Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Data Is My Leg Day

Listen, if I'm writing a post about data, I'm using a picture of Data. That's just science.
As I have written in the past and will probably continue to write, the weakest link in my teaching chain is my ability to best dissect and use data. For many years now my two main self-improvement goals have been 1) Teach math in more interesting, engaging ways, and 2) Be better at data. We can talk about what it might mean that those have been goals of mine for multiple years later. As for now, let it be known that while I continue to try, and I am getting better, I'm still not where I want to be with either.

Data collection and dissection is one of those teacher skills that has never connected fully for me. I simply don't think like that, so whenever I'm presented with a stapled packet of colored graphs and spreadsheets it's a struggle for me to remain fully engaged. Part of my brain always wants to go, "See you at the commercial break. Good luck." I don't indulge this impulse, but it makes staff meetings or PLTs harder than they should be.

My schools recently lost our Title One teacher because of budget gymnastics and various state shenanigans. Naturally, we didn't lose the kids who most need Title One services. Which means all the stuff that teacher used to do has fallen to us. My principal is doing her level best not to drop a million tons of new on us, but she also can't avoid having to lead data meetings that go much deeper than they used to, and making us teachers make calls we never used to have to make because we had an expert on staff who would make those decisions.

Last week we had the first of those meetings. Pages of data was placed in front of myself and my teammates. My admin and another district office person launched into their spiel. I became immediately confused. I took massive notes, trying to keep programs and reasons and numbers and scales straight. I asked questions. I still didn't follow everything. Which is frustrating on multiple levels.

I'm a college-educated educator who fancies himself fairly intelligent. I should get this. This is important for the education of my students. I should get this. They're not going that fast. I should get this. My colleagues seem to be keeping up. I should get this.

Then I was saved. One of the other two members of my grade level team stopped the show. "I'm sorry, I don't feel like I'm being given enough time to make these decisions. Can we slow down, please?" I couldn't help it. I sighed, "Thank you for saying that." I felt like my students with IEPs must feel when I get rolling too hard in class. New appreciation earned. Better reflection engaged. Still lost though.

At the end of the meeting all my red zone and yellow zone kids (*DIGRESSION ALERT- this is the other reason I've struggled with data, it reduces my kids into colored bands. I understand why it does, I get the purpose, I know it can still help. I don't know if I'm using my distaste for this as a justification for my struggles. "My kids aren't colors and numbers, which is good because I totally don't get the colors and numbers thing.") had been placed in reading fluency programs I'm to be putting into practice in class. I did manage to ask to observe my teammates when their programs are in action because I want to be sure what I'm doing is what they're doing. I work with two outstanding teachers, and observing them makes me better.

But I didn't know why my kids had been sorted how they had. I was like that student in class who says, "The answer is 47. Because it is." Not good enough. So once again I did something with my principal I'd never have done with any other administrator I've ever worked with. I went to her and said, "I'm very confused, and I need help." And to her credit she said, "Ok. Thank you for advocating for yourself. Let's meet after school."

Together my student teacher, my principal, and myself stepped slowly through my yellow zone kids again, and the programs suggested for them. I asked specific questions about the data I was presented with. Questions to which a lesser admin would have said, "Aren't you a teacher?", but mine said, "This is only your third year here, isn't it? We had huge training on this stuff, but it was five years ago. I forget in the rush of everything we don't catch all our newer teachers up on this."

I still don't understand everything about everything. I still get an ill feeling in my stomach when I read that we're going to be looking a data in a meeting. A feeling of inadequacy and discomfort. I can talk about student choice and freedom all day. Ask me why I'm doing something in class and I'll talk about how building with cardboard is allowing the students to self-level and work to their ability while pushing themselves and look at the cool stuff they're making, go ahead and ask what they're learning. That's my wheelhouse.

But that's not good enough. I don't need to read another blog, another book on project-based learning. Not right now. Right now I need someone to hold my hand and walk with me into fields of numbers and specific assessments and make sure I don't drown.

Data is the thing I know I need to do but would rather not because it hurts and it'll hurt tomorrow too probably. Data is my leg day.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. 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, September 18, 2017

The Second Line

"The first line is easy. It's the second line that's difficult, because it's the second line that give the first line meaning."
-Nick Cave on songwriting

The first lesson of a new topic is relatively easy. Finding that special Into that gets the kids excited, catches their attention, fires them up to know more.

But that second lesson, that's where the teaching is.

It's true with just about anything. Once isn't as painful as you think it will be. Anyone can write one blog post. Go to the gym one time. Take one guitar lesson. Start a diet.

Following through is the hard part. Finding a way to maintain. To do the same thing without doing the same thing. Doing the same thing but finding a new angle to attack it from. I'm not even talking about from year to year. Teaching that lesson again next year isn't that bad. You've got a whole year to (maybe) think about how it went and (perhaps) come up with a better way to do it. Still, that's just the one lesson. Oy, I just realized I've constantly got old lessons cycling through my brain, just waiting for the curriculum to get back there again, so I can take them apart and try them anew.

Learning doesn't happen all at once, no matter what some of our pacing guides might suggest. Yes, the students might need to see that material again. But not in the exact same way. No matter how much that jerk part of your brain might want you to try it, teaching the same thing but LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R doesn't actually work. It's teaching the follow-up in a way that engages the kids who got it the first time while bringing along the kids who didn't that's the hard part. And the fun part.

"So how can I make the second lesson better?" you ask. This stuff is some of my favorite parts of teaching. Taking a lesson apart and turning it this way and that until I can see it in a new light. or taking it apart and focusing on smaller bits. That's always a great way to get a fresh look at a lesson. Besides, the odds are that the kids got chunks, concepts, ideas. The second lesson is workshopping through the Big Idea step-by-step like a mechanic or a doctor. Following the internal flowchart we have. "Do you understand this? If yes, go here. If no, go back and take this path."

The second lesson is where student choice and voice become a vital part of the teaching. If I can't see the way, maybe if I give the kids the ultimate goal and tell them "Ok, go!" they'll find their way to it. This has pros and cons. How can I ask the kids to discover what it is they don't understand if they don't understand it? But how can I not guide them to that skill, since it'll be so important outside of school? Ah, the beautiful, maddening balancing act of education.

I supposed this is the point in the post where I'm supposed to use the word "grit". So...grit. There. EduSpeak box checked. Moving on.

It's the second lesson that moves the first along. A popular term, at least among the curriculum I'm using, is "spiraling". As in, "This curriculum spirals. If the kids don't get it the first time it'll come back around." Which is fine in concept, but you can't start a fire by getting the wood smoking then moving on to pitching your tent and assuming the smoke will still be there when you're done.

Chase that second lesson. Cherish the ideas that come to you during the first lesson when it's too late to use them, the ideas that come on the drive home, the ideas pilfered from social media friends, and the ideas that wake you just as you're falling asleep.

Teaching is often working as hard as you can, and then immediately thinking, "Now what?"

Now what?

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 have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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, September 12, 2017

Hooked on a Feeling

The Guardians of the Galaxy would be either the best or the worst teaching team ever.

Let's imagine they were all on the same grade level team. Quill would decide he was the team lead, even though he didn't have the seniority or organizational skills. Gamora would know she should be the team lead, because she does have the organizational skills and is more competent. Rocket wouldn't care who thought they were the team lead and would be off doing his own thing, grumbling, and either fixing or breaking the copy machine. Groot would have no interest in being in charge of the team, content to be every student's favorite teacher whether they were in his room or not, and whether they understood everything he was saying or not. And this would be Drax in every meeting.

Picture your team at school. If you can't figure out which one of you is Drax, guess what.

But under it all they all have good hearts. Each of the Guardians comes from a broken place, and they each have dealt with that in different ways. Bad pasts, bad leaders, bad experiences being created.

Rocket and Gamora became what they are against their wills, and they both harbor a tremendous amount of anger about that. As someone who bangs on and on about the mentor teacher/student teacher relationship, I am worried about creating Rocket. But it doesn't stop him from doing what is right, even though he's going to gripe the whole time. Not exactly the best person to have on a team, but he does get things done. Gamora turned her anger into a more productive energy, laser focused and deadly. I know teachers who I would not get in the way of when they're on a mission.

Quill felt abandoned and mistreated, and so he learns to depend on himself only. Like, say if you worked at a school with a terrible administrator who didn't threaten to eat you, but might as well have. Doesn't stop you from being good at your job, but doesn't exactly instill a sense of authority in you either. Still, who needs authority? Until you find yourself in a position of authority. At least a negative example is an example.

Groot and Drax are the easiest teachers in the school to get along with. Especially once you get over Drax telling you exactly what he thinks about your lessons. Like that time he saw your book report packet and didn't respond encouragingly.
I do know one thing for sure- this grade level would have the best music coming from their rooms at all times.

Thinking of ourselves as Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a good teacher mindset. Guards are passive. They wait for something to come after them. Same with Avengers and Defenders to be honest. Our superheroes are all reactive. Because in fiction it's the baddies who attack. If there were no baddies, the Guardians would bum around space having a good time. Heck, they'd probably become the baddies just to have something to do.

Teachers are aggressive. We attack ignorance. We diagnose and pursue. We defend our students, but we teach our students to defend themselves. Unlike the Guardians, who will move on to another planet, it is our students who will move on. We can't save them, we can't fix them, those aren't the jobs and aren't what's needed anyway. We can prepare them.

Teachers aren't guardians. We aren't superheroes. We are preparing others to be their own superheroes.

I guess that makes us Nick Fury?
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 have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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, September 4, 2017

On The Eve

On the eve of another first day, another year, another class. My thirteenth, their sixth. All weekend, and of course it's a long weekend, I've paced. I've fidgeted. Jiggling leg, ready to go.

I wonder what they're doing on the eve of their first day. New grade. New teacher. New room. With strange desks and off chairs and are those puppets we saw at Open House? "I heard he doesn't give homework." "I heard he plays music in class." "I heard there's something about cardboard."

"I heard he's fun."

On the eve of another year I take stock again of what's important. What'll be new? New student teacher. That's exciting. It means more opportunities for learning, for the kids and for me. New computers, 1:1. Something I've wanted for years, now I have. Ball's in your court, Robertson. Time to show you know what you're doing. Again.

So much pressure, on the eve of another school year. Pressure from myself, to be my best. To find yet more creative ways to teach, be more flexible and responsive to the kids and what they need. Pressure on myself to finally get better at my weaknesses. "I will collect better data," I say to my understanding admin. She knows my room doesn't work that way, but I know the district does. So much pressure to find a better balance between the two, better than last year or the year before.

Of course, this is the eve of a whole new group. So the center of gravity has shifted once again. Which is part of the fun, balancing on a moving platform.

On the eve of the year, trying to find more goals. But goal setting in teaching is strange. The goal posts move, and there are so many. Each kid has dozens. Each classroom, each subject. I will be better at teaching math creatively. I will be better at assessing reading explicitly and recording it. I will use my class set of computers. But not too much. But not just to substitute. No digital worksheets. Unless there's a sub. Maybe.

On the eve of new building, new creation. A whole new start with a whole new crew. I hope they like me. I mean, it doesn't matter if I'm their friend.

But still.

Another marathon. But marathon is a bad metaphor. In a marathon all you have to do is run. There's so much more to it than that. Triathlon? Still too easy, too simple. Decathlon then. But without the breaks, and over and over, with different weigh discs and hammers, different height hurdles. And all with a smile and a laugh.

On the eve of another community. How well will they gel? Last year we struggled. This isn't last year, this is new, fresh, shiny. Use last year, absorb, integrate, move forward.

On the eve of so many long days and long nights. On the eve of another adventure bundling joy and stress together. Finding ins, finding paths, finding the wrong way to say something on the way to the right way.

An eve of I hope I remember how to do this.

An eve filled with excitement and nerves. It'll probably never go away.

I hope they're excited this eve. I hope they're ready. I hope I am. I am. I hope.

Let's go already.

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