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