Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Getting Help In Public

Fractions have always been hard for me.

That was a partial truth.

Math has always been hard for me. I'm not saying those dreaded words, "I'm bad at math." I am saying that it was the subject that tripped me up more often than any other in school, from elementary all the way through college where I took as few math classes as I could get away with. In high school I did summer school because I spent freshman year in a (fairly unhelpful) remedial math class and needed to get through to Algebra 2 for most college applications. Or something, I don't remember exactly. I just remember going from the pool, where I was a pool aid, to my high school to sit in a room and do geometry on a computer. Woo, checking boxes!

Because of all this, I've never been as comfortable teaching math as I am any other subject. I love reading and writing, I enjoy science and history, but it took me a long time to not get squeamish around teaching math. To not feel like I was bad at it. Whereas I feel incredibly at ease going off book, so to speak, for a reading lesson, I have a tendency to play it safer in math. Not necessarily, "What's the book say? Ok, let's do exactly that then do pg. 53 #s 2-26 Even Only to practice," but not going big and crazy with confidence either.

Many things are changing when it comes to my math instruction. One, I've become very good friends with Megan Schmidt, who for years has been a very patient recipient of and replier to long DMs written minutes after the end of a particularly frustrating math lesson. She introduced me to the concept of Math Talks, which was something I think I probably knew about, and was one of those Teaching Strategies that, as soon as she said it, made my brain go, "Ohhhhhhh, that make total sense. I should do that." But, because of my mental training and process of untraining, I had a harder time going from, "Ohhh, that makes total sense," to, "This is how this would look in my room." Instead it was, "How would this look in my classroom?" Which is not a question I ask often.

When I go to conferences I always find at least one interesting looking math instruction session. Take responsibility for your learning and all that, right? Don't practice your strengths, no matter how fun and gratifying that is. Arnold Schwarzenegger hated his legs when he was a body builder. So he did ridiculous leg days. So I look for math sessions. The best math session I ever attended at a conference was the last one I went to, just last weekend. It was run by Matt Vaudrey, who is one half of Classroom Chef. His session was all about math talks and being comfortable and getting the kids to dig deeper into math conversations. It was fantastic enough that not only did I buy myself and my student teacher a copy of the Classroom Chef book, but I also got a hug. Hugs are important. I have a million ideas from Matt's session that I can't wait to start dropping on my kids.

But asking for help in a DM is easy. It's private. Getting ideas in a session at a conference is easy, you're in a sea of people, a face in the crowd. Asking for help in a big public way about something you think you should know is harder. I think. Probably. Honestly, not for me, and I don't say that to toot my own horn, but to be honest about having very little ego about being embarrassed when I don't know something. Or at all. It's a confidence thing plus a genuine belief that my ego has before and will again get in the way of my learning, so I push it aside and ignore it. Honestly, there's no way to not sound like a jerk after those last few sentences, so let's move along quickly and hope you forget about them. *smokebomb*

ANYWAY, I was teaching my kids about fractions (see, it all comes back around, I have a point). And it's pretty easy (now) to illustrate and explain why adding and subtracting fractions works how they do. Even multiplying fractions makes sense in my head. But dividing fractions- I got no ideas. I know how to do it. Flip the second fraction and multiple. Great. But how is that helpful. I spend all year preaching at my kids that learning isn't magic. I tell them, specifically, "You cannot say, 'I know this is right because it's right.' You might as well say, 'Because magic!' It's not magic. WHY does this work?" They hear it in science, they hear it in language arts, they hear it in math. Not up until dividing fractions. Through dividing fractions. Before, for years, I would say, "This is the trick for dividing fractions, it's real simple." And they'd be able to do it. But they wouldn't know WHY. And, in my classroom, with my current teaching philosophy, WHY is paramount.

The problem is, it's real hard to teach WHY if I don't know WHY. And I had No Freaking Idea why flipping the whatever and doing the thing made the stuff.

So I did what we all do when we don't know- I googled it. And google FAILED ME. It's not that I struck out, there's a million pages about why flipping the whatsit and doing the stuffs makes tada, but none of it made sense in my head. Most of the time I'm a "I will figure this out on my own, go away" kind of guy. but with stuff like this I'm a "Pretty please won't someone hold my hand and speak in slow, measured tones" person.

And this is where the goddess known as Kate Nowak enters our narrative. I took the the Twitterz for help.
Many very nice people responded, but Kate "Dr Feelgood" Nowak had the thing that's easily understood. She broke it down for me step-by-step, holding my hand and spending just a ridiculous amount of time explaining exactly why the whositwhat getting flipped allows the jillywack to get all up in the shnizzle. For a whole, long, step-by-step-by-step thread. And in the end I got it!

I was able to make four math videos for my kids starring Sophie (my math-centric monster), allowing me to blend the lesson and giving Student Teacher Veronica and I the freedom to mix and help.

Here's the thing- I felt like I shouldn't be needing to ask for help with this. I'm in my 11th year of teaching. My second year in fifth grade. I should know by now how dividing fractions works. I'm going to put my teacher chin right out there in public for everyone to see and say, "I don't know how to do something"? That's asking for a swing, isn't it? At least a little. It's inviting DM groups across the EduTwitters to Copy+Paste the link into their thread, "Funny guy knows how to make with the jokes, but not with the teachie teaching."

Now, no one did that. Not in public. Probably not in private, but if they did, eh, whatever. We constantly preach modeling behavior. I was modeling total frustration and confusion and asking for help. I was utterly thankful for the help I got.

And this is where I assume, which I've heard has a Pinocchio in Funland effect on people, what other people think. And that's not totally fair, but it helps me make the point of all of this, and I think I'm at least a little right. The public nature of twitter makes it harder for us to ask serious pedagogical questions about things we think we should already know. I'm not talking about, "Oh, new Google toy, what's this do?" "How do you use Spheros in your classroom?" "What's a cool new project I can do to teach the life cycle of a basket full of puppies?" I'm talking about, "Why does creating a reciprocal fraction result in the quotient?" "Seriously, what's the deal with all these commas? How do you know where they go?" "What happens inside a cocoon has never made sense to me and I have to teach it. Help!" As grown professional educators it kinds feels like we should have those answers. Maybe not the best way to teach them, but at least the WHY.

Do we get scared of asking in public what we'd be ok asking in private? And how does this build out? Can we follow the ripples? You're scared to ask why dividing fractions work the way they do in public, are you really going to ask why DeVos crying "School Choice" is bad if you've never spent the time thinking about that system? If we can't ask the simple WHY questions, how much less likely are we to ask the hard WHY questions? I mean, if we're sweating the heat we might get from other teachers for not knowing some pedagogical peccadillo...

I leave open the very real chance that I'm totally wrong about this. Maybe it's in my head and I'm projecting. Maybe we're all good with admitting to not knowing, no matter what the thing not known is. But maybe we all know we need more leg day, and we're hoping everyone is too distracted by our awesome biceps to notice.

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 longform. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Days of "Stick To Teaching" Must Be Over

I saw Alice Cooper in Hollywood on his Brutal Planet tour. Alice is, was, and always will be great live, so there's no way I'm going to miss this show. I don't care who the opener is. In fact, I didn't even look to see who the opener was, so imagine my surprise when The Knack hit the stage. You might be thinking, "Who are The Knack?" They're one of those bands where you might not know their name, but you know at least one of their songs. You know all the words to at least one of their songs. After you find out what that song is it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Here’s your pre-emptive you're welcome for that.

The Knack are playing away and all of us are patiently waiting for them to stop so Alice can die for our amusement yet again. They weren't bad. But they weren't special either. The Knack was The Thing Between Us And Alice Cooper. And we were getting tired of the barrier. So, right between two songs, in that dead moment of silence, when everyone in the arena including the band could hear it, a guy behind me shouts at the top of his lungs, "PLAY 'MY SHARONA' AND GET OFF THE STAGE!"

Education conversations can get like that guy. Play your hit, and shut up. We know the thing you do- you're the funny one, the coding one, the Google one- do your thing, stay in your lane. It is happening all over media right now. Sports writing and movie sites are going through the same transition. Like that Ringer headline says, we've reached the end of Stick To [Blank]. For a variety of reasons, social media and the immediacy of information is moving us out of our silos and forcing us to engage with the real world.

Which is good. Putting sports and movies aside, education is all about the real world. I've heard it dozens of times and so have you- "We're preparing our kids for the real world." But then we aren't confronting the real world like we should be. More importantly, we aren't confronting the poison in the profession.


Those are teachers. We work among them.  That's members of our profession talking about our kids in a public forum in the most disrespectful, racist way possible. When we silently agree to Stick To Teaching, we allow this to happen. We encourage it. Every time we don't call out hate we enable it. None of what I'm saying is new, but it should still be said again and again.

We are responsible.

We are responsible for so much. Education is a political act. Teaching critical thinking and problem solving, these are political acts. Maybe you don't see it that way, or don't want to see it that way, but the skills we are giving our students are much more likely to be used to parse the lies of an administration than to deconstruct a novel.

If we teach behavior standards and expect certain things out of our students, but don't call out adults like those above, we are hypocrites of the highest order. I will not tolerate bullying in my classroom. But because I'm a teacher I should stick to teaching and not confront other teachers? It's not a free speech issue either. Like xkcd explained so succinctly, free speech does not protect you from being called a racist for what you say. And don't argue racists deserve a chance to be heard. When someone is advocating the destruction of another group of people, you really don't need to hear them out. They aren't going to get to a point that makes you think, "Huh, you might be right." They'll just be spreading their hate, and you'll be letting them.

Silence is worse. Stick To Teaching encourages silence. It says look the other way and pretend that all things aren't connected and who you are outside of the classroom isn't who you are inside it. Silence is permission while being too scared to give it or to deny it.

It's on us. Personal responsibility for my students' learning, for their behavior in and out of my classroom is easy. It's expected. Personal responsibility for the fitness of the profession is also on us. I wonder why I don't hear more good cops decrying the actions of the bad ones. I know they're out there, but it makes it hard when I can't hear them calling out their fellows. The silence from the GOP every time 45 does or says something is deafening. We, teachers, need to be tasked with protecting the sanctity of teaching. We defend each other and we come for those who are openly, blatantly, joyfully against our students.

Just so my position on this is clear, I believe the teachers in that Facebook thread should be fired and their credentials removed. They are openly admitting that they do not create a safe environment for their students, that their students are not equal in their classrooms, and that they have remarkably low expectations of and remarkably high contempt for their students and their families. These are inexcusable.

Many teachers moved past Stick To Teaching a long time ago. The #educolor crew has been banging this drum and standing on the front lines alone for far too long. "But Doug, my admin watches my social media and they don't like me to be political." Ok, first- they don't want you to be calling out racists? They're worried your parents or students might see you calling out racists? Like that's bad? I get it though. Everyone speaks up in certain ways. Maybe being loud on twitter isn't your thing, that's fine. Unless, you know, you watch someone be awful and don't say anything. Then you're enabling. Do it in your own way.

But we now live in a world where Stick To Teaching can't be the only option. Don't say to other educators, "Man, I wish you'd just be funny and do your education stuff." Really? Tough. I wrote more songs than My Sharona. I’ll talk about the women’s march I went to with my students because we’re reading about the American Revolution and marches and protests are a part of our history. We’ll look at the Constitution for found poetry, a sneaky way to get them to read something they won’t have to read for years yet (plus doing black-out poetry on the Constitution reminds me of what this administration is doing to it, but I don’t tell them that.) And I’ll be loud on social media because I don’t know how not to be. Because I love this job and most of the people in it. And because we can always always always be better.

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 longform. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

I Might Be Projecting

There are many benefits to having a student teacher. The biggest of which, and I've written about this at length, is that it forces me to be a reflective educator. I'm constantly thinking about what I'm doing and justifying the choices I'm making, both to myself and to the student trying to learn to be a teacher from me.

But there are other benefits, especially if you have good student teachers, and I do. A student teacher brings energy to a classroom. New ideas, a willingness to try things, to see how ideas they have work in the real world. I should pause here to add the caveat- If you, as the mentor teacher/cooperating teacher allow and encourage that, and why wouldn't you, don't you want them to be prepared and excited about teaching? One thing that's happening more in my classroom than has happened in the last few years is the Big Research Project. These would be happening without Veronica (my primary student teacher). I got some great ideas at ISTE over the summer and had a list of things I wanted to do with my class when I started this year. But I always have a List of Things To Do. A list that grows and lives and changes throughout the year. It's just that some years I'm better at getting to those things than others.

Here's a secret about me that's probably not much of a secret- I rarely do the same thing the same way more than once in the classroom. I try to evolve lessons and projects. Something didn't work? I take it apart and make it work. Something works? I pick at it to find the loose threads and cut them loose. I like that, but it also makes teaching harder than it needs to be because I don't have a file of Things I Do Every Year that I can reach into with ease. It also doesn't help much that in my eleven years of teaching I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade in three states and four schools. Makes it tough to cut-and-paste projects if you want to be responsive at all, and I do. Not to mention I'm constantly getting better with technology and finding new, better ways to do old things. Projects must evolve with that growth as well.

With Veronica's help, my class is in the midst of their third Big Project of the school year. We started with the Hobby Project, then moved to an Animal Project, and our current project is a Scientist Project. And there's one thing Veronica and I are learning together- Building good projects is difficult.

I have a list of Do's and Don't's (that looks wrong) for these things, which I outline for Veronica before we start planning.

  • I DO want student choice. 
  • I DO want a presentation. 
  • I DON'T want a slideshow (slideshows are good for three kids, and I have 36 and that makes you want to take a Sharpie to the eye, not to mention no one actually likes slideshows). 
  • I DO want opportunities for creativity. 
  • I DON'T want surface level, wiki research. 
  • I DO want us to find an interesting angle for the project before giving it to the kids.

Do you know what's nice about a list of constraints like that? They force you to be creative. Never forget the lessons of JAWS. The shark never worked, and because of that we got the best monster movie ever made (I will fight you). Spielberg was forced to work around his constraints and that made the movie better.

But there are other sneaky things we need to think about when designing projects.

  • What skills are actually being assessed with this project on top of the Big Skill?
  • What kind of time commitment are we talking here?
  • How much class time will be given for this project?

Yes, I want them to learn a hobby, but what other skills are stacked on top of that, and how can we be sure to capitalize on skills the student is already good at while being sure to improve those skills as well as the places they are weak? A tri-fold bulletin board doesn't do that very well. I don't make those part of project expectations. I don't like them. What's funny is kids will bring them in anyway. In our first project I didn't explicitly say "Don't Do Tri-Fold Boards" and kids did them. Why? Experience in other classes? Their parents read "Project" and heard "Tri-Fold Board" because that's what school was for them? Either way, I need to be aware of the subskills that are built in to projects, which I may or may not intend.

I don't like giving a lot of time for projects. In general, in my experience, the kids who finish with five minutes to spare would have finished like that with a one hour time frame or a one month time frame. Extra time isn't helpful. So we give a compressed, within reason, time frame. Three weeks, max. We do not build anything that takes longer than that. With three weeks a student can have soccer practice and a family trip and still have time to finish, but not so much time that the Due Date feels waaaaaaaaaay far off until it's suddenlytomorrowholycrap.

And that plays into the second one- how much class time will be given? My answer- Not much. We have other stuff to do in class. I will spend some time in class giving specific instruction in how I want the presentation, and I will give computer lab time for research, but the majority of the work is not to be done in class. Which is where I run into a thorny problem that requires me to be a grown up and hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in my head at the same time. I don't like giving homework. It's not a thing I do anymore. My student still have homework, but it's simply "Read at least 30 minutes each night, and practice the math skill you're weak on." But I don't send home reading logs or worksheets. I'll know if you're reading at home because your reading at school will improve. I'll know if you're taking responsibility for improving your math if your math improves. I don't want to give homework. But I also can't feasibly take chunks of classtime for a project. I have too much to teach. I need to remember that I am asking the parents to help their child with research and project design, and the parental situation is different for every kid. I need to make a blanket expectation as a baseline, and then flex that expectation depending on each kids' life. I need to communicate with parents, while instilling in my students that they are fifth graders and the expectation is that they do this because I am giving them all the tools they need to be successful. I won't lift them to the gold ring, but I will put out my knee for a boost.

Suddenly the statement, "I want my kids to do a project" is a major undertaking. And we haven't even talked about building and explaining rubrics because I don't want you to dose off.

I love Big Projects. A well-designed one does so much. It gives the students initiative and choice. It sets a goal but allows them to find their own road. It leads the student to topics and learning they might not naturally have gotten to. It gives a final Thing at the end, a culmination that isn't a test but still demonstrates learning.

A well-designed project is art and creation. The teacher starts with an idea, a standard, and from that creates a project. That project is given to a student where it becomes a standard again from which the student can create learning. A well-designed project is a cycle of creation.

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.