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.