Monday, June 26, 2017

Blixa Bargeld, Hating Guitar, and Connections to Teaching

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

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

Here's the section in question-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Lecture is Bad...Right?

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

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

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

Monday, June 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idris Elba
MOANA does not have Idris Elba in it.

ZOOTOPIA has Idris Elba in it.

Advantage- ZOOTOPIA and Judy Hopps

The Rock
MOANA has The Rock in it.

ZOOTOPIA does not have The Rock in it.

Advantage- MOANA and Moana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? No contest.

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

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

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

Moana takes the advantage in six of the categories.

Judy Hopps takes the advantage in six of the categories.

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

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

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

How to Train a Student Teacher

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

You're welcome.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Whatever Is Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.