Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fueled by Coffee and Love by Mari Venturino

You may remember that I hosted a very special #WeirdEd happy hour back in April (The Story of Tonight) where we swapped stories and shared ideas. That was in the middle of a very crazy book-creating process. Well, guess what? It’s published!

Fueled by Coffee and Love is a collection of real stories by real teachers. Each contributor shared a story from their teaching journey. Some stories will make you smile, some stories will make you think, and some stories will make you cry. These are our stories.

Still not convinced? The intro was written by the one and only Doug Robertson! And, if that isn’t enough, all proceeds from this book will be donated to classrooms and teachers. (Ok good, you’re convinced. Go buy a copy, then read on.)

Jennie Magiera mentioned Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk in her ISTE 2017 keynote--if you haven’t seen this TED Talk, take a second to go watch it before we chat.  Adichie says, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED Talk, The danger of a single story). It is a dangerous thing to allow others to tell our stories, especially when they are doing so for political or economic gain.

This project started in February 2017--my AVID 8 students were starting 20Time projects, and I decided to do one myself. My inspiration for this project stemmed from news media and politicians telling a one-sided tale of what teaching and education is and is not. I feel frustrated that the individuals making decisions about our profession have little idea of our day-to-day joys and struggles.

FBCAL - Social Media Release Graphic.png

What I thought would be a small and manageable project exploded (in a great way) and turned into a full-scale book project. In March through May, I gathered stories and facilitated the editing process. A total of 53 stories came in! Then, it took May and June to finish the editing, final formatting, getting a logo and cover design created, and getting the whole thing published. (Shoutout to Ray Charbonneau & y42k Publishing Services for making the self-publishing process easy.)

One of the biggest challenges in this project was recruiting a diverse cross-section of teachers, especially including teachers of color. Because this project grew out of my group of friends and PLN, I know there is some diversity of authors and I also know it isn’t representative of all teachers. (And, since I don’t know all of the authors personally, I’m making this judgement based on their stories, bios, and Twitter profiles.) This is something in the forefront of my mind as I plan for Volume 2.

Get yourself a copy of the book on Amazon--while you’re there, buy a second copy to gift to a teacher who has made an impact on you!

If you’re interested in writing and/or editing for FBCAL Volume 2, please fill out the interest list and I’ll email you once Volume 2 gets rolling this fall. Find out more about the project on the Fueled by Coffee and Love website. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Blixa Bargeld, Hating Guitar, and Connections to Teaching

I'm reading the hardcover book that comes with the super deluxe edition of Lovely Creatures: The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and it's full of interesting and insightful essays about the band and their process. As a person who buys Blu Rays for the special features, this level of depth is exactly the kind of thing I want. I haven't been a fan of Cave for long, but I'm not sure if I've ever fallen this hard this fast for a musician. I can't get enough.

One particular essay, the third in the book, is called "A Beautiful, Evil Thing- The Music of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds" by David Pattie. It's wide ranging, covering the band's dissonant yet gorgeous discography and discussing just what it is that makes them sound the way they do. A section of this essay is about one of Cave's earliest collaborator's, German noise innovator Blixa Bargeld. Bargeld has a lot of interesting things to say about the guitar, and it made me think about teaching, because I'm an education nerd and I find connections to teaching in everything. The below link goes into my connections in some detail, but I think anchor deletes posts after 24 hours and I wanted to try to write about it too. So listen if the link is still active. Otherwise, read on, MacDuff.

Here's the section in question-

When conventional instruments were used they were radically changed - guitars were placed on the floor and played with bows or electric razors. As Bargled told Johnson, such music could only be played by someone who hated the guitar; or, at least, hated what most musicians play on the guitar. "I thought it was a good decision to play guitar because I claimed my hatred for playing guitar in several interviews...It's probably good to play an instrument out of hatred of what other people do with it rather than play..."

However, there was more to Bargeld's playing than simple hatred. He told Guitarist magazine in 1997 that he wanted to find a way into playing guitar without playing guitar. "To me playing any instrument is a thinking process...I'd consider myself more like a singer. I come up with an idea for what to play on the guitar due to the value of how much sense it makes in a singing context.
 Bargeld, in other words, didn't simply approach the guitar the way the Barbarian hordes approached Rome. His function in the Bad Seeds was to provide something more subtle - a nagging sense of sonic disturbance."

There's so much in there that speaks to the way I approach education in all facets. Look at the first paragraph, he's saying that he hates the way other people play guitar, and that drives him to do something wildly out of the ordinary, something destructive and dissonant, with the instrument. 

Now think about how teachers use their textbooks. Or their Chromebooks. Or run edchats. Or write. Or even just how they teach. When I see people doing something badly- or it doesn't even have to be badly, it might be objectively well done, but boring or reductive or the same old thing- it makes me want to do the thing, but do it better and differently. It motivates me to try and find a way to break the form. Do I? I dunno. I probably just make a mess a lot of the time. But breaking things makes messes. I'm sure that a lot of guitar people listen to the way Bargeld plays and dismiss it as noise. I realize that I'm dangerously close to comparing myself to someone I'd happily call a musical genius (or at least a musical madman), but it's more about connecting him to teaching than comparing myself to him.

How often have you looked at a bad administrator and, even just for a moment, thought, "I'm going to go back to college, get my Masters in administration, and become a principal, just to show you how badly you suck at it and how it could be done so much better"? How many professional developments have you sat in that made you want to gently pull the presenter to the side, sit them down, and then finish their session yourself? If you answer, "Never, nope,not even once," to those then you are infinitely less judgmental than I am. But don't those bad PDs stack up? How many bad sessions can a teacher sit in before you have to go Ivan Drago on the whole system and say, "I must break you."

What about all the other tools of our trade? Yes, textbooks can suck. But don't throw them out. Break them. Turn them inside out. Find a way to use the tool- the instrument, if you will- in a way that sings for you and your students. 

Ah, there's a different between what Bargeld was doing and what we do. The Bad Seeds grew out of The Birthday Party, a post-punk band Bargeld wasn't a part of but loved, and who made a career out of antagonizing and attacking the audience. Not something we can do in our classrooms, though I'd love to see a professional development leader try to do it. In fact, I try to do it in my own way. Find ways to push the envelope. 

This brings us to the second part of the selection, which can be summed up in the final words, "a nagging sense of sonic disturbance." This is something education should aspire to. You want to talk about change agents and getting outside your comfort zone and growing by risk taking? What you're talking about is creating a nagging sense of sonic disturbance. Slipping inside the groove of education and vibrating just out of sync, slightly out of tune, but still in a way that enhances the overall effort. Make education more interesting by creating friction. 

But create it in an intelligent way. I'm not about to go charging around, crashing through walls and breaking things for the sake of breaking them, as fun as that is. That's mindless and it's just as easy as following the song exactly. Anarchy is easy. It's much harder to be smart about the chaos, to strike a tone that rings out but still rings true. 

I think we can learn a lot from Blixa Bargeld's guitar playing. If we're serious about changing education, about shaking up the status quo, then we need to be looking at the people who actually do that for inspiration. 

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.

Lecture is Bad...Right?

I'm at ISTE17, a giant edtech conference/sales pitch. A buddy and very smart human I know named Don Wettrick turned me on to this new mini-podcasting app called Anchor. So I decided to try it out.

My first mini-cast is ruminations on the nature of lecture, and whether it's really as bad as we make it out to be.

*EDIT- Turns out these only last for 24 hours, so if you didn't listen before I guess it's gone*

Monday, June 12, 2017

Battle of the Disney Non-Princesses: Judy Hopps v Moana

*I know this is a teaching blog. This particular post will have nothing to do with teaching. Why? Because it's mid-June and this sounded like fun.

ZOOTOPIA and MOANA are two of Disney's most recent films, and two of the company's best. Both are funny, feature fully-fleshed out characters, tell engaging stories, and have leads that don't fit into the traditional Disney Princess archetype. But between Judy Hopps and Moana, who's the better character? Let's break it down and find out who the Best Disney Non-Princess* really is.

Getting Their Start
Moana yearns to leave her island even before she realizes that she has to in order to save the world. She's never been beyond the reef, never sailed, and only knew what lay out there through stories told by her grandmother. Encouraged by the ocean itself, Moana toddles to the water every chance she gets. She's motivated by discontent and a rebellious streak at first, and later through a sense of duty.

Judy Hopps wants to be the first prey-species police officer in the biggest city in the world. She has wanted this her whole life, and everything she's ever done has been pointed towards accomplishing this goal. She has only wanted to help people and stand up for the little guy. How often does a person say what they want to be in elementary school and then follow through? She knew herself well from an early age.

Edge- Judy Hopps. Judy knew what she wanted from the beginning and did everything she could to achieve her dream. While Moana eventually came to her mission's true purpose, Judy's motivation was always pure altruism.

Degree of Mission Difficulty
Moana has to sail across an ocean, capture a demigod, defeat two other unexpected monsters along the way, defeat a supernatural being, and save the entire world. She's never sailed before, she has no real way to convince Maui to do anything, and she's a mortal in the realm of gods and monsters.

Judy Hopps wants to be a cop. She gets to go to cop school. She's trained by a polar bear who's a hardcase, but who wants her to do well. She goes into her mission as well prepared as a bunny could be. While her original mission is to hand out parking tickets, she's soon thrust into a web of deceit and corruption that threatens the tenuous fabric of the society in which she lives. She has to save the day in a small time period with no official resources.

Advantage- Moana. Come on. Yeah, the ocean helps her, but she doesn't even know how to make a canoe go when she sets out. Judy gets all the training in the world. Judy has to fight a savage jaguar and an angry sheep. Moana fights a billion coconuts, a giant crab, and a lava monster.

Moana's companion is a demigod who has no interest in helping her. All Maui wants is to get his hook back, be magic, be awesome, be adored. He's more powerful than her, and has all the information she needs to be successful. Without the help of the ocean, he could leave her at any turn and there's nothing she could do about it. His arc isn't complete until he swoops in, Han Solo-like, in the final confrontation, sacrificing his hook, his magic, and maybe himself in the process. He has a song that will be stuck in your head for the next three days. You're welcome.

Judy Hopps' companion is a fox who has no interest in helping her at all. All Nick wants to do is run his hustles, not work to hard, and have a good time. He knows his way around the city better than her, and tries to take advantage of her naivete. Judy out-thinks Nick and hustles him into helping her. His arc lets him find his way to her way of thinking on screen, through her caring and example. He rejects her not to save himself, but because he feels mistreated by her, and rightly. He has to welcome her back and they plan together to solve the final problem. In the end he too becomes a cop.

Advantage- Judy and Nick. Both Nick and Maui are selfish to start, but Nick's evolution is clearer and a clearer result of Judy's influence. Also, once the pen recording isn't held over Nick's head he sticks around. Maui constantly tries to ditch Moana and uses her as bait at one point. Nick has the better arc and is a better companion.

Other Supporting Characters
Moana travels with a chicken too dumb to live, the ocean, and has the most adorable pig you've ever seen.

Judy's world is full of colorful animals. A sloth named Flash, a fat cheetah, a nudist yak, a mole Godfather.

Advantage- Moana. Hehe eats two different rocks, can't eat food given to him, and manages to frustrate the ocean. Hehe is the coolest chicken ever.

Idris Elba
MOANA does not have Idris Elba in it.

ZOOTOPIA has Idris Elba in it.

Advantage- ZOOTOPIA and Judy Hopps

The Rock
MOANA has The Rock in it.

ZOOTOPIA does not have The Rock in it.

Advantage- MOANA and Moana

Moana is forced to do something no one from her island has done in memory. She does it without training, and fighting a demigod the whole way. She fights through storms and learns on the go. She's inspired by her ancestors and Lin-Manuel Miranda. She, in turn, inspires a demigod and her entire village.

Judy Hopps overcomes everyone in her life telling her she can't be a cop, a bunny has never been a cop, she'll be nothing but a carrot farmer. Even when given no resources she finds a way to hustle and think her way around problems.

Advantage- Moana because seriously, she literally doesn't know what she's doing and does it anyway.

Refusal of the Call
Moana at her weakest point, when she finally gives up her quest, is after a crushing defeat and being abandoned by the one other person who can help her. She asks the ocean to choose another, and comes around after being visited by her grandmother's spirit. This moment is touching and beautiful and shows the power of love and family and how it can inspire. She goes on without Maui.

Judy Hopps voluntarily leaves the ZPD when she sees that her good intentions lead to terrible outcomes for the very people she was trying to protect, coupled with being confronted with her own biases. She runs from the world, hiding at home, leaving her task incomplete. A chance encounter with a former bully helps her solve the case, return to Zootopia to find Nick, and save the day.

Advantage- Judy Hopps. There will be flack for this choice, but as touching as Moana's moment is, Judy's comes from within and helps her grow as a person because not only does she have to solve the case but she also has to admit she's wrong to Nick. Judy screws up big time, is forced to confront her ignorance, and move past it. Reflection like that is harder than realizing you've got to face a lava monster.

Moana's funniest line is when she shouts at the ocean, "Fish pee in you! All day!"

Judy's funniest line is when she says, "I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but we are good at multiplying."

Advantage- Judy Hopps. ZOOTOPIA is a riot. MOANA has its moments, but it's nothing compared to Judy keeping it together in a nudist colony, Chief Bogo dancing in his chair to his Gazelle app, an extended Godfather riff in the middle of a children's movie, or, "Blood blood blood and death."

Moana's theme is How Far I'll Go. It's a mission statement and a beautiful sequence in the film that lays out everything we need to know about the character. And did I mention it's beautifully animated and performed?

Judy's theme is Try Everything. It lays out Judy's character. It plays over a wonderful sequence that introduces us to the variety of the world.

Advantage- Moana. Duh. This one isn't even fair. Try Everything is fine, it's catchy, it's got a good message. But it's up against a breathtaking moment, one of the most gorgeous two and a half minutes ever animated. In fact, here, watch it again.

See? No contest.

Moana is not a Chosen One. The ocean does not choose her because it's her destiny. It chooses her because she saves a turtle over grabbing the shell. She's doing what she's doing because it needs to be done.

Judy Hopps is not a Chosen One. The Great Bunny never comes down to her and anoints the rabbit that changes the world. She's doing what she's doing because it needs to be done.

 Advantage- TIE. Chosen One stories are boring and played out. It's not interesting when someone is told they are great. It's interesting when someone chooses to be great. Moana and Judy both choose their paths no matter what obstacles, starting with their parents, are in front of them.

Moana takes the advantage in six of the categories.

Judy Hopps takes the advantage in six of the categories.

MOANA and ZOOTOPIA are two of the most important, empowering movies we've had in a long time. Strong female leads taking the audience through great stories and tackling a wide range of issues that may or may not be under the surface. How can you choose between Moana and Judy Hopps? Let's celebrate the world they are trying to bring about.

*Yes, Moana is technically the daughter of the Chief and therefore could be called a princess, but when Maui calls her one she denies it. Plus, she's still a non-traditional example of a Disney princess. 

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to Train a Student Teacher

People often say to me, "Doug, you are extremely handsome and modest. Also, you are a fantastic mentor teacher to the student teachers lucky enough to work in your classroom. How do you do it?" So, in the interest of helping the education public at large and with the help of my current student teacher, I made this handy instructional video.

You're welcome.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever Is Worse

It's time again to investigate saying and aphorisms we hear all the time and take for granted as true. The above is a Truth in education, and in business as a whole. You'll hear, "The worst thing you can say about something is it's the way we've always done it" anywhere you go. The point of the saying is to encourage people to constantly be evolving, changing, keeping up with the times, thinking outside the box. Of course, if everyone is thinking outside the box then we've just underestimated the size of the box, and it might be a little bigger than we first though. That box gets bigger all the time. Still, the Theory of the Growing Box, which I just now coined, accommodates the idea that the worst thing, the most dangerous thing, is satisfaction with status quo. One of the great philosophers of our time, George Carlin, said it best when he proclaimed, "The status quo sucks!" He's right, naturally. The status quo does indeed suck. Coincidentally, that's one of the few Carlin quotes than can make it unedited into an education post. Which is good because can you imagine how pissed George would be about one of his quotes being edited for content?

We love hyperbole. In point of fact, we think hyperbole is the greatest thing in the universe and beyond. Hyperbole is not only better than sliced bread, you can slice bread with hyperbole. Hyperbole is so great Bono dressed up as hyperbole for Halloween (he didn't pull it off*). This love affair with hyperbole explains why we're so drawn to this statement. The Most Dangerous Phrase. Dangerous. This phrase robbed Bruce Wayne's parents. This phrase makes Maverick look like a Cessna pilot. Kenny Loggins wrote a song about this phrase.

It's not though. Oh, it's bad. I can't stand it. It drives me bonkers when it's used as a reason to not try something new, but I don't think it's as common as we're told it is. Maybe I'm working in the wrong schools, or I guess it would be the right schools. Teachers can be reluctant to try brand new things, but it's rarely because they're clinging to the Old Ways and more because a lot of teachers are cautious creatures and they want to understand the New Thing before trying it with kids. A completely reasonable feeling. Growth Mindset is a new hotness phrase, but it's not a new hotness idea. This is where you wave your hand around and say schools look the same as they did in the 1950s and I say you're looking at surface things and we have a long discussion about whether or not the majority of teachers actually want what's best for kids and are busting their tails to achieve that or if they're holding tight to Old Ways for comfort. It's where I talk about the three states, four districts, and four schools I've worked in over my eleven years and how at every site we've evolved and changed and yes some teachers dragged their feet but it was almost all out of discomfort and not unwillingness. And you say, "But rows and worksheets and homework, oh my," and we move on from there.

"We've always done it this way," isn't the most dangerous phrase in education.

The most dangerous phrase in education, in anything, is, "Whatever." I can work with someone who says, "This is the way we've always done it." There's a root there that's easy to see. But a shrug? Shrugs are harder to work with. There's a lot of root causes of "whatever", and they get gnarled and deep. Apathy is a killer. Does it come from being beat down by bad teammate, bad admin, bad state leadership, frustration with an incompetent Education Secretary, one of those classes? Apathy takes a long time to get to. An apathetic response means not only does the person not burn with desire, their pilot light has gone out.

"Whatever," is the worst. It's a useless response. Even in regular life, asking your significant other what they want for dinner. "Eh, whatever." Ok, that's not helpful at all and you get a wish sandwich** now.

When I was just a Weird Child I was a swimmer. My first swim coach was a woman named Lisa who was, let's say, intimidating. Coach Lisa was intense. A great coach, but a formidable woman. My mom got me a thirty minute private lesson with Coach Lisa before practice one day. I got there and Coach Lisa asked me, "What do you want to work on?" You're smart and you know where this is going. I was young, my mom booked the lesson, I kind of shrugged and said, "Whatever." Coach Lisa was not amused. I got a private lesson on, "You're paying for this time. This is for you to improve, and you don't know what you want to improve on? You didn't think about it before you got here?" It taught me a lot about focus and goal setting and being prepared to learn. But also on the insult of a shrug.

Apathy speeds entropy. Apathy hurts more students than "we've always done this" ever has. At least the teachers who are dedicated to the way they've always done it are dedicated to something. Apathetic teachers aren't dedicated to anything. They're moving on whatever momentum got them started.

I want to be clear that, like the "we've always done this" crowd, I don't think there's as many dangerously apathetic teachers as Betsy DeVos and others selling things want us to believe. Those archetypes just fit their narratives, yet another reason for teachers who have the fire in their bellies to let it burn bright and pass it on to others.

Some of you are done for the school year. I still have three weeks. I'm not fighting apathy, but there's a little part of me that can feel summer right there, just out of reach. Part of me that knows we're basically at the finish line and come of, one episode of Bill Nye isn't going to hurt you. Maybe two. You know. It's not apathy, but it's related. I beat that little voice down with cardboard and yet another project I'm not sure will work. You beat it down some other way.

 How we've always done it isn't ideal, but it opens the door to the real danger. We must be aware of the tendency towards apathy within all of us. That part that looks at the world and wants to toss up hands and let it all go. It's such a mess out there, it's so big, and I'm in my classroom toiling away. And that's when we turn to the kids, the true cure for apathy. Each kid is a peddle in the pond. Each student is a strike back against apathy and helplessness.

*dude's name means "Good" He wanted to call himself Bono Vox, like "Good voice" in Latin. Why does anyone take U2 seriously?

**to quote the Blues Brothers, "A wish sandwich is the kind of a sandwich where you have two slices of bread and you wish you had some meat."

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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 30, 2017

The Truth Of Roger Rabbit

It happens instantly and never once do you question that it should. The camera pulls back from the animated short to reveal the fridge is real, the set is real, the director is real, but the birds, the birds Roger, those are wrong. And just like that we're in the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  It's done so seamlessly that by the time cartoons are lifting cigars and glasses bourbon we don't even notice. When a cartoon rabbit bounces on the bed our brains register the impact wrinkles his feet cause but we don't think about it. After all, that's what happens when someone bounces on the bed. And when a hanging lamp is bumped and swings back and forth, we never stop to consider the amount of work it would have taken to get Roger colored, shaded, and lit just right in every single frame. Why should we? That how things work in the world where a human-populated Hollywood is a stone's throw (or rocketing Yosemite Sam) away from ToonTown, where all our favorite cartoons live in peaceful, copy write free happiness.

Classrooms are like the world of Roger Rabbit. Yes, we're preparing them for the real world. Yes, there are elements of reality in our classrooms, and it's as real as we can make it. But laid over all of it is an air of fiction. A classroom is an artificial environment. Even classrooms that try to avoid the artifice can't. Oh, you've set up your classroom like Starbucks? And you're saying Starbucks is laid out to be as natural as possible and not and artificial environment to make you comfortable so you spend plenty of time there and buy lots of coffee? The classroom comfort tricks can all be boiled down to making kids more comfortable, to hide the animatronic skeletons creating the unreality, to helping them buy in to the world we're helping create so they want to spend time in the world. And the more efficiently it's done, the less the kids notice, the smoother the transition from the outside world to ToonTown (there is zero chance my classroom isn't basically ToonTown in this metaphor).

How is this magic accomplished? In the movie the filmmakers planned every single interaction down to the second and smallest movement. They had no choice, the characters were painted directly onto the frames of the film. They used robots and puppets on set to manipulate objects in the real world and then had to meticulously paint over each frame, keeping in mind shading, camera movement, and eyeline. Every time a toon interacts with something live it had to happen on set. There was no CGI fixing it in post. Imagine that level of preparation to do what amounts to a magic trick. All that work to ensure the audience never sees the amount of work that went into it. When the move works best is when Roger is smashing plates over his head or zooming past a light or smashing through a window and your brain never once goes, "Wait, how..." 

In my classroom I don't want my kids to see the strings. They don't need to know the work that went into what's happening. I want them to buy in and not notice how unusual a classroom really is. It's not bad, it's hyperreal. It's more, bigger. In my class there are puppets and cardboard. I'm not trying to make it "real". Who Framed Roger Rabbit doesn't work because it's real. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and my classroom, work because they are True. 

The elements of reality are there. We can step into the real world at any time. The things that happen in my classroom are directly tied to the real world. Lessons learned in my classroom relate to the real world. The toons can influence humanity, and humanity can influence the toons. But it works because the truth of the situations stays firmly in place. That's why you can get ridiculous and huge, because it all feels true to the world you've created. The rules work. When Eddie goes into ToonTown he survives by following the rules laid out in this utterly mad environment. Except it's not mad, not when you know the rules that govern it and make it true. Knowing the rules, using the rules, these make Eddie successful both in our world and theirs. The rules adhere to the truth of the situations.

Find the truth first and students will follow you to any world you want to create together.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

What We Owe DeVos

Children deserve as many chances as we can afford to give them. Adults? Not so much. Especially ones that have the ability, potential, and whim to hurt us and those we love.

I'm speaking, of course, of Secretary of Education and anti-empathy advocate Betsy DeVos. And I'm speaking specifically to educators who are still trying to build bridges. Who are mailing her cutesy posters about what kids need and writing letters from a place of seeking understanding.

Betsy DeVos neither wants to be understood nor deserves the chance to be. Olive branches are so much kindling. The time for reaching out has passed. Good faith gestures are meaningless when the other side hates what you stand for. I'm all about trying to reach difficult kids, that's my job. But hateful, proudly ignorant adults? Who are working to tear down what I love? No. And if you're thinking, “Woah, cool it on the hateful hyoerbole, Doug. It’s a little much,” then you haven't been watching.

Mrs. DeVos appeared on the national scene not long ago. Knowing nothing of education and secure in her bubble of ignorance, Mrs. DeVos didn't even bother bluffing her way through her job interview. Oh how we laughed to hide our pain. Remember the bear memes? She wants guns on campus because her party wants guns everywhere like the Wild West that never was, and she thought we’d swallow a story about bears on campuses. A story that the school she told it about immediately debunked. Oh yeah, she also didn’t know what IDEA is or the difference between I can’t even remember now- probably science and Greek mythology. The point being not only did she give no straight answers, she also demonstrated that she didn't care. She's the student who bluffs her way through a book report by talking about the movie,only she also watched the wrong movie.  

The calls through the education sector rang out- Give her a chance. Maybe she'll learn. Maybe she won't be as bad as it seems. We could hear these people surprisingly well considering how far up their own [EDIT] how deep in the sand their heads were. And she immediately set to work spreading lies and propaganda aimed at tearing us, teachers, down. It's certainly instructive to watch the supposed head of your profession go on and on about how unmotivated, uncreative, and bad for students you are.  

Then she went before Congress again, this time to defend a budget that makes millions of dollars of cuts to programs our students need the most. And again she smiled and lied through it. Proving again that not only does she not know the details of education, she has no interest in knowing. Details get in the way of her mission. Her go-to line this time, the drum she beats when she doesn't know the song, goes, “Parent choice baddaba parent choice baddaba.” It's not a complicated song, it can't be. It needs to be simple so people who can't be bothered to look at sheet music or think about lyrics can follow along. Parent choice baddaba parent choice baddaba.

Maybe this is all just a simple ideological difference of opinion to some. A sure, if she'd stayed in Detroit, content to ruin only that city’s educational system for profit, most of us wouldn't know her. Her school choice rhetoric would be one of many drums banging in the educational wilderness. But she stepped to the front of the class. She made this so much more. And then she made her position indefensible.

The Secretary of Education for the United States of America, hired and confirmed by a GOP who want to Make America Great Again, responded to a direct question about whether or not discrimination is bad by saying, “We have to do something different than continuing a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. States and local communities are best equipped to make decisions and framework on behalf of their students."

Her first response wasn't, “It's terrible that children would be treated that way at all, let alone by a school.” Her first instinct when asked about discrimination is to bang her drum. If you want to be cynical, you'd say it's because she’s scared to admit she believes those students deserve to be discriminated against. I choose to be cynical.

And why not? Hasn't she shown us again and again who she is? That one answer tells you everything you need to know about her and about what will happen to our kids under her watch. Think school choice is the bee's knees or not, this is a whole different universe. School choice will hurt public schools, at least done the way the proposed budget wants. Hurting public schools hurts students. But someone in charge who thinks it's ok for LGBTQ kids to be discriminated against hurts kids directly, and in fact openly encourages the hurting of those kids. By adults. By their peers. By the system in which they must exist.

There is no olive branch opening here. Don't be fooled into hoping something different is coming. It's not. She's made this clear. Betsy DeVos has no interest in dialogue. No eye for a common understanding. Just like her boss she's shown us who she is. To not be disgusted by it is to endorse it.

Our job is not to reach out to her with an open hand. Our jobs are to find ways to a) get her out as soon as possible, on a greased rail, and b) minimize the damage she can do while she clings to power. With phone calls, letters, and protests. By keeping the scales from our eyes. Don't pretend she cares. Don't pretend sending her something about how great our schools and kids are will change anything. That ship has sailed long ago. You might think me negative. You might say you'd rather have hope and see the good in people. And you'd be ignoring the evidence in front of your face. You'd say that a grown woman who’s job it is to understand every single in and out of every single education debate gets a pass when she is clueless about the simplest topics. Things you'd never give a student a pass on, the Secretary of Education of the United States gets another another another shot at. You'd be telling the teachers around you and your students that someone who can't even say the words, “Schools discriminating against students is a bad thing,” is someone that might be ok.

And students don't deserve that. 

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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 16, 2017

Generation News- a guest post by Alex Fishman

Thanks to Alexander Fishman for contributing this post, which will also act as the primer for 5/17/17's #WeirdEd. I want to spend time talking about the craven sickness which has taken over our highest levels of government and I'm working on ways to tie those issues to education in organic ways that will allow for productive conversation. Alex spoke up on twitter with the idea for this post, and I have one or two of my own cooking. We can't ignore what's happening. I want to be clear that this space won't become a political screed, but I also refuse to turn a blind eye. There will be fun and foolishness, there will be lesson plans and classroom stories, but there's also the real world and it is really impinging on my state of mind and our education system. So I could write about homework and connected educators, but that's never been me. If teachers want to claim we're preparing kids for the real world then we need to be prepared to talk about the real world in real ways. Education is political. Education is resistance.

For a couple of months in the winter a young man would arrive early to school to sit in my lab and surf the web. Well, not really surf the web. He mostly just watched YouTube. Specifically he started each day watching various news clips. He watched both the real news and comedy news, like Jon Oliver. I compared this ritual to my morning of watching comedy news while I eat breakfast, or my wife’s ritual of listening to NPR while getting ready. We all have these morning rituals of getting ourselves in the know, or just getting our minds woken up. Have these changed with generations?
Lacking the capacity to run my own study, I’ve pulled up some done by research organizations. What they find is unsurprising in that we get our news from a bunch of different sources and we mistrust the lot of them.
What may be surprising is that television still reigns but of course the habits of consuming it and other sources vary from generation to generation. It has interesting implications for the classroom to think about the teacher and student arriving having consumed news on the same topic from highly divergent sources.
The woeful inadequacy in this system was in stark relief in the last couple of years as time after time, new media exposed the brutal state sanctioned violence against black youth. I don’t know if teachers arrived to schools having read and watched news of Ferguson and other flashpoints of police brutality through their TVs, while students saw the same through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Research into the perception of these events is needed. Many teachers are digging into the gulf between students and themselves, or between their mostly white colleagues and their students in some great works.
In the aftermath of the murder of Mike Brown I got permission to host circles of conversation in my technology classroom. I don’t know if this was the right thing to do. If it helped any of my students, mostly students of color, cope and reflect or if it soothed only myself and the other majority white teachers. As I reflect on those conversations a couple of years removed I’m thinking about what was at the center of the circle. Not literally. There was nothing, just the empty tile floor. But I wonder, did we - teacher and student - have a shared thing that we were talking about, or where we working on the assumption that we spoke about the same America, the same Ferguson, and yet in our minds imagined two different places, two or many more than two, different narratives of race, of violence, of the state and what it is or isn’t supposed to do to people’s bodies.
This week the DOJ has released a report detailing the systemic racism of the Baltimore police department. Yet something tells me that this report will not impact the elementary school curriculum around neighborhoods, police officers, or government. It will also not impact middle school history curriculum around civil rights era. It may perhaps find its way into high school classes that deal explicitly with social justice in history. But I wonder, with systemic oppression laid so completely bare, how can we continue to teach ‘law and order’ to our students in the same ways?
Governor Rauner in Illinois has beat me to the punch here, by mandating that schools teach youth how to submit to state power. How will teachers respond? The tired excuse that conversations on power, race, and politics don’t belong in elementary classrooms is a lie in light of this move to explicitly train our youth into oppression.
As teachers we are constantly chasing educational trends.  From multiple intelligences to hyperdocs, teachers are looking for that edge. We attend conferences and webinars to find that cool new app, that next awesome thing, that insight to make us and our classes even better. We implore one another to teach like pirates, like explorers, like innovators, like engineers, like the latest and most expansive acronyms [see evolution of STEM to STEAM to STREAM]. But if we adventure in the service of the oppressive state as Rauner’s bill implores us to do, we aren’t pirates or adventurers or creatives, we are mercenaries.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Boxing Creativity

Black and White Reeds Reflected In Water, Swirly Patterns
by Robert Greshoff

There is a major difference between telling someone they can be creative and telling someone how to be creative.

I'm firmly in the Everyone Is Creative camp. I don't even mean that with the qualifier, "Until it's beaten out of them by school/work/life/the Trunchbull." I mean every single person on Earth, and everyone living in the secret moon base established by NASA in the '70s, has the innate ability to be creative.

And every one of us uses that ability on a regular basis.

"But Doug," I hear you say. "I'm not creative. I can't write stories or songs, draw, paint, sculpt, make movies. I'm not creative." To paraphrase the great philosopher Morissette, isn't it ironic, don't you think, that we won't get creative with the meaning of creativity? How strange is it that so many of us have a strict view of what creativity is and what it can be. Do you dress blandly? Do you only make toast and water? Do you only follow, pace for pace, in the footsteps of others? Are you boring in bed?

Creativity comes in all forms. If you plan something with meticulous detail, isn't that a form of creativity? I dare you to tell a mathematician that math isn't a creative pursuit. Certainly we'd never tell a scientist they aren't creative. Programming? The inspiration you feel when making a shopping list. Creativity bends like reeds in the water. Creativity is the water, changing shape to fit the container in which it's held, sometimes calm and smooth, sometimes raging and powerful. Sometimes carrying you and sometimes drowning you.

Everyone is creative.

I believe we want to be creative. We, in this context, being educators. I know I'm a Pollyanna about this and there's plenty of people who would grumble that not everyone wants to be creative. Something something testing something worksheets something. To which I snark that they're being awfully creative in their excuses about not being creative, and I'd realistically say, "Hey, there's always a 'some people' for anything." Moreover, I believe that those honestly uninterested in being educationally creative make up a minute portion of the population. Again, maybe I'm a Pollyanna. Or maybe others are overly negative to make any creativity seem special. Let's go with my theory that most of us actually want to be creative. If that's the case, why don't more teachers feel creative? Why do we chase people who are seen as Creative like rats chasing the Pied Piper?

Sometimes we need permission to feel how we feel.

I've done therapy. A lot of it, in my case, was finding ways to accept feelings and move past them. Getting permission to forgive myself, getting permission to move forward. Stop running from the emotion, or blocking it, and feel it. Use it.

I believe many teachers are looking for permission to be creative. This isn't a character flaw. Not everyone is the kind of person who wants to jump first, and that's fine. They just want to be told that it's ok to play. "No really, go. It'll be fine." Give that little nod and off they go. Just as we want our students to find themselves in the work, but they hesitate because they've learned to play School, so have many teachers. We play School well, and we need permission to play in school instead.

It's a muscle, though. Gotta use it. Creativity doesn't just happen. A watery tart isn't going to hurl a sword of creative thought at you and make you king. You gotta work for it. Keeping this in the teaching space, those first lessons where you really try to stretch your wings will be tough. Don't compare them to others. You'd never run your first 10k and compare your time to the person running her 50th. You're competing against you only. You're making forward movement. You have permission to move forward and find your unique creative voice at your pace.

I was a theater minor in college. Theater people are, in general, a little (read: a lot) more emotive than most other people. One of my favorite teachers ever, Jeff Ingman, who I mention in my first book, explained it this way- Think of your emotional life like a child. We (especially men) are trained by society that when an emotion comes out to smack it back. If every time a child came forward with an idea you shut the child down, it would not be long before that child closed up. Soon you've trained your emotions to be muted. As an actor, that's the opposite of what you need. So actors let emotions flow off stage in order to have access to them on stage. This, like so many other lessons Jeff taught me, connects directly to teaching with almost no conversion.

I believe that environment plays a big part in mindset as well. Immersing yourself in creative things outside of the classroom will help train your brain to think creatively inside it. We are a whole, you cannot compartmentalize who you are and who you are as a teacher. It's all you. Listening to challenging music (my go-tos are Zappa, Waits, Rush, and extreme stuff that I'm not sure I like the first three times I listen to it) watching off-center movies (watch CLOUD ATLAS), reading odd books (there's too many to name, but Clockwork Orange is a good place to start), these mess up the brain in the best way. Not knowing if I like something on the first two or three passes is a good signal that I'm stretching myself. Even if it turns out, no I don't actually like it, I tried something new, something hard. That impacts the classroom. It inspires.

I don't like it when people claim they can show you how to be creative. "Here's how to creatively use x." Ugh. This is the opposite of creative. This is the speaker being creative and the audience's job is to impressed by their creativity. Mike Ritzius put it best, "Here's how I'm creative with... > Here's how to be creative with." I can give examples of the things I've done, but they're not to copy. They're to use as jumping off points.

Here's my best advice to start thinking creatively- See your first instinct, that first idea. Look at it, know that it's there if it's needed, then throw it off to the side, bend it, or break it. It's a draft. Use the second or third or fourth idea instead. Don't be worried they won't come, they will. And if they don't you've still got that first draft. In working with my student teacher, which forces me to be more reflective, I realize that I'm doing this without thinking about it all the time. I treat ideas like Lego pieces. "Here's the main brick. Let's add movement to it. That'll go here. No, here. Can I add tech? Hmm, here? no. Here? No. Not gonna work with this. But maybe it will fit on this other idea." Think about it like a flow chart if that works better in your brain.

I like this because it creates freedom. It forces it. It also creates lessons that burn down, fall over, and then sink into the swamp. That's when you build another lesson on top of the fallen one, and that one stays up. Hopefully. Or you get to build another.

AND, because model model model what we do in the classroom, I articulate this process when I can. I let my kids hear me think. I say "let" like I've got a choice, like I don't have to talk out loud through my thinking because how do I know what I think unless I write it down or hear myself say it?

There's other factors to consider. Does your admin encourage creative experimentation? If not then there's the added challenge of being creative under even tighter constraints. It can still be done. I have to be positive about this. I have to see the bright side. I've working for restrictive administrations and I hated it and chafed against it and still found ways around their bone-headedness inside my room because it's my room and they're my kids and I dare you to come in, see them enjoying learning, and tell me to stop. Same with the prescribed curriculum. There's margins to play in. There's always holes in the system. Make a goal finding and exploiting them. Easier said than done, but it can be done. Use every tool. If the school is paying for it and I don't like the way it's presented, I bet I can break it and use the pieces.

You are allowed to stretch your wings and fly. You're allowed to sing all the songs until you find your voice. You're allowed to suck until you don't. We are allowed to find our creativity, and use it. We are allowed to expand the definition of creativity until it encompasses everything, because boxed creativity is its anathema.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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 2, 2017

The Worst Thing About Fidget Spinners

A post shared by Doug Robertson (@theweirdteacher) on
Ah yes, fidget spinners. The scourge of classrooms across the nation. From their bearings have spun dozens of thinkpieces proclaiming them the devil in spinnate.*

You know what the worst part of fidget spinners is?

That they are just one more thing that exposes how ill-equipped teachers can be to deal with things that are a little bit irritating, and how we love to burn down the house to kill a few bugs.

Let's get the basics out of the way for the four people who haven't noticed these things in the hands of their children- a fidget spinner is the cheaper cousin of the fidget cube. It's normally a triangular shape with one bearing in the center and one on each edge. The person fidgeting with it grips the center between two fingers and, ideally, uses the other fingers on the same hand to spin the spinner. Thus keeping busy hands busy, but minds on the task at hand.

The main complaint about these harbingers of classroom disaster is that they are becoming toys. "Yes, some, a few, a couple of students need them, sure. But most of my kids are just using them as toys." The secondary complaints are that they are causing fights and theft. And a tertiary complaint is that the soft hum the spinners make becomes nails-on-chalkboard irritating at some point.

So it's good for one kid, but a toy for another. Sounds like an iPad to me. Or a mechanical pencil. You know, one of those things that all the kids can use, but most need to be trained to use properly? Don't scoff about the mechanical pencil getting lumped in here either. I was a student. I know exactly how much time can be wasted by being completely absorbed in being sure the lead is in the pencil just exactly right. With no breaks. If there's a break- start over. Gotta get that eraser on just right too. Did you know that if you unscrew the pointy end there's a spring to play with? Total distraction, I can't believe parents are sending them with their kids. Why can't the kid just use a normal pencil?

Oh, the parent reason, which give rise to the parent complaint. I do like that one. I've heard it too. "My mom said it'll help me focus." I've got two choices here. I could go straight Trunchbull on the child, like so-
Different kind of spinner, this.
OR, I could nod and smile and repeat what I said about the proper way to use the tool- One hand, on or near your desk, eyes on your work, not on the spinner.

If I really wanted to get snarky, I'd respond to the complaints that the spinners are distracting toys by asking why the work the students are being given is so disengaging that they're being distracted by a three dollar piece of plastic. But that would require me to think about the fact that I've seen my own students, on occasion, be distracted from my incredibly engaging assignments by the same three dollar piece of plastic. So I won't bring that up at all. If I wanted to reflect I'd buy a mirror.

Or I'd notice it in my own classroom, realize that's a thing kids do, and redirect them. Then wonder what's up with the assignment I thought was so cool. That's also an option.

As for the theft and fights- this seems like a much bigger problem. It assumes that prior to the fidget spinners being delivered straight from Hades' workshop to the classroom door there was no theft, no fights. The classroom was Eden and the spinners are the apple. Or the serpent? But to carry this metaphor forward that would make the dress code...hrm. Anyway, the point is if it were my class, I'd wonder what else was being stolen, what else was causing fights, and where the roots of these much bigger problems were. Where's the breakdown in my class community, because it's probably not the Hot New Thing. That's just what's bringing it to the surface.

The point in all of this is- aren't they supplying teachable moments left and right? If they are an issue, that's a chance for me as the teacher and us as my class and I to think about why. To talk about tools and choices. I have also used these conversations to connect with my students. I constantly have something in my hands. I have a yard stick I've never measured anything with and I keep empty tape rolls in my pocket. At the very least I've got a pen/drum stick in my hand. My kids see that. But most of them never noticed it until I pointed it out. Because I was still getting the work done. See kids, it can be done! Modelling, it turns out, is a viable instructional strategy.

It's not like any of this is new, either. Sure, this particular fad is being marketed as an instructional aid, but it kinda is for more kids than we might admit. Still not a new thing. I was in school for The Great Snap Bracelet Plague of the late '80s. I remember The Pog Boom of the mid 90s. The Tamagotchi Migration of the late 90s? I survived that too (though my tamagotchi never did). For those readers who were in school in the BeforeTimes it was what- Jacks? Hoop and stick? Whitewashing fences? Imagine being a teacher during those times. Some of you don't have to. I can just picture the grinding of teeth and rending of shirts about snap bracelets. Did your school ban them? I think mine might have.

Ah, banning things. Because nothing keeps kids from doing something like telling them not to do it. That's why abstinence only education works so well. It's why none of my ten- and eleven-year old students have Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube pages- the age gate! It's why those classrooms where teachers take cell phones away and strictly limit what students talk about are such bright and shiny places. There's nothing like announcing, "We are banning fidget spinners!" to make yourself sound like a grown-up who is in control.

Are they a pain? Sure, they can be. I've got 36 students and probably a third to a half of them have a spinner. I've got one kid who has a spinner with LED lights in it, because why wouldn't the company do their best to turn me against them? And we've had a couple of talks now about the proper use. One hand, down low, not on your nose or your desk or in your friend's hair, keep working. Do that and we're good. Fail to do that and it becomes a toy and you can't have toys in school, so it'll be mine until the end of the day. These rules, by the way, are almost the same as my Bring Your Own Device rules. It's a tool, it's cool, it's a toy, say bye.

As for the noise thing, I've only noticed it when kids are getting those RPMs up real high. But I listen to my music too loud so my hearing might not be what yours is. In which case we revert to the basics of freedom- I'm good with you doing it until it interferes with someone else's happiness or freedom. If your neighbor says the hum is annoying, let's figure out a way to fix that.

I have seen teachers taking advantage of the fad and having their kids make spinners. Think of that, taking something the kids are naturally interested in and bringing it into the classroom. Making them Maker challenges. Using them to create design, inertia, and friction lessons. It's like the PokemonGo EDU thing except actually useful.

I know I've been pretty snarky and hard on those who are piling on about the spinners, but that's only because I feel like we've got bigger fish to fry. At least, if you're teaching a home ec class.** There are major educational issues out there for us to be bringing attention to, let's stop giving publications "Teachers Are Complaining About Small Thing X" to write about. Pay, benefits, whatever the hell DeVos thinks she's doing, racial inequality, testing, equity, trauma-informed practices, project-based learning, edtech- all of these things should be getting digital ink. But we're letting the focus get pulled because we're pulling it.

A fidget spinner isn't a distraction to learning. Getting obsessed and stressed by a fad that'll be over before the school year ends is.

*an article complaining about how terrible some thing The Kids are into is the easiest thing in the world to write (aside from a list posing as an article), and the two or three Fidget Spinner Are Evil articles I've seen are so boring and predictable. Come on. Don't give them the clicks. Make them publish good content. 

**do they fry fish in home ec? I never took it. Cliches are dumb.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.