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?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Flipping Might Help Save My Classroom

Pictured- Some of my students
I've been having trouble talking to my kids for any length of time. The second week of school has just ended and already I feel like I've had That Talk a dozen times. You know the Talk about how they're fifth graders and I promise I'm talking as little as humanly possible but I also need all of them to understand expectations and instructions. The one where you're trying really hard not to sound frustrated the first few times you give it, and then maybe you try it with an edge in your voice to see if that helps the few kids who aren't getting it. The one where sometimes you enumerate the things you really don't want to do to "help" them be quieter like rows or assigned seating? Yeah, I feel like I've given that talk a lot already. And I'm not really used to that.

Let's get the extenuating circumstances/excuses out of the way- I have 36 fifth graders this year. Yup, to prove that was not a typo I will write it again in word form- thirty-six fifth graders. That is, as the kids say, a lot. It's at least five kids past "a lot" to be honest. That said, I'm not trying to complain about the number. It's only been two weeks and I already like all my kids, even those kids who I know will be the ones to push me to be a better teacher. I wouldn't trade any away. And the other two fifth grade teachers at my school are in the same boat. One of them was a fourth grade teacher last year, so his boat has been an ark for a while now. I was dealt a hand of thirty-six this year, so that's the hand I'm going to play. 

Still, that's a ton of kids. And it creates challenges I can't ignore. I can't use the challenges as excuses not to get my job done, but it's a factor that plays into my planning much more than it used to. And I have a chatty thirty-six. I like chatty classes. I want my kids to talk. It's so much better than a bunch of silent types. (Of course, I naturally have silent types in my room too and they're trying harder than ever to melt into the background, which is easier because the background is full of kids.)

I also have a student teacher this year. This is not a complaint in any way. In the first place, I begged my principal to find me a program in need of a mentor teacher because, as I say in my first book, having student teachers is the most valuable learning experience I've ever had as a teacher. And in the second place, she freaking ROCKS. Inviting someone into your classroom is a coin flip (or a crap shoot) and I scored huge. Her name is Veronica Miller and she's a high-energy, high-positivity nerd custom built for me. If you click on the link on her name you'll see her twitter handle is Veronica 3 of 5. Which lead to me saying, "Wait, like 7 of 9 from-" and we both finish, "-Star Trek Voyager oh my god you nerd!" She's also jumping at the chance to teach as much as possible. I'm sure I'll be writing about our experiences and what I'm learning from her quite a bit. 

But having a student teacher also presents certain challenges. I've already heard, "At least you have kind of a co-teacher in the room with you." Which, while true, isn't exactly what her job is in my room. I mean it is, but I didn't ask for her to lighten my load. 

All that said, Veronica and I have a chatty bunch of kids this year. A happy, positive, willing to learn and try, chatty bunch of kids. And they are having a hard time settling down for long enough to listen to a full set of instructions. Or even chunked instructions. Trust me, I know the tricks. I got a bag and I've been reaching into it. But they aren't working like they should. Again, I'm pretty sure the class size is diluting some of their effectiveness. So, rather than complain, we went looking for solutions.

Veronica noticed that when I use Sophie or Courson, my two monster puppets, to teach the students are riveted. This was not a surprise to me. Pretty much everyone, including my own children, likes Courson and Sophie more than they like me. But I also know that the puppets aren't a cure-all. They're great and they work like gangbusters, but I can't spend the whole year speaking through them for a whole wide range of reasons I'm sure you can put together yourself. 

So we had ourselves a challenge. How can we take advantage of the students' love of the monsters, while not burning them out? And then I thought about a lesson I was planning on running again this year which had worked great last year. The first story in our reading text (which for the most part is full of decent-to-good stories) is called A Package For Mrs Jewls. It's a chapter from the wonderful Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar. In the story (SPOILER ALERT) Louis, the yard teacher, carries a very heavy box up to Mrs. Jewls' class on the 30th story, only to have her open it, see it's a new computer, and toss that computer out the window. "Thank you, Louis. We were learning about gravity and the children learned about it much faster with a computer than with the pencils and paper we have been throwing out the window," Mrs Jewls says. The story is actually a fun commentary on edtech in general. But the punchline is scientifically incorrect and much like a Balrog, that shall not pass.

So I created this YouTube video

I gave out Chromebooks and iPads, gave the kids the (if you don't use you must install the Chrome extension and make your life better), and set them to work. It worked wonderfully. The kids got the assignment, they could watch it as many times as they needed to understand, and they were working in groups. Ready, GO!

I realized this just might be what Veronica and I needed with the more instruction-heavy lessons on our plate this year. Especially since, thanks to Donors Choose and wonderful human beings, I just added three more Chromebooks to my class set, putting me at thirteen. That's 1:3 for those of you keeping score at home. Not ideal, but a better ratio than most. Especially if we're just watching videos.

We experimented with a quick video that very day (that day being Friday). The kids went to PE first thing in the morning so we used our prep to shoot a quick math lesson/game involving place value. Veronica brought the game to me, together we massaged it, she created a worksheet-like substance for it, and we were ready. Making the video was as easy as shooting it on my phone, uploading it to my class YouTube channel*, making a few minor edits using YouTube's editing software**, and linking it to our class website along with the questions Veronica wrote on a Google Doc we set to View Only. This is why I have an Assignments page on our class website.

The kids came back from PE, did some learning, went to recess (while we double checked all the links), Veronica reviewed place value periods in two minutes (using my classroom timer to keep her honest), I told them they were going to work in the same groupings as that morning, and we wrote on the board " -> Assignments -> Place Value Yahtzee Video and Doc. WATCH VIDEO FIRST". Then we said, "Ready...Go!" (We actually said, "Ready, Hippo," because V brought using magic words into my room rather than just plain old Go and I dig it.)

It WORKED! Not 100% perfectly wonderfully, but it freaking solved the problem. Neither of us wasted time counting back from three or doing the Silent Stand And Wait While Staring At The Talker in the middle of giving directions. We had time to hand out dice while kids worked. And they learned what they needed to learn and did what we wanted.

I'm not convinced flipped is the way 100% for me. But that's because I don't believe in using anything in my classroom 100% of the time. Date teaching strategies, don't marry them. Flipping with video-based instruction seems to be working right now. There's a lot of front loading that will go into these lessons, and I'm not sure I want to spend my morning and afternoons making a ton of videos, but this is a tool I didn't use often than I think I will use more. I think we found a way to serve our large class while saving my sanity and preserving the positive attitudes of our students.

Plus, as I excitedly shouted at Veronica at lunch on Friday, "Now you get to go to your cohort and say, 'Today I planned and executed a lesson using puppets, video, manipulatives, Google Docs, a class website, and paper and pencil!' Then you drop an imaginary mic and walk out of the room because damn, that's cooler than anything they did." I'm not saying being a cooperating teacher is a contest, I'm just saying Veronica and I are winning.

*if you have a google account, you have a YouTube channel. I had to talk my school into unlocking mine last year, but they went for it.

**YT's editing is easy to use. Sign in, click Upload, click Video Editor, push buttons until it does what you want.***

***if you have follow-up questions about anything I'm talking about in this post, please tweet at me (@TheWeirdTeacher) or throw a comment on here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 120- Talking Too Much

dem bones

Welcome to the beginning of the school year, where I always feel like I'm talking too much!

Yes, for days and days all I do is talk. We're setting goals and expectations and defining and redefining rules. I'm creating routines that will last (with copious adaptation and evolution) through the entire school year. Yes, students, I am going to talk you through my thinking for some of the ways we're going to do vocabulary this year. I'm going to talk you through how we think about math. I'm going to talk and talk and talk and I promise this won't keep happening. But I need you to understand what we're doing right now.

I have another reason for all the verbiage- I am lucky enough to have a student teacher this year. There is zero sarcasm in that sentence, by the way. I begged for a student teacher and frankly I hit the Lotta super win with mine. Veronica Miller is a kick ass college student with great energy and a positive, willing attitude and I'm so excited to share my class with her this entire year. But that does mean I'm doing some talking because I want her to hear how we should be talking to the kids.

Talk talk talk. No one really likes it. I know the kids are getting over it, even though I am quite entertaining and funny, if I do say so myself (which I do). And I'm not going to advocate not talking to them at all, I'm not some kind of all-or-nothing zealot.

Finding balance in the talking is the key. Right now I'm setting up a lot of dominoes. I'm building these intricate designs and layers and that takes time and patience. But soon they'll all be laid out. Once that's happened, all I have to do is tip one and watch everyone fall into place. (I don't love this metaphor because it could be misconstrued as me saying I know exactly what the kids will do because I planned it out, and that's not the case. I just know what the routines they will follow are.)

But tonight I'm tired of my voice. We're handing the reins over and the students are taking control. I've been modeling how must I trust them from the word Go. Literally. The first thing that happens in my class is they pick their own seats. And then they are allowed to adjust where they're sitting as needed as decided by them.

So let's talk about talking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 119- Gene Wilder

Like most of my generation, Gene Wilder lied to me the first time I met him. Scrub forward to 9:30 for the quote.

"I thought the script was very good, but something was missing. I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, ‘what do you want to do that for?’ I said from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth."

For the longest time he was Willy Wonka to me. He was fun and a little scary and dangerous but in the best way, and always full of joy. Then I discovered Mel Brooks and I met an entirely different Gene Wilder. I met the Waco Kid, Leo Bloom, and Doctor Frederick Fronkenteen (phonetic). He became Richard Pryor's counterpart for a time. Suddenly he was in all my favorite movies. 

What I think made Gene Wilder work, aside from his unmistakable and perfect comic timing (see the way he says "You know- morons" in Blazing Saddles, a delivery so perfect Cleavon Little honestly breaks up), was the sadness in him. Always, just under the surface, there was a sad, soulful loneliness in his eyes. He always sounded like he was on the verge of a sigh, except for when he was arcing into a hysteria no one else could pull off. Yes, everyone loves to point out his "LIVE, DAMN YOU!" in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN but just as perfect is his blue blanket tantrum in THE PRODUCERS. It's a minor compulsion, he could deal with it if he wanted to. 

Marilyn Manson opens his first album with the "There's no earthly way of knowing" poem from Wonka and it's a toss up who does it creepier. 

When he was sick he kept it a secret. His family's statement reads, "The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

That quote, by the way, that's when I cried. I was sad, but not crushed. He was old and suffering from Alzheimer's. He lived an incredible and long life, full of love. My connections to him were through movies I love. That's enough to feel an, "Awww, man. That sucks." But reading that he couldn't bear the idea of one less smile on a child's face? That did it.

There's so much we can learn from him and his movies. God, I wish I could show BLAZING SADDLES to a class full of students. Not 5th graders, I'm not insane, but high school kids? And then we could talk about how it's 40 years old and exactly as relevant today, in Barack Obama's America, as it was then, if not more so. And you can't say that's just Mel (oh god the chat we're going to have to have when Mel Brooks dies...I don't want to think about it), because Gene was involved in his movies very deeply. He co-wrote YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.