Monday, January 29, 2018

Design Is An Art/Design Is A Science

"Touch" by Sienna Morris
There is an art to education. The best teaching comes from the heart and its got soul. It has a beat and you can dance to it.

But it's not that easy. Oh, that it were.

The best teaching is a science. It fills needs, checks boxes and crosses any letters it comes across that need to be crossed. It uses data honestly.

It is in the blending of the two that teaching comes alive. That is where we can both reach our kids on an emotional level and an academic one. To ignore one or the other is to cut off an arm and try swimming upstream. To cut off both would just be ridiculous because then you sink to the bottom and get pulled downstream by the current, bouncing off of rocks and fish until washing up on shore only to be found by bewildered fly fishermen days later.

Blending is key. Finding the balance. Too much of the art and things get out of hand in class. Learning becomes a little too unfocused and while that appeals to some freer spirit teachers *raises hand* it doesn't do as much good for the kids as we'd like to say. Too much of the science and things dry out, get stiff and brittle, and shatter the first time they run into a trout. We're all going to ignore that this metaphor requires something to be dry and brittle while bouncing along the bottom of a stream and move forward, nodding and smiling.

The word that we should be focusing on in education then, is the word that best combines science and art. No, not scart. And not arence. That would be as nutty as an education blog about arms falling off and teachers being so much flotsam in a stream.

The word we're all looking for here is DESIGN.

We use design all the time. Lesson design. Classroom design. Assessment design. Curriculum design. Dry stream bed design. Design is the melding of art and science into something that is aesthetically pleasing and evidence-based.

Let us come back to the image at the top of this post. I'll bring it down here so you don't have to scroll. You're welcome.

This piece is by a Portland, OR artist named Sienna Morris and it's called "Touch". If you look closely at it you'll notice that the woman is not made of simple brush strokes, but a seemingly random series of letters and numbers. What you're actually seeing is the chemical formula for Oxytocin written over and over. Oxytocin is responsible for the bonding of partners or children. This is science made art. This is art because of the science.

This is "Heart" by the same artist. Here again she uses science, this time "cardiac equations like stroke volume, ejection fraction, and cardiac output", to make art, and art to bring the science to life.

What she does is what we do. She takes two things that are so often put into silos and joins them in beauty through smart design. These images are what our lessons strive to be. Our projects. Our classrooms. How can we take the numbers and make them fly? How can we take the flights of fancy and make them true and clear?

Teaching and learning, purposeful design of these experiences using art and science, will bring us closer to the universe.

"Universal Propreoception" by Sienna Morris
If you enjoy Sienna's work please throw her follows on all the social medias and if you have some coin to spend on art check her out

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.  I am not tumbling armless down a river somewhere.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Painted Nails

I like painting my nails. Sometimes blue, sometimes green, rarely black, though I admit that would fit my idiom. I didn't think hard about what impact this might have on my classroom the first time I did it. I was bored, there was nail polish, and suddenly I had colorful fingernails (and cuticles and fingertips and knuckles right down at the end of the finger [hey, painting with my left hand is hard]). Then I went to school.

Minds were blown all over the classroom.

"What happened to your nails!" "Mr. Robertson, did you know your nails are painted?" What happened to them? I have no idea. *pretends to notice* Oh my gosh! What happened! I had no idea! They look nice though, don't they?

Smaller students passing me in the hallway got in on the SHOCK too. "You're a boy! Why are your nails painted?" Ahhh, now we're getting somewhere. I'm not going to pretend I did it the first time planning to blow kids' minds and expand their worlds, but that's part of why I do it now.

"Only girls can have painted nails?"


"Just like only girls can have long hair, right?"

"Yeah..."*notices my long hair* "Wait..."

This is normally the end of the exchange. First, it's happening in the halls or in my classroom, so neither of us have the time for a long conversation. Second, if I'm talking with a kindergartner or first grader, and while I know they're more capable of a detailed conversation than the average person might be, I'm not trying to get deep into their psyche. I'm not going to pull out my phone and start googling pictures of The Cure and Dave Navarro and Marilyn Manson (Pro Top- NEVER google pictures of Marilyn Manson at school). I'm trying to plant a seed, drop a pebble into the pond, turn a preconception on its head. These micro-mind trips add up. Kids are sharp and they start making connections without them being spelled out. Same goes for my older kids. We can have a longer conversation, and I can connect it to whatever I need to justify it, but that's not how I want these interactions to work. I want a quick match under the subconscious stereotype, then walk away to let it cook. We will see this information again.

Painting my nails paid off in spades for a kindergartner earlier this year. Another teacher came and found me after school one day and pulled me into his room. There was a bummed out little dude sitting in there. "He asked his mom to paint his nails red because he loves The Flash and some of the kids in his class were making fun of him," the teacher explained to me. Then he called the kid over. "Hey, check out Mr. Robertson's hands." The kid sulked over (small human sulk-walking is both sad and adorable at the same time) and I displayed my hands like a professional hand model. He had that wonderful long take that kids pull off better than any actor ever.

Sullen glance.

Slow registration that something is amiss.

Longer look.

Sunrise expression.

"Hey! You painted your nails too! Mine are red! Because I like The Flash!"

"Dude, I love The Flash. Your nails are way cool. Mine are blue because I like blue."

"I know. Your hair is blue."

"Oh yeah."

Completely made the kid's day. I'm not the coolest person in the world, but five year olds seem to think I'm alright. So if Mr. Robertson paints his nails that means it's ok for him to, and that means his friends can suck eggs. He didn't say that last part, I'm projecting.

I want to be clear that I'm not trying to make this a "Look at me, doing anything for The Kids" story. I didn't do it For The Kids. I did it because it's fun, sometimes I forget that I did it and then I get a little dose of happy when I catch a flash of color out of the corner of my eye, and it might lead to quick conversations that might lead to bigger conversations. We never know what might help a kid out or start changing a kid's mind. It might be right at the tips of our fingers.


"Right at the tips of our fingers." I mean, come on. What a great closing that was. Seriously. It was right there and BAM, I nailed it.


...nailed it. heh. Admit it, that was cuticle. Ok, it's time to polish this post off and put it to bed.

When I edit this I'll probably have to clip all that. Scratch that. It looks good stuck on, even if it does artificially lengthen the whole thing.

Now I have gone too far. Time to break it off.

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lighting Fires With Educational Arson by Sarah Windisch

Language is one of the most powerful tools we have.

Look at the news right now for an example of what happens with it breaks down, when it offends, when it is wielded to harm another - whether purposefully or under the guise of information.

There’s a reason the pen is mightier than the sword.

I am a poet. The imposter syndrome is allowing me to tell you that, Friends of WeirdEd, to make a larger point this week. That point isn’t, “Go buy my book. It’s available at and everyone should read it because it’s very good.” (That is an extremely valid point, however, and you should.) [Ed. Note- go buy Sarah’s book, it’s real good.] The point is: a poet writes with an economy of words and a precision of language that is meant to create a universal understanding.

That’s the part you should picture meme, by the way: a poet writes with an economy of words and a precision of language that is meant to create a universal understanding.

I know, I know. So many people get turned off by poetry and the analysis foisted upon it that looks more at the construction and rhyme scheme than the beauty of the words. I mean, I’m glad you can tell the difference between a haiku and a cinquain, but in a short form like that, with such strict structures, why are those the most descriptive words that could possibly be chosen?

When Adelaide Crapsey (this one’s for you middle school teachers - I know you want to teach about this poet) says “frost-crisp’d” in November Night, how much better is that than “rattling” or “brown” or “autumn”?

Playing with language to find just the right word forces you to clarify what you think. It’s the compositional equivalent of listening to understand, not to reply. Slowing down. Making ideas clear and sharp. If you want to be understood - and this is the fundamental piece - and create understanding with another, there should be no static in your statements. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have room to learn and change and grow. It means that you say what you actually mean. You can explain it, but because of the precision of your words, you may not need to. And, because your ideas are crystalline, others can look through them to see their own beliefs and how they align or diverge.

Allow me to present an example from a book of poetry mentioned earlier, Educational Arson. (I hear it’s phenomenal and the author is very clever.) The poem that people want to talk to me most about is on page 43, under Blisters and Scars:

How will anyone ever know

You’ve tried if you cover up


Scratch out

Every bit of evidence

Whether it’s flattering

Or not?

Readers have applied this to their own lives, their lives as teachers, as students, to their students, they’ve read it to their students about trying. About failing. I never, out of all the poems in the book, would have guessed that this would be the one that resonated most. But look at the language. I’m going to blame it on “scratch out.” Scratch out an incorrect answer on the test. Scratch out “whore” in the bathroom because you tried to love the best way you knew how. Scratch out the feelings into your arms and legs because seeing your own blood is the only way you feel anything anymore. Then you cover it up. You hide it. Because it’s not flattering. But no one will ever know. Because you’re not saying anything at all. (Disclaimer: these are not my experiences, nor those of my readers that I know of - they are creations of my fertile, but probably accurate, imagination.)

That’s poetry analysis.

That’s precision of language.

That’s listening to understand.

That’s probably something that could help soothe our aches as humanity.

Struggle and play with language.

Tussle with it. 

Emerge victorious with

Confident vocabulary.

But words cannot be precious

They must be malleable

So that your ideas

Can be honed



And the pen remains


Than the



Sarah Windisch is a music teacher in North Idaho. She blogs at, and enjoys spouting off on Twitter @slwindisch. Her first book of poetry is called Educational Arson is available on Amazon for your reading pleasure.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Practicing Teacher

I'm going to start calling my classroom my practice.

Lawyers get to practice the law. Practicing lawyers. Doctors get to practice medicine. Practicing doctors. Teachers teach. Why don't we get to call it practice? (Just to get it out of the way, "teaching practices" is different and you know it, Pedantic Reader.)

Lawyers barely hide it. Matt Murdock says he practices law. When he's in court trying to put the Kingpin away again, he's practicing. He's still not ready for the final. He's still working on it. His office is called a practice. Even the building doesn't feel prepared.

Doctors barely hide it. They call what they do practicing medicine, but when you're in your underwear on the table suddenly everyone knows exactly what they're doing. If I had looked at his business card it would have said "gastroenterology practice", but the MD wasn't like, "Time to practice sticking a camera up your butt."

I can't be in a parent conference telling some concerned mom that I'm practicing teaching on her kid. That makes me sound like a mad scientist. Even though that exactly what I'm doing. If we embrace the idea of constantly growing then we're constantly practicing teaching. Every day I'm practicing teaching math concepts. I'm going to try a lesson, then I'm going to reflect on it and change things, then I'm going to do it again. Over and over. That's practice. I know, I was an athlete, I've practiced stuff. I assume that's why most schools have coaches.

When do doctors and lawyers practice their practices? Why do they get away with calling what they are actively doing every single day practice? Today's lawyers had teachers teaching them how to practice law. They didn't have teachers practicing teaching them how to practice law. That's Inception-levels of practicing. The universe (or university) would fold in on itself. No, their teachers didn't have the luxury of practicing teaching. They had to straight up teach their bright-eyed law students how to practice.

Yet, school feels so important. Every single day is another chance to reach a kid, help someone learn something, make a connection. Get a win. That's not what happens in practice. That's game time, while being much more serious than any game. Can you practice during a game? If sports movies have taught me anything, you can. Kinda. Hit the cut-off man, Evelyn. But that's not when you really get a chance to get the reps in. You do that during practice. Before and between games. You know, when I'm lesson planning (practicing writing lessons) and grading (practicing giving feedback). So I don't ever have time to practice teaching? In person, with the kids?

I reject that. The language we use to describe what we do matters. I am growing in my teaching. I am constantly experimenting, refining, and tuning how I educate my kids. In short, in my classroom I am practicing. I'm teaching my kids to practice. Together we run our practice.

Room 17 is the Education Practice of Robertson & Partners.

I am a practicing teacher. And I always will be.

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