Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Tom Riddle and Anakin Skywalker- A Study of Students

Gifted beyond their years. Driven to be the best in their fields. Attentive, questioning, creative, full of mischief and just enough of an anti-establishment streak to make them interesting.

Tom Riddle and Anakin Skywalker sound like the kind of students we want in our classrooms.

Skywalker might have been a little too emotional at times, but the relationship he formed with his teacher allowed them both to accomplish incredible things. Obi Wan was there when his teacher, Qui-Gon Jinn, saved Anakin. Plucked him, in the best tradition of Teacher-As-Savior, from poverty and strife and brought him to the best school he could. Sure, Master Yoda wasn't keen on letting the kid in, but damnit, Qui-Gon is a teacher and teachers fight for what is best for our students. His gamble paid off too. Anakin was driven by something deep inside to progress as fast as he could. His methods weren't always what Obi Wan expected, and he stumbled often. That's how we learn though, and each failure drove him harder. When a teacher gives a student an assignment and that student completes it in a completely unexpected way that still accomplishes the goal, that's when you know real deep learning has taken place. Anakin Skywalker wasn't always an easy student, but he was one hell of a learner.

Tom Riddle was also saved by a teacher. Dumbledore knew the boy was troubled, but that made the challenge all the sweeter. Riddle was proof that extreme talent could come from anywhere, and it would be a terrible thing to let that talent fall through the cracks. He read further and deeper than his classmates, and on topics that his teachers hadn't yet assigned. He disrupted the education process and differentiated it for himself. A self-driven learner, he found passions and pursued them, using teachers when needed. He became the ultimate student. That drive was a little unnerving, and he tended to look a little too deeply at you, but there was such intelligence in there. Irresistible to a teacher.

The signs were all there for Obi Wan and Dumbledore to see. The seeds of who these two could become. So they taught with love and understanding, giving of themselves and providing all the experiences they could. It wasn't enough.

Can Obi Wan and Dumbledore be held in account for the rise of Darth Vader or Lord Voldemort? They were both warned, Obi Wan by Yoda and Dumbledore by his very first conversation with Riddle. Without them neither of the boys would have grown into men that brought entire cultures to their knees. It's not their faults, surely, but they did educate the boys. A teacher can't control what a student does with the knowledge they are led to. The other half of our job, certainly of Dumbledore and Obi Wan's job, was teaching the responsibility that comes with such power. After all, with great power, comes- wait, sorry, that's jumping into a third universe, and that's just too much.

It's reasonable to say that Dumbledore and Obi Wan did everything right, as far as they could. Anakin and Tom were unknown talents. How can you not help that talent grow and be a little blinded by the light of it? In that blinding light, Anakin was drawn away from his teacher by another, who promised to move him along faster, help him reach greater heights. Obi Wan preached patience, and Anakin didn't have it in him. He was impetuous and strong-willed. So he abandoned his teacher. Tom used his teachers, taking all the information he could from them, providing one of those marvelous teaching opportunities to go above and beyond the prescribed curriculum. And he used that knowledge in new, creative ways! What joy, to see learning become assimilated, synthesized, and used for the creation of new knowledge. His flaws were, due to the rules of genre, within himself the whole time. There was no saving Tom Riddle. Without Dumbledore he would have wreaked havoc on some scale as he gained control of his powers. Dumbledore just gave him to keys to the castle, as it were. Riddle's fatal flaw was hubris, he thought he knew it all and so was undercut by old knowledge he should have found but didn't think was important. And then again, at the end, hubris undid him when he thought he had all the pieces to a puzzle but had one significant Draco-shaped one wrong. By then he was unable to think his way around the problem. There's the key-

Darth Vader's famous line when confronting Obi Wan is, "When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master." And that's after he kills a classroom full of kids. Voldemort sees Dumbledore as an "old man" and literally destroys a school. Maybe their final turn was only made possible when they stopped being learners and believed themselves to know it all. Lord and Master- doesn't sound like learners.

We come back, then, to their teachers. Dumbledore continued on. He kept teaching, kept raising the next generation of wizards, perhaps to keep an eye on those who's power was growing under him? Obi Wan ran. So did Yoda. There were other reasons, but they didn't teach again until a student came to them, asking to be taught. And it looks like this is a lesson their next student learned as well.

What can we do as teachers but teach to the best of what's inside our students? With knowledge we also impart the human element. As much as relationships are the sugar than helps the medicine go down, they're also the bonding agent that connects the knowledge to the wider world. Would Dumbledore have done something differently if he'd have known for certain who Tom Riddle would become? Would Obi Wan have? That's not the way of a teacher. They'd have heard the warning, then redoubled their efforts, because teachers don't give up on their students.

Teaching is a long game, and uncertain. Both Dumbledore and Obi Wan were able to atone for their teaching mistakes, they each trained the one who took down their students who'd gone wrong. Maybe, then, this is a post about learning from failure, even great failure. How a teacher can reflect, and use the future, the long game of education, to eventually soothe the mistakes of the past.

Or maybe it's if you really screw up a class you can always train next year's class to kill them. Might be that too.

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, April 18, 2017

Hand v Stick: Choice of Justice

Pulling sticks. Calling on hands. Calling on everyone. A Wheel of Fate. How to be sure we're giving all students a chance to answer while not putting students on the spot? Where's the line between checking understanding, checking attention, and calling attention to an embarrassed student? This is one of those Education Debates (tm) that everyone has an opinion on, and some would fight to their last breath to defend their side, waving research both data-driven and anecdotal. Like many Education Debates (tm) I don't have a strong side. Never be hardline about anything, except not being hardline about anything. Teaching requires too much flexibility to ever put your foot down too hard.*

That said, this feels like there should be an answer. Which, I think, is a fallacy. We aren't Stephen Colbert, we don't have to think with our feelings. We should dig in.

One of the things my student teacher is working on this year is being sure she's calling on a wide variety of our kids. She realized on her own very quickly that it's always the same five kids with their hands up, and that there are some more than willing to never say a word all day, and still more who would speak up but figure that other kid has the answer. In our conversations we set a goal for her that she'd be better at mixing it up. To help demonstrate to her what I was seeing I printed a class list and put a check next to names every time they spoke over an entire lesson block. At the end a few had four or five checks and many, too many, had not even one. Nothing like making a point concrete. Veronica is a great student, as well as being a great student teacher, and she took this to heart without taking it to ego and immediately worked on correcting the issue. I mentor teach a lot like I teach teach, which means I helped her see the issue and then asked her to fix it in a way she thought would work, and then together we would massage and fine tune. In this way she finds her own solutions and, next year when she has her own class, she has the tools to troubleshoot those things that come up that aren't in any university course.

I will mention that her university, um, supervisor (?), during her observations, has noted the same thing- that she was calling on too many kids with hands up. This, I think, speaks to a deeper issue. We'll get there, keep your comments holstered.

Her solution was to keep a running record for herself on the board as she calls on students. Every time she calls on a student she quickly writes that student's name down. This visual aid lets her see when she's overusing one student and missing another.

I am not thrilled with this solution, and when we talked about it after school it took me some time to articulate why. Watching her do it I was happy she'd found a solution, but I wasn't happy with the solution she'd chosen. It's inelegant for certain. It takes a precious second or two of her concentration every time a student speaks. But I'm also not upset with it. It does solve the problem, and it has been helping. We both recognize that it's a first step to a better way and not a habit she wants to build. In her defense, and I feel like I use this excuse a lot but it's a Truth this year, we've got 36 kids. That's a lot to keep track of for me in in my eleventh year. Remember your student teacher year, when you didn't have all your Teacher Senses yet? When you were still having to think about All The Things rather than have them running as subroutines while you focused on the important stuff? Writing names is a starting point, and starting points are good. You can build from starting points. But build to where?

We sat and hashed it out. I believe that mentor teaching is conversing, not commanding. We're in this together. What follows is the basic shape of our conversation as it snaked naturally through the following points. We both know that using hands is bad. That's a perfect way to never hear from at least a third of the class. But she's also conscious of making the kids self-conscious. So calling on students who don't have their hands up might backfire. On the other hand (get it?), we have students who aren't paying attention and might calling on them like that remind them to be on the stick? But that's using public embarrassment as a motivator and that's not what we're about. So we give think time, which is important and another thing new teachers either forget or underestimate the length of because you're thinking faster than the clock is moving and not realizing the kids aren't as keyed up on coffee and adrenaline as you are.

But what to do after think time? Three choices- move to turn and talk, circulate and let kids know they'll be chiming in with their answer when we come back as a group, or a combination of the two. Turn and talk is good because then even if the student isn't talking to the whole group they're talking to someone. The warning that they're going to be called on is good because that gives the student a chance to collect their thoughts. And the combination is good because it gives the student a chance to collect their thoughts and the thoughts of the students around them.

But then who do you call on? Just the kids you told you'd be calling on. Anyone who doesn't get to share out gets to turn and tell the person next to them what they were going to say for five seconds, because you know you've got those kids that will just explode if they don't get to share out to someone. That values everyone's voice, doesn't it? Or call on every hand? Sometimes calling on hands is ok, isn't it? Let everyone share? But that takes a long time in a normal sized classroom. And if they're dying to share out specifically to the Teacher than says more that they're trying to please us and less that they're trying to learn, doesn't it?

So we move to a Random Student Chooser. Names or numbers on sticks in a cup. Pull a stick and if your name comes out of the cup you come up with an answer. I used this for a long time. I stopped because it stopped working for me like I wanted, and I didn't like kids freezing up, but it's not a bad option when you're still building your tool belt. Still, then it puts students on the spot who might not have an answer and we don't want to embarrass kids. If the student doesn't know the teacher response might be, "You can ask a friend." Then that friend tells the original student and the original student tells you.

The problem with all of these is they're Teacher Centered. All of these assume the teacher in the front of the room lecturing and the students seated and listening. Not ideal. Sometimes needed, occasionally useful, but not ideal. There's always technology that allows everyone to share, valuing student voice, allowing student conversation, putting the onus on them rather than us. Sites and tools like Back-channels, Padlet, and TodaysMeet. Even the quiet students get in the game that way. But that requires everyone to have access to tech. Not a reality for us, not yet. *looks wistfully into the middle distance*  Someday though.

The best option is to have everything be student-centered all the time, with little teacher talk and little whole group discussion. But whole group can have value. There's no reason to throw something completely away because it only works some of the time. That means you have a tool in your belt that works some of the time! Differentiation means keeping those Sometimes things.

All of this brought our conversation (remember, the framing device for the last few paragraphs has been a discussion between my student teacher and me) all the way around to the big idea of- We Need A Mix Of Things. Which is at the heart of what I believe about teaching. If we're going to hold tight to the war cry that students aren't standardized then neither should teaching styles be. Sometime lecture is good, sometimes group work, sometimes tech, sometimes a worksheet isn't the devil (if it's well written, yeah I said it), sometimes a project or a build is better, sometimes quietly reading out the book will be just what a kid needs. Might need to get those textbooks out of the ditch for that last one. They aren't all bad. Again, especially if you're a new teacher building your world as you go. And yes, I'm leaving all those that vague because I don't know your kids, I don't know your curriculum, and I don't know your style. I just know that more options are better than less and experimentation is good.

So we'll mix it up. We'll build a Wheel Decide with kids' names. We'll have a Cup o' Destiny full of sticks. We'll have turn and talk and "hey, you're up next" and "Who knows this". And we'll have lots and lots of kids talking to kids explaining things to kids. We will make our classroom a place where it's safe to speak up, safe to try, safe to share, and safe to sometimes stay quiet and watch.

Remember sixteen hundred words ago when I mentioned her university supervisor noting that she was calling on too many hands? That means that the teacher-centered model is still at the forefront of at least one teacher education program. If it wasn't then her comment wouldn't have been, "You need to move away from calling on students with their hands up." It would have been, "You're talking too much." My personal theory is that Teaching is easier to teach in a university classroom than the more complicated and involved student-centered model. It's also a case of How We've Always Done, and I don't know if you've seen the memes, but rumor is that's no excuse to keep doing that way. But redesigning how teacher education is done is a blog (book) for another time.

I honestly don't know if this is the best way, and I know I'm missing other options. I'm hoping that the comment section gets used to explore other ideas and techniques. This is one of the benefits of being a mentor teacher, to be honest- I'm forced to question and justify my own practice and occasionally I don't have a great answer.

*except guns in schools for "protection". That's the dumbest idea on Earth and I'll argue against it until one of us starves to death, and then I'll become one of those ghosts that you can hear in the winds and creaks of doors, still arguing about what a stupid idea it is.

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.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Show Me The Money- An Adventure In New Things

"I'm not a fan of extrinsic motivation, especially in fifth grade. Give them good work to do, and behavior takes care of itself."
-Me, six months ago

"Dear sweet science, I have no more ideas. Maybe trinkets will work. Would you like the precious?"
- Me, two weeks ago

I am paying my students to learn. I'm paying them to work. I'm paying them to behave, and to be cool, and just to be at school. I'm paying them for anything I can think of. Because it's the best thing I could think of trying.

I teach fifth grade. Teaching is never an easy job. This year is a little more challenging than most. I have, individually, great kids. But taken as a whole, we begin to have trouble. A favorite metaphor of mine is that classroom are like chemistry sets and students are like chemicals. Sometimes you combine two chemicals and you get a perfume. But combine one of those chemicals with a different chemical and you get a small puff of smoke instead. Add a third chemical to the mix and you get to draw your eyebrows on for a few months. It's not something that happens on purpose, it's not malicious or to be taken personally, but personalities can and will conflict. It happens with adults all the time, but we (ideally) have the tools, experience, and maturity to work through that. Many fifth graders don't, because this is when they learn the tools and gain the experience they'll use later in life. I have a lot of chemicals that are great on their own but get a little 'splody when combined.

All this to say, I have a class who struggles to live up to the expectations I set. I know part of it is I have a lot of them (36 kids). I know part of it is I probably didn't start the year as strongly and clearly as I could have, last year I had a great class and that may have made me complacent and overconfident. I know part of it is this class, as a whole, just feels younger than other classes I've taught. I realize that descriptor wouldn't be terribly helpful for someone outside of the education field, someone who doesn't work with kids, but I know teachers out there know exactly what younger means.

So I've been struggling and we've been struggling. I've changed things- we did a class contract, we had lots of very explicit conversations about expectations and behavior, I tried being The Stern Teacher, I tried a much heavier-handed discipline approach (which only lasted like ten days because I hated it so much). I've changed groups and moved kids and done rows and talked to parents and and and. I honestly feel like I tried everything I could think of to help my kids.

I even went to my principal to ask for her help. Maybe that statement doesn't mean anything big to you, and if that's true then I congratulate you on having excellent administrators. With the exception of my very first principal, I have never worked with an admin I'd have been comfortable going to and saying, "I have no more ideas. Help me." Certainly not as a brand new teacher, scared for my job and approval- "Maybe she doesn't know I'm making it up as I go, and I'm not telling her." And later as a teacher with, let's say a strained relationship with an admin- "There's zero chance she'll be able to help me, she's awful." But my current admin is great and I trust her and I'm confident enough in myself as a teacher that I'm comfortable going to her. Plus, I have a student teacher and I want her to see that I do not have all the answers, not that she thinks that anyway.

My principal gave me a bunch of ideas, the first of which was the most smack-my-forehead one. I told her my class feels young. She said, "How would you help them if they were third graders then?" Ohhh yeah. See- asking for help is good, people will show you things you can't see because they're too obvious to you. She also mentioned that another teacher I work with does Gecko Bucks with his class to start the year, and I might think about a class economy.

I have thought about a class economy before. Like many other things, I am in awe of teachers who are seemingly effortless in their ability to stay organized among so many moving parts and routines. My class is fairly simple because I subscribe to the KISS philosophy- Keep It Simple, Stupid. But that, in this case, meant that I was not setting clear enough goal for my kids, was not being explicit enough and step-by-step enough. I wasn't helping them with how I'm comfortable doing things. So I decided to change it up.

Veronica, my student teacher, and I got together the Sunday before Spring Break ended and plotted out how our class economy will work. First, we spent a good twenty minutes justifying it. Talking it through, why are we doing this, what's the point, what are our goals? We decided our goals were-

- We have drifted too far into catching kids being bad, we need to catch and praise way more
- We need to have them earn their responsibility and value what the classroom has
- We need to get back to a place of joy, with the students'

Kids have wallets to keep their money in, as well as
Account Balance sheets to track their money
With that in mind we built a class economy that I think works well. Here's a link to it, but context is important. As I've written about a lot, I am all about student groups and alternative seating. But after two substitute fiascoes in a row, I took both of those things away. I put all the desks back at a normal height, I put them in rows, and I gave all the kids normal chairs. I called this a Total Reset. We needed it and they needed to know that I meant it when I said expectations were not being met and consequences were to be had.

But there's a problem with this- I have a bunch of kids who did nothing wrong. Who were on it and well behaved. This isn't fair to them. So, things happen as a class, but thanks to the class economy, which we call Courson Cash, students can buy their way back into the privileges they were taking for granted. Students get paid for being at school, for making good choices, for completing assignments, for class jobs. And there's a menu of options for them to spend their money on. They can buy back the right to a height-adjusted desk, or the right to use alternative seating, the right to the MakerSpace. And this is why there's so much context at the top- Six months ago I would have hated the idea that I was making a class buy their way into these things. But I was out of ideas, and I have a deep well of ideas.

By earning money and spending it on these things, they will value them more (in theory). They will understand the responsibility that comes with the classroom privileges. And, because I'm also charging a small weekly tax on all of the privileges, they need to keep it up. Can't earn alternative seating back and then play around, because then you won't have the money to pay that tax next week and you lose the privilege.

I also started a class Instagram account (another thing I'd been avoiding because I couldn't justify having one in my head) and posting a picture on there costs $5. They were more excited about this than anything else on the menu.

It also means that everyone earns things back at their own pace and they get to choose what it is they're working towards. I have kids who do not care about getting alternative seating back (to my surprise, I must admit), so they are working towards MakerSpace or something else. Not everyone is trying to get the same thing so everyone is motivated by different things. It's almost like I'm treating my class like kids with different needs, which probably has some edufancy name...hmmmm. Anyway.

This only solved half my problem. Now individuals are working for themselves. But we're a community. How do I help them care about each other and the room as a whole? Something I've really had a hard time with, I might add.

The Toof Trust. The Toof Trust is basically class points, but within the class economy system. Some money, instead of going to individuals, goes into our class trust. And there is a menu of purchase options for that too- buy back group seating, buy back their own line order, buy back lessons by Courson and Sophie, etc. The Toof Trust is filled when they walk nicely in the halls, when they get a compliment, when transitions go well. I also allow students to donate to the Toof Trust on Fridays. So, if we're ten bucks from what we want, ten kids can chip in a dollar for the good of the whole. There's a lot of lessons there, I think.

And by having money in our pockets, it forces Veronica and I to be looking for kids to give bonuses too. We're retraining ourselves to look for good, which I've always preached but still was having a hard time with.

It's a lot more organization than I usually have when it comes to a behavior plan. There's more moving parts and I have to be thinking of it more than I'd like, honestly. But I know that as I get used to it, and as the kids get used to it, it'll be easier. The trick will be not to let to fall by the wayside, because once I stop taking it seriously the whole edifice will crash down on my head.

We're a week in, as so far it's working exactly like I hoped. Yes, the kids are motivated by money rather than by that voice inside that tells them to do great and be good, and that's not ideal. But they're fifth graders, and we're still having those discussions too. Veronica takes a small group every day for five minutes as a check-in.

More importantly, we're back to a stronger place of respect, of learning, of positivity. Now I'm able to really assign and trust those cool lessons that will keep them from playing around, I just needed to scaffold the kids more.

Goes to show, once again, that the more important rule in teaching is to never be hardline about anything. You never know what's going to work.

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, April 4, 2017

The Story of Tonight by Mari Venturino

Tonight's post and #WeirdEd is written by Mari Venturino.

The best (or worst, to non-teachers) dinner parties and happy hours are those when teachers get together. As much as we try, we can’t NOT talk about our classrooms and our students. We might change the subject for a minute, but inevitably the conversation winds back to teaching.

Similarly, I find myself liking and interacting with non-Twitter social media posts from teacher friends way more often than all other posts...ok, so maybe also puppies and babies are up there...and Doug’s crazy kids...

Last week’s WeirdEd was all about our classroom story (read more here). This week, we’re shifting gears to tell our stories.

We all have stories, about those students, and those days, and those mistakes. And, we don’t have to be published authors with bestselling books in order to share our expertise and teaching journey.

Please remember, many of the people writing edu-books aren’t currently in the classroom full-time. This isn’t a knock on the fantastic authors out there sharing great ideas, rather a reminder to those of us in the classroom that we are just as valuable.

You might be thinking, “but I’m just a teacher, there’s nothing special about me!” Fortunately, you are incorrect. There is SO much amazing about you as a teacher, and each and every one of us have a unique perspective, background story, and daily experience. These stories need to be shared.

Or, you might be saying, “I have nothing creative to share. Everything I do is borrowed, stolen, and remixed from others. Why would someone want to hear my story?” Deep breath. Validate yourself! We are creating art here, and everything we do is inspired by our peers, our experiences, and the internets.

Sharing stories isn’t always about venting about a terrible coworker or administrator, complaining about that obnoxious student, or whining about all the grading. Sure, that’s a (sometimes big) part of teaching, and needs to be discussed in a productive manner. At the same time, each of us have creative ideas and heartwarming moments.

I’d like to invite each and everyone of you to contribute a story to Fueled by Coffee and Love. It’s a collection of real stories, by real teachers. Share the best, the worst, the happiest, or the most heartbreaking. These will be compiled into a free ebook to shine a light on teaching.

So, let’s have our own WeirdEd Happy Hour. Whether you’re raising your glass to freedom, or not throwing away your shot, grab your favorite drink and get ready to chat.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Story of A Class

A classroom is a living thing, breathing, changing, and growing. It's a singular being made up of the multiple personalities within it. A classroom has an energy, an attitude, and internal ecosystem, and all of those things stem from that which makes the thing go- the teachers and students, the learning. Just as the personality of the teacher rubs off on the students, and visa-versa, so does that collective psychic energy rub off on the walls of a classroom. If these walls could talk, indeed, except anyone
who's ever walked into a classroom knows the walls can talk. You can feel what a classroom is like, even without students in it. It's not as effective a read, of course. Trying to determine a classroom's life while there are no students inside it is as effective as trying to determine a person's personality based only on their autopsy. There is a story there, but it's incomplete and lacks context.

Teachers know the story of our classrooms like we know the backs of our hands. Our classrooms often are just as much a part of us as the backs of our hands are. This isn't romanticizing. I'd be hurt if you cut off my finger, but I'd be just as hurt if pipes burst and flooded my room. It's where I live, it's where my kids live. Learning does not have to take place in a classroom, of course. The world is a classroom, and we should use it as such. But we can't ignore that while the world might be a classroom, my students gather in room 17, and that's where most of the learning physically takes place. It's hippy-dippy to say, but there's a power to that, an energy. It gets into the walls. You can feel it. Most experienced teachers, I'd wager, could walk into a classroom that isn't there's and at least make a decent guess at the kind of teacher and students who live there. Not a judgement, a scoff and a dismissal (though some would do that too, but they'd do it anyway), but a psychic reading of the place. Or, if that's too go-hug-a-tree-here's-a-crystal for you, a Sherlock-like deconstruction of the place. The desks are here, the chairs are like that, look at that poster, pile over there, student work here and here, clean, mess, so much cardboard, I wish I had a projector that hung from the ceiling, must be nice.

But there's a problem with that too- It doesn't tell the story of the room. And the story of a room is what makes it come to life. Why are the desks like that, why are these desks even here? What's happening in this corner? Rows? Groups? Madness? A look at classroom at rest is a snapshot. The teacher and the students are the ones who tell the story of the classroom.

We should be the ones telling our stories. Our rooms should have figurative glass walls (literal glass walls would make it even harder to get my introverts up and talking).We should be sharing how our rooms start, how they change, and why. It's all part of the reflection process, and the growth process. I have an idea that next year there should be a group that reflects on the changes that take place in our classrooms. When we move desks. When we add or remove elements, physical and figurative. And we explain why. We tell the story of our classrooms.

I'm thinking about this now because my classroom currently looks like it hasn't in a long long time. If someone who didn't know me walked into my classroom today they'd get a very different impression of who I am as a teacher than someone who walked into my classroom a month ago. A month ago desks were grouped, sitting at their lowest and highest levels. Normal chairs were nowhere to be seen, only bean bag chairs, wobble stools, and the like. But today my desks are uniform, and in rows. Normal chairs sir behind each desk. It's as traditional as I could make it. Why the change? These snapshots don't line up without the story.

My room is based on freedom, on options. That means that one of the central tenets of my classroom is maturity and responsibility. I need my class to be on board with what we're doing, and I need them to play along and buy in, or it doesn't work. And for years its worked. But this year is different. I've given my kids too much rope, not enough structure. I've found a group that can't handle the looseness with which I teach. I had to adapt for them in ways I don't like. The rows, the chairs, I hate all of it. It's not my class. But we needed a hard reset. We needed everything in the room to become as structured as I could make it so we had a real baseline from which to build. I changed my lessons and our class rules, and I'm looking into feedback/reward systems like gamification that will serve this group best. But without the story of my classroom, I've got graveyard seating and stodgy structure. There's chapters and arcs missing from the story. It's hard to tell that this is the second act.*

But thinking about it like a story is helping me keep it all together. A story means there's a continuum. A forward motion to the room. It's not set in amber. What it is today is not what it will be in April or May. I'm not helpless to the pull of an unseen author either- I am the co-author of the classroom along with my student teacher and our students. No wonder the room has been struggling, it's not easy writing with one other person, let alone thirty-seven. Sometimes a story spins itself, it flows naturally from the storyteller. Sometimes the storyteller has to push it, step in as deus ex machina and change it to keep it within conventions or a format.Some years flow smoother than others, and some require revision and edits.

The story of a classroom isn't an easy one to tell, and it's not a simple one. But it is as much a part of the school year and the learning as anything else. Tell it.

*writing advice I read somewhere- In the first act, get your main character stuck in a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at your main character. In the third act, get your main character out of the tree.

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, March 22, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 142- Super Secret Group

On Monday I sent out a tweet saying that the first five #WeirdEd regulars to DM me were going to be part of a special something. Once I had five I put them in a DM group together and said "WELCOME! FATE HAS DRAWN YOU FIVE TOGETHER FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE!
And then I left them alone to figure it out. One person had to bow out because we're all crazy busy, which was, of course, totally cool. I don't think I need to spell out the point to you, you're smart people.
This is what they came up with.


When Hollywood presents collaboration, we get buddy movies, road trips, and super teams. They have, or are given, an objective and they’re off. After a few setbacks, the heroes find, capture, evade or achieve their goal. In the real world, it isn’t always this easy. Students won’t band together to defeat Voldemort, and reaching a conclusion takes more resources than a box of Scooby snacks. What does it take to assemble a good team and to make it operate like a well-oiled machine that produces the desired outcome?

INTRO!: #WeirdEd Introduce yourself and tell the group who is your favorite book or movie ‘group’. Extra points for visuals!

Lord of the Rings:
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Fellowship was formed literally to make the world a better place, full of hope for the future. Like the Fellowship, many teacher collaborations start strong, full of life and energy. Each teacher brings their own vision, their passion, their hopes (“and my axe!”).

However, as time passed the Fellowship broke apart. In any team dynamic, forces work to pull a group apart. Assignments need grading, work piles up, orcs are at the gates. All of which sap the energy of the team.

Sometimes it’s internal problems that push the group to the brink. Competing visions, different methods, ill-defined roles and responsibilities, squabbles about who should carry the One Ring, etc. Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork? What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

  1. #WeirdEd q1  Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork?

  1. #WeirdEd q1 part 2: What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

Monty Python and The Holy Grail & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see a parody of a classic epic, in which a group of knights band together, undertake a glorious quest, and choose the classic ‘divide and conquer’ to complete the project. Actually, our group did that, so there’s something to be said for that method, after all.

Of course, we didn’t choose our group, as it was chosen for us. (*cough cough* Doug) When students choose their groups, the reasons behind the choices are less ‘work-based’ and more ‘fun-based’, and the seed of the threat to the ‘point of the project’ is planted.  When teacher choose groups, there are many more skills being taught (hopefully), but invariably there ends up being the four classic group work students in each group, as we see in Monty Python.

  • The Leader: (A.K.A. the bossy know-it-all, the A student, the “I’ll do it since nobody else will step up and do their part”, King Arthur)
    • King Arthur was obviously the ideal person for this job, being king and all, even if he wasn’t voted for by the general public and was instead chosen when some watery tart lobbed a scimitar at him. He spoke for the group when God arrived to give the mission, without checking with the others. The Leader is usually a type A personality, and though their intentions are often good, their companions may either resent the behavior, or not learn as much as they would otherwise.
  • The Minion: (A.K.A. Sir Bedevere)
    • Sir Bedevere was the first knight to come to the aide of King Arthur in the movie, and for that alone, he was allowed to stay with him for the duration, even surviving to the end of the movie. (Yes, it was probably in the script that way.) The Minion will be the student who convinced the teacher to be in the group with the Leader ‘because they work so well together’, and generally is the first to go along with the Leader’s ideas, since they will be around that person the most and will have to deal with short term disagreements in the long term if they don’t help.
  • The Sloth: (A.K.A. including quiet, shy, unpopular or just generally different and not-as-vocal-about-it students, Sir Robin)
    • Sir Robin wasn’t exactly lazy, but he was a scaredy-cat. He wasn’t particularly vocal about getting or staying out of trouble, or about better choices if those even existed. This one is tough. In a three-person group, this is the person who just is along for the ride, no matter how they handle it. They may simply not input, or they may go so far as to not do the part they are assigned by the Leader. They are the one that will resent that they were GIVEN work by a fellow classmate, but may not have the confidence to speak up, or perhaps they are the student who simply does not care enough to fight about it, though they would have much rather collaborated.
  • The M.I.A.- (Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film)
    • In a group of four or more, there is almost always a student who wasn’t there the day it was assigned or the day it was due, and the group has to catch them up, or cover for them, either way. This puts stress on students, as it did in the movie, as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film got the accolades for being part of a successful project, but all he did was show up the day they did headshots for the movie poster! (Citation: my own theory)  
This is not, of course, such a complete list that we can always tell who is who, and depending on the projects, the positions may change. A student who is experienced in artsy things may take the lead on the diorama group project, while a student who already read the book might lead the plan when it comes to the making of a theatrical scene on the most recent reading.

We as teachers must simply do our best to create guidelines for jobs so that the students can play to strengths while still requiring all to participate, no matter their type, especially when we choose the groups.

We also must have a plan for when groups cannot stick to the guidelines due to personality conflicts. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ‘group’ wasn’t exactly chosen, but Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian were piloting the Heart of Gold with its Improbability Drive, and we saw an example of when one person thinks they are the Leader, acts like the Leader, and makes decisions like a Leader, but is an idiot. Trillian even reflected on the fact that Zaphod would seem to sometimes feign stupidity rather than risk being wrong about something, and though she thought that was even more stupid, she would have to guide him through to logical choices, which he would then throw out for something much more ridiculous.

In relation to group work, this means that sometimes the person leading the group is not always the best choice, leading us back to the concept that a teacher may need to provide very careful guidelines in regards to the best ways as a group to split up the work and hold themselves accountable. If you as a teacher have any Zaphod Beeblebroxes in your class, you are aware of this necessity.

Questions based on this section:
  1. #WeirdEd q2 How do you as a teacher help facilitate group work? Split jobs? Assign roles?

  1. #WeirdEd q2 part 2 How do you help the students when it doesn’t go as planned?

Sister Act:
It’s great when your team has an even distribution of exactly the skills and personalities you need to get things done.  But life has a way of throwing you into ...unexpected collaborations.

In Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg plays Dolores, a lounge singer whose witness protection placement is as choir mistress in a convent.  Like Dolores living among the nuns, you may find yourself having to take on new identities in your teamwork in order to get the job done.  And sometimes the new habits chafe.

How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

In the end, Dolores saves the day- and the choir- by helping everyone in the choir find a way to bring their own identity to their singing.  When the singers embrace their own voices, their music draws crowds!

Although my students are under intense pressure to narrow their studies, I encourage them not to limit their curiosity.  I came late to my college major and even later to teaching, but there’s very little I have learned that I haven’t put to use somehow, even if it lay dormant for ten years.  You never know which of the ideas, skills, memories, experiences, passions, and trivia you have tucked away will come in handy.


#WeirdEd #q3 How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

#WeirdEd #q4 What’s an unexpected contribution you’ve been able to make to a collaboration because of your own skills or experience?

D2: The Mighty Ducks
When Gordon Bombay is approached to coach Team USA in the Junior Goodwill Hockey Games, he sees an opportunity to collaborate with his former team, the Ducks. Led by team captain Charlie Conway, the Ducks are fresh off a Minnesota State Peewee Hockey Championship and looking to capitalize on their fame and skills. Faced with new teammates, a brighter stage, and tough international competition, will they be able to collaborate and win gold for Team USA? Can they play with new teammates from different cultural backgrounds and different styles of play? Or will they fail to come together as a team and reach their potential against the hard hitting Iceland team?
D2: The Mighty Ducks is a modern day classic (if you were a child of the 90’s) that demonstrates the power of collaboration. In the movie, Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is faced with the dilemma of being overconfident in his abilities. While struggling to manage new or challenging situations, he also resists the help of others. How many times do we as educators find ourselves in a situation where we could use the assistance of others but are unwilling to even ask for help because we feel we should be able to remedy the situation ourselves? It’s not until Bombay sees his team quit and the dream of winning gold slip away that he realizes he needs to ask for help.
The assistance that Bombay seeks come from his mentor, his girlfriend (team tutor), and the very players he coaches. These archetypes also show up in most educational settings, however we often don’t think of them as potential collaborators. Mentors or experienced colleagues can be a source of great knowledge and information for new or even experienced teachers. Rather than work in isolation, teachers can gain valuable experience from the expertise of older teachers, staff, or administrators. While collaboration is often a forced concept, voluntary collaboration opens up a world of learning opportunities. While many educators often look to their spouses for reprieve from their day jobs, a spouse or significant family member can be an excellent collaborator in order to get an outsider perspective on what’s going on in the classroom. Often teachers get too caught up in the classroom to see the bigger picture and those without the lense of education often. And lastly, the very students we teach are perhaps our greatest contributors. When was the last time you asked your own students for help or seek their guidance regarding your teaching? Perhaps the ones we are responsible for teaching are the very ones who end up teaching us the most.

  1. #WeirdEd #q5 How can you best collaborate with others that are not in your content area or profession?
  2. #WeirdED #q6 How can you collaborate with students to improve your teaching?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Raising Money, Doing Good

ad by Sarah Windisch

The Russian election of the Orange Menace hit a lot of us in different ways, but one of the resounding reactions was, "I must put something good into the world." We felt helpless, angry, and in need of something, anything, to affirm that yes there are good people in the world and no Americans aren't all like Komrade Racist Misogynist Nazi-pants.

I wanted to donate to two of the groups we figured would be right in the firing line of the new administration- Planned Parenthood (because they help women and that cannot stand) and the ACLU (who know they've got a lot of fight on their hands). But I don't have much. I know, every little bit helps, but maybe there's a way to do a little bit more.

One of the benefits of being an independently published author is I control everything about my books. I set the price, it's easy to resupply, I don't have a publisher to check with or go through or even give a cut to. I am the process (once has done its process). And that means I can give my books away, jack up the prices (which I'd never do, but still), or take all the profits and do whatever I want. Normally that means buying records.*

So I decided to have a fundraiser.

For one 24-hour period the profits of every single Doug Robertson book sold by me personally, not through amazon, createspace, or smashwords would be split evenly between Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I chose Jan 20th because that was a depressing day and I needed something positive to focus on.

I had no idea how well the fundraiser would work. Selling books is a tricky thing. Maybe no one would buy. Maybe a few would. I had a pretty decent stash at my house for conferences and the occasional online autographed book sale, and my secret hope was I'd run out of books and have to resupply. Which would slow delivery but would mean we raised some decent cash.

The 20th came and my inbox didn't explode, but it did expand rapidly. Orders came in all day. It was a work day, and it was gratifying to look at my phone at breaks and see email notification piling up. That night I designed a Sheet to track all the orders, then shared it with my wife, who is the organized one, and she redesigned it and did that spreadsheet magic thing where it adds and totals automatically.

The process wasn't swift, because we had to wait for the Weirdlings to go down, and I had to email people the totals with shipping for their orders, and they can to pay, and some had to email me addresses and yadda yadda it took longer than expected all together. But eventually, after many emails and nights, shipments started going out.

first batch

We'd reached my secret goal and I also had to order more of every book so some shipments got delayed while I waited for CreateSpace to send me more.
second batch

Due to the magic of spreadsheets, it's was easy to figure out the actual profits. He's the Weird Teacher and The Unforgiving Road are $13 each. THE Teaching Text (You're Welcome) is $6. Shipping was built into the totals I emailed to people (side note- shipping to Canada from the US is reeeediculous). I subtracted the cost of each book to me and the cost of them getting to me, and got the total donation for each order.
 Those two Bonus Donations at the bottom are from two people who gave $10 and $14 more than their order. The total profit from one special day of sales was $464.87. I divided that in half...
...and arrived at how much we'd be donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood- $232.43 each (I know, there's half a penny left over). After that it was easy, since both organizations accept payments from PayPal.

I'm not writing this to be all Check Me Out, I Did a Good Thing. One- because that's not cool and it kinda defeats the purpose of doing a cool thing, and Two- Because I didn't do it. I set up an avenue for people to do a cool thing, and a lot of people took it. This didn't work because of me. If it had been me, I'd have sent each group ten bucks. But working together, we managed to send a decent chunk of change to two groups fighting for our rights in a time where those rights are under attack.

And we can continue to help-

Donate to the ACLU**
Donate to Planned Parenthood**

I wrote this because I want everyone who ordered a book on Jan 20th to know their money went where they wanted it to go. We're in this together. The work goes beyond the classroom, and there's ways for all of us to make a difference, monetarily and otherwise.

Thank you for reading, and for donating.

*partially true- that actually means putting a dent in car payments and whatnot on good months
** No PayPal on these pages, but you can through their mobile sites

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, March 14, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 141- A Special Ed Tour with Anne Lafferty

This week's #WeirdEd post and questions are written by Anne Lafferty.

This is a post about special education. Wait! Don’t run away! It’ll be fun! Hey, don’t worry, I’ll drop all the abbreviations here at the door and leave them right there for the remainder of the post: FAPE, LRE, IDEA, IEP, PLOP, BIP. ITP. Also, no paperwork today. We’re going on a tour and I’m your guide.

“I couldn’t do what you do.” The last time I heard this phrase it made me think - I haven’t had many visitors to my class outside of parents and specialists. I'm a teacher of kindergarteners and first graders with moderate-severe disabilities. Most people don’t really know what goes on inside my classroom, so I’m going to take you on a tour of my space. Bear with me - it’s my first year in this setting so it’s a bit of a work in progress.

Here is my student seating. Some of the chairs at the table are specialized to provide physical support for students with low muscle tone. One chair has a bumpy, squishy cushion to help a student to sit. They love it - and my own kids love sitting on that chair when they visit. At the circle all students sit in cube chairs, which also provide some postural support.
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Some of my kids are learning how to control a pen, pencil, or crayon. Others are working on remembering and writing their home address and phone number. I have one student learning how to type using Keyboarding Without Tears. We needed to adjust the mouse to make it “sticky” so she could drag and drop. You can see the progress one of my kids made in drawing his self portrait, too, since the beginning of the year.

This is our visual schedule. By now all of my students recognize each item on the agenda. Everyone in my room - myself, paraeducators, specialists - love the visual schedule. The symbols really make a difference in quickly identifying what comes up next.Some students have their own personal schedule. They put each item on the left side in the morning and right before lunch. As we go through our day, the students move the current activity to the right. This helps decrease anxiety that a lot of my students feel when they transition from one activity to the rest. Velcro is the best invention ever and makes an excellent birthday gift for the special education teacher in your life. Ahem.
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For language arts and math we have a modified curriculum with lots of visual and auditory supports. Some of my kids can follow along near grade level, others are working on goals to participate by gesturing or otherwise indicating a choice. Some students are working on things like addition and subtraction, others are working on counting meaningfully to 10 or 20. Every student has their own unique goals that my curriculum can help address. For some of my students language arts and math are opportunities to work on fine motor and language skills.

Most of my kids need some help navigating campus. We have to watch a little more carefully for steps, ice, corners, and uneven ground. Imagine walking around on this playground using a walker or crutches.
If it’s bright out, sunglasses or a baseball cap can help. In classrooms with fluorescent lights some of my students may need a hat to help deal with that kind of light. In noisy places like the cafeteria, assemblies, or bathroom some of my students use noise-canceling headphones to cut down on the distracting and annoying noises around them.

We have weekly visits from the speech therapist, occupational therapist, adaptive P.E. teacher, and the physical therapist. Here, students work on things like cutting with adaptive scissors (aren’t these cool? Before I worked in this class I didn’t know there were so many kinds of scissors), writing, catching a ball, swinging a bat, balance and walking. Some of my students are working on building vocabulary or using three or more words in a sentence. Here are some of our occupational therapy toys…
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I hope you enjoyed this tour of my room and what we do. My kids are capable of quite a lot and while their progress doesn’t always show up on measurements from state standards or common core, they learn a lot every day. I think it’s valuable to explore settings that are really different to what we are used to, whether different subjects, grade levels, or settings. It’s good to know the range of what is out there, outside of the cocoons of our little worlds. I think there are valuable things to find for our students in all sorts of settings.