and I think with some creativity, patience, and proper word choice, we can totally be subtle. So if I do present you with something like, "Homework- Go!" I'd prefer not to see, "Sucks! Next!" Because we all know that teaching is a lot of gray area. We can't say we want to be flexible to student needs and then plant our feet in the sand and our fingers in our ears. Present a real idea, and try to do it without linking to someone else. Stand on your feet, make your case as you see it, as you've thought about it, and absorb the ideas of others.

Like most #WeirdEd chats, I believe the real value comes in the tweets between the Q and the A. I try to encourage side conversations because that's where the depth happens and the relationships get built. I don't want people to be able to do #WeirdEd, watch a show, and do two other chats. That means I've written a bad topic and we as a chat aren't engaging enough with each other. Yes, I want the chat to be the center of your twitterverse for an hour hashtag blessed hashtag modest.

You'll still label your answers as a way to keep things slightly organized, but I won't really be asking questions. And maybe at the end I'll ask if anyone's mind was changed or moved by a conversation they had. A little reflection never hurts.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Unintentional Intimidation (OR Da Squish Sees an Expert)

The other side of the IEP table is a strange and scary place.

Da Squish (aka Weirdling Two, aka the 16 month old who lives in my house) has a small learning disorder. Or maybe we're calling it a developmental delay because he's so young. There's a lot of words that mean almost the same thing in education. It can get confusing.

It's nothing serious or scary, but it is concerning. I'm not even sure we would have caught it if we weren't teachers. I'm sure it helped, at the least.

My wife had been saying for a few weeks that she was worried about Da Squish. She didn't think he was hearing her. He wasn't responding to his name when she called, she didn't think he was following simple instructions like he ought to have been, and he had no words. None. He wouldn't say anything. He barely points and makes a noise when he wants something. She felt he wasn't trying to communicate in a developmentally appropriate way.

My wife is a special education teacher. Was, and will be again, to be more specific. When Weirdling One was born she left the classroom to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. This is one of the major reasons we live in Oregon now and not in Hawaii. You can barely survive in Hawaii on two teacher salaries. On one, with a baby, you get to make fun choices like should I pay rent or eat this month? And if the car breaks down can I get a bike off Craigslist to get to school on? We moved, she left the classroom, and we suddenly and a little hilariously had a Traditional American Family Situation. I work, she raises the children and cooks. I should make clear that's our choice together, I wouldn't have married someone I could have told, "You're staying home to raise our kids" and she wouldn't have married someone who would have tried that nonsense. (Related- How do dads have the guts to refuse to do diapers? It never even occurred to me to try and get out of diaper duty. That's a crap move*, dads who do that.) I should also make clear that while that's our choice we know that's not everyone's choice or option. We got lucky. She is also the cook because I can't. She will barely let me pour a bowl of cereal for myself. To be fair, I measure the water when I make Cup of Noodles because I'm pretty sure I'll screw them up.

I tell you all that to say that when it comes to our kids' development I 100% trust my wife. She's around them all day. She's smart and well-trained. But I think, and I have no evidence of this, that teachers are overly sensitive to possible education issues with their kids. I feel like I am. I know when they should be reading and what they should be reading and how much we should be counting with them and all that other stuff because I went to school for it and I see the echoes of those things in my classroom all the time. We, she especially as a special education teacher, are extremely keyed in. To the point of noticing every little thing and running it through our Teacher Brains (friends of ours- we do it to your kids too and don't tell you. Sorry. Force of habit).

So while I believed her when she'd tell me what she saw Da Squish doing through the day I also figured it was a combination of her Teacher Sense tingling, her Parent Sense throwing interference at her Teacher Sense, him only being one, and him being different from his older brother. No worries. He's fine, babe. We'll keep an eye on him.

Then I spent a full week at home over Spring Break.

Can't hear you, vacuuming
"Hon, you know how Da Squish never seems to hear when I call him? And he doesn't say anything? Like, at all. And he doesn't do what we ask him to do? Even simple tasks? I think something might be up."

It's funny what you notice when you get to spend a bunch of time with your kids. But that's for the eventual He's the Weird Dad.

With the both of us in agreement we decided to take action. Maybe it's nothing, but better to check now than wait until his year and a half doctor's appointment. If we can catch a problem this early that gives us a jump on treating it. She had already done the research and had the proper number to call. She's on it.

Turns out the people you call when you're concerned about this kind of thing is your local school district, at least in Oregon. They are the people with the early childhood experts on staff. They're the ones who have the tests and give the help. And our local school district is the one I work in.

Which is how I ended up taking half a day off work to go to my district office as a parent for a child four years away from enrolling in kindergarten.

The meeting was as friendly as it could possibly be. It was a crowded room. My wife and I, both boys because where are we going to put Weirdling One for two hours, and three experts from the district. I'll be honest, I don't remember their titles. Early childhood intervention experts. One was a speech pathologist. All three were very nice.

Right away I did the whole, "It's ok, I'm a teacher too. I'm familiar with these kinds of meetings. Hit us with the acronyms. We're ready." Which was basically like a dentist telling his doctor he went to med school too.

Boy did they run with that. In the friendliest, most open, clearest way. But there's something about sitting in a chair when an Expert starts going over the laundry list of tests they're about to perform on your one year old. It's not a new thing to me. I've had these conversations. I've explained tests like this. But wow, to have to hit you is something else entirely.

They weren't trying to lose us. They answered every question we had. They smiled and joked and couldn't have been more personable and friendly. They gave Weirdling One toys to play with so he'd be happy and stay out of the way when they tested his brother. They did a smooth slight of hand where one was interviewing us about what we saw for an assessment, filling in endless bubbles on endless sheets, collecting data, while the other two played games with Da Squish, testing him in all kinds of ways I hadn't known were tests. How do you test a one year old for hearing? He doesn't seem to know his name, how you do say, "Raise your hand when you hear the beep." Turns out you don't, we live in the future now and the hearing tool goes in his ear, makes a noise, then measures how long it takes the noise to bounce back. Or it runs on magic. One of the two.

At the end of an hour of interviews and tests-disguised-as-play the three ladies left the room to confab and do their data alchemy. We hung out, the baby nursed, and Weirdling One played on his tablet. He has this space dog game where you can fly a dog around outer space and when you park it by things a little animation happens. It's cute. There's a farting planet that farts for as long as you leave the dog near it. It's the funniest thing in the world to him. And his parents.

I figured the problem stemmed from Da Squish's hearing. I knew he could hear some things. He likes to dance to music, Shake It Off and Uptown Funk are particular favorites around our house, but that was my Occam's Razor for the whole problem. His language seems delayed. He doesn't respond to his name. Must be a hearing issue. Probably fluid in his ears. Trust me, I'm a teacher, I can tell these things.

Nope. Hearing is great. Their magic Hearometer** detected no problems.

They did confirm what we were seeing, though. That was nice to hear. I'd never compare my child to my car, but you know how sometimes your car*** makes a weird noise so you decide to take it into the shop and as soon as you get there it stops making the noise and the mechanic thinks you're just a tattooed, blue-haired dope who doesn't know anything about cars and is wasting his time for fun? Doesn't that feeling suck? So it was good to hear that they saw what we saw.

According to their data alchemy our concerns were justified. He is below the normal range, dipping into the range of concern, for both receptive and expressive language.

One of his scores was right on the line of what he needed to score to qualify for early intervention and the other was just below. Not as far below as it felt to us, but parents probably almost always make it worse than it is. Together the scores qualified him to receive interventions. The lady in charge of the meeting even said, "He's right on the edge, but I'm allowed to use my professional judgement in these cases and I say that if we did this test five times he'd for sure qualify four of those times." Hey, someone who knows that what a kid is like today might not be what he's exactly like tomorrow! As a teacher it was pretty cool to see another teacher-like person be allowed to take data and add her own observation and judgement to it to make a decision. I've been in IEPs where we've had to turn a kid down because the numbers didn't shake out, no matter what we thought.

So now we're being referred somewhere else, and those people have already called us to set up a meeting so we can plan as a team the best days and times to get Da Squish the help he needs. Hopefully by catching this as early as we did he won't fall too far behind and by the time he's two he'll be hitting all the benchmarks he needs to be.

I think about this entire process and it strikes me that, as friendly as it was, it still wasn't the easiest thing. Not the the district made it difficult, far from. But think about the steps-

- We had to notice that he was behind (and I give my wife all the credit for making the right call so quickly), which means we needed to be aware of where he should have been. Lots of parents have the books but we had the extra advantage of her being a pre-school special education teacher. And even then she didn't fully trust her judgement because what if she's just being an over-reactive parent?

We read! I swear!
- We had to figure out who to call and have the confidence and courage to make that call. I don't say that to pound my chest but to acknowledge how bad experiences in and fear of the system might stop a lot of parents. Will this label their kid? Can they trust these people? What preconceptions are the Experts coming into the meeting with? Might it hurt as much as help? My wife and I know that we didn't to cause this. He gets lots of language interaction at home (that was my other guess for why he doesn't talk much- his brother never stops talking). But at the same time we still wonder if it's something we did or didn't do. And if we make the meeting what if we go in and the experts say it is our fault? Will they judge us for being bad parents? We're doing our best. Again, we're not far off being well-trained ourselves in this field and we still have these fears.

- Then we have to go to a meeting and sit in a room with Experts who, as friendly as they seem, are really smart. And smart is scary, Look at all those forms they have. And so many questions. What if I answer the questions wrong? That's a lot of tests. Tests with weird names. What are they looking for? Are they trying to find something wrong with my kid? I work in this business and there was a lot of words being tossed around I wasn't sure I knew. I spent half the meeting thinking about what it would be like for a non-native English speaker. Even if they had a great translator, that adds one more layer of removal, one more barrier to understanding.

- And now someone else, another Expert, is going to come to our house to help our kid. A stranger in our home. It's nice that we don't have to come to them, but our house is kind of an explosion. We try, but we have two insane children and four sets of grandparents who love giving toys. Don't judge me.

The process reminded me of taking the Oregon tests which transferred my teaching license from Hawaii to Oregon. That experience, which you can read about here, completely changed how I give tests in my class. I gained a level of empathy with my students I hadn't previously had. This experience taught me a similar lesson. I knew, intellectually, that it must be hard for the parent on the other side of the desk. The only time I'd actually been on that side was when I was in school. It was for speech- For years I talked like Elmer Fudd, all my Rs were Ws. Still happens sometimes. But I can't remember specifics of the meeting other than struggling to stifle a yawn. Now I've been the parent. Now I have the specific experience, an empathy that can only be gained one way. This doesn't mean that I used to be a heartless jerk to the parents in my IEP meetings. I understood what they were going through. But I didn't know.

But now I know that fear and intimidation in a much more real way. I know how it felt as a native English speaker, college graduate, and professional educator. How must it feel to the parents in my class? How can I make it easier?

*get it?

**probably not the official title

***didn't say anything about comparing him to your car

I wrote a Update to the post.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 102- Make a Thing Pt. 3

It's that time of the school year.

You know- That Time.

Many of us are TESTING (bum bum bummmmm!). Many of us are tired and starting to feel the strain of the marathon. Knowing it's not a sprint doesn't really help in mile 22. It would be damn hard to turn it into a sprint at that point anyway.

So we're fading some. We're struggling. It's ok to admit that. Doesn't make us bad teachers. It mean that we've been running hard all year. No matter how well trained you are no one coasts in to the finish. We've earned this tired.

We're here to help each other out. Twitter chats are a great way to do that but I'm always looking for other ways to make it better. Sure, we're connecting and talking, but how far does that go? So I return to a well I've dug with you twice before- Make a Thing (Pt 1/Pt 2). I feel comfortable doing back to this because, though there are many chat stalwarts who have been with us since the beginning, there are many more teachers who join us all the time. Doesn't mean I want to have another conversation about why Twitters Is The Bestest PD Evar, but I do like Making a Thing quite a bit.

Here's how it will work this week-

I have created a shared Google Doc. At the start of the chat we'll all say hi, like normal. Then I'll post the link to the shared Doc. At that point the chat mostly moves off of twitter and onto the Doc. Together, on one Doc, we work. People ask questions and propose lesson ideas. Together we build lessons for each other. We take ideas and organically build on them.

My focus for you is Something Creative To Do When Not Testing. You don't have to do this, but that's where I'd like us to jump off of. Some of us are taking a long long time testing our kids. Some not so much. Rather than dwell on how awful it is let's build some ideas to help us and our kids survive and thrive through them.

NOW, if you have other things you want to ask the group, other lessons you need some help with, by all means bring them up. Start another page of the Doc, use a different color, and shout out. Very little of the chat will take place on the tweets. I'll pop over every few minutes to remind people to come to the Doc and answer questions, but this is a collaborative work time like we wish we had in school.

Can't wait to see what you all come up with!

And here's what you came up with.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 101- A Chat in the Classical Style (Plus Teacher Appreciation Week)

this is the punchline to one of my favorite jokes

**The top of this post is the overview for my edchat, the bottom of the post, after the "***" is a Teacher Appreciation thing. Why combine them? Because they came out together and I trust my readers to be able to find what they're looking for.**

#WeirdEd Hath Returned! After a well-earned month-long hiatus The Chat That's Where It's At is bringing all the weirdness, freedom, and joy you want from education. Who says teaching needs to be serious business and who says teachers are serious people? We hang out with kids all day. Normal, straight-laced people don't do that. We want to have a good time when we talk about teaching because we want to have a good time teaching. We want to find connections where others may find none because that keeps our Teaching Brains agile, fresh, and sharp.

Yes, today's chat is on May the Fourth so in theory I ought to be writing a Star Wars-themed chat. But we did that not long ago and we did a hundred chats with barely a repeat in the bunch so why start the second century with one? No, no, no, my friends. Because I love you, because I appreciate you, because I care that you care enough to spend an hour with me, with us, I'm bringing you a classical #WeirdEd.

I want to talk about things we're doing at the end of the year like breaking kids up for next year's teachers, keeping kids awake as we rocket towards the finish, keeping the end of the year angst from boiling over, and more. There's a more specific theme to the chat, but to tell you would be to spoil the surprise and I wouldn't do that to you.


On another note- Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. This isn't the easiest job and none of us thought it would be. I'm not sure if we expected it to be as trying as it can be, and I know I didn't realize the rewards when I first started. We spend long hours away from our own families, we think about our other kids even when we're with the ones we live with. And we don't get the love we deserve. It's nice to have the week. And yes, it's fun to be cynical and say, "Boy, this is sure better than those other 51 weeks when they complain about us!" I like getting donuts from my office staff and lunch from the PTO. I also think we need to be strong enough in our convictions that while we love being appreciated we don't need it.

Teaching is The Long Game. I know I'm saying and doing things that won't hit some kids for years to come. We act as a delayed action bomb except we can only hope that one day it goes off. We try to get the wiring right. Say things, do things, set up this and that, give wide experiences, read the right books. Someday maybe I'll be more than, "I had this goofy ass teacher in fifth grade. He had blue hair and rode a motorcycle." I know that right now my kids appreciate our classroom, how we are and what we've built together, and I love that. Their appreciation means more than anything. But I hope that one day that appreciation blooms again.

I've been a parent for three years now and every day I appreciate my parents more. Every day I understand a little better. I'm starting to think teaching is a lot like parenting. Similar to how I loved my mom and dad and step-dad, my students love me. With kid understanding, which is still powerful and deep. But later, as I grew, I understood and love my parents more, in different ways, more mature and reflective ways. Hopefully our students do that too. I do, when I think back on my favorite teachers- Mr Greatman, Mr Slay, Mr Avalino, Mr Ingman. Now, I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching and so thinking about teachers, and I don't expect most of my kids to think back on me like I do on mine. But they do appreciate us now, and hopefully one day, they'll grow to understand why they felt that.

I appreciate you. My teaching brothers and sisters, we're in this together. We might not always get along, we might think the ways some of us go about things are ridiculous or worse, but we're in a small club together. One that says, "If you understand, no explanation is needed, and if you don't none will suffice." We understand.