Monday, February 26, 2018

Be the Engine

Let me tell you a story about a time I was disappointed in educators.

Two years ago my school opened our MakerSpace. Another teacher and I had hatched the plan together and in a matter of weeks and months we'd made it a reality. We were, and still are, quite proud of what we'd built. The MakerSpace represented a new dimension of learning at our school, and it was something that no other school in the district, elementary, middle, or high school, possessed. We were on the cutting edge, leading the way. And we were excited to share our journey and bring others along for the ride. As I've written before, when you're a True Fan of something, all you want is for others to understand your passion.

There was an EdCamp at our campus, another thing we'd pushed for along with a few other teachers, and afterwards we grabbed a small contingent of teachers from another school who had heard about the MakerSpace and wanted to see it for themselves. Like the proud parents we were, we showed them everything, talking them through the process and the phases we had planned going forward. "Here's where the bots are, and the kids are coding. And over here is the supplies for all kinds of making. Over there, of course, is the Lego stash. Every MakerSpace must have Lego." They nodded and smiled and made all the appropriate appreciative noises.

Then they killed the mood.

One turned to the other two and said, "I wish X and Y were here, they'd love to do something like they. They'd be all over it."


They'd do it. Yeah, it's really cool, and I can see the value in it for the school and the students. Someone else would totally be all over this.

There's a cliche that's often given to the Big Bad in action movies, something he says near the end when the Good Guy has torn through all his henchmen like so much wet toilet paper. Because it's given to the Big Bad I guess we're supposed to assume it's a thought that exists in the realm of the negative. It's not something you should think or say if you're trying to be a Good Guy.

"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

Admit it, when you read that you pictured some generic villain getting decisively up out of his comically evil throne, grabbing a ridiculous weapon, and marching out the door to almost, but not quite, defeat the Hero.

Teamwork is the name of the game in education. Together we are strong. Baddies work alone so they can claim all the power to themselves.

Both things can be true. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. You can't wait, or assume someone else will do it. This is more akin to the kinds of bullying lessons we give students. "If you see something, say something. Step in, be a friend."

There's always someone else more qualified. Someone who knows more. But their plate is just as full as yours. And everyone knows a teacher's plate is never quite big enough for the serving we're given. So what if we put our plates together? Share the spill over some?

That makes this is a delicate line to walk. How to encourage teachers to take the initiative and take things upon themselves when they're already so full up? My best answer is Trust Yourself and Be Honest. Make priorities and, sometimes, sacrifices.

Today me school culminated a Right Brain Initiative program with a giant school-wide celebration. We'd had someone from the Obo Addy Institute at our school teaching each class traditional Ghanian drumming for a week. To end this, my grade level decided we'd turn our end of the hall into Ghana. Kids were grouped into specialties, time was taken every other day for a few weeks at the end of the day for research and work, and today we opened the classrooms to every other class in the school. It was amazing, and it was all thanks to the other two teachers on my team. I came along, but they were the engines. As always, it's more complicated than I just made it sound. Our administration saw the value in what we were doing and she let us take that time, and she gave us all of today. She knew the learning the kids were doing would be long-term beneficial.

It took my team members standing up with a great idea and charging forward with it. It took an engine.

What if every teacher picked one pet project every year? What if every teacher decided to be the heart and engine for one thing? Something they didn't think someone else should be in charge of. It doesn't have to be a massive project. But something. A school driven forward by sixteen engines running their own classes but also more. To be clear, I'm a working teacher and I know the extent of what I'm asking. I know we've got families and responsibilities and the job is enough as it is. Teachers get very prickly when asked to do more, for good reason. We're taken advantage of enough.

I guess the difference is, this isn't taking advantage. This isn't someone else adding something. This is choosing a passion project as a person or group, and being the heart of it. Getting others involved, sharing the work but taking the lead. Risking it and standing in front of your staff to present a Big Idea.

We're already the beating heart of our classrooms. I'm not taking away from that. I want to stress my deep understanding of that because I'm legitimately worried some will read what I'm saying as "Teachers aren't doing enough." That's not what I mean. We do enough.

But if you could pick one thing, big or small, to do more than enough with, what would it 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

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Fear of Data

But what if I actually suck?

I'm undergoing an ongoing attempt to understand my aversion to data and, by doing so openly and honestly, improve my use of it to better teach my kids. A few months ago I set the table, explaining the basics of how I feel and the goals I'm setting for myself. Not long ago I was on the Chasing Squirrels podcast with Chris Cluff, and the subject came up again. In talking to Chris about it I voiced another aspect of my aversion to data which I hadn't covered the first time.

What if one of the reasons I avoid taking a good hard look at data is because it'll reveal that I'm not actually that good of a teacher? What if that Imposter Syndrome that sits so high on the list of Teacher Fears all of us have is actually justified and the numbers prove it?

It's so easy to say, "Numbers do not define my students. They are more than their scores." That's all true. Teaching cannot be quantified with standardized tests. Not completely. But, I mean, those numbers must mean something, right? They aren't random. The tests, while not ideal, are also not the garbage fire we make them out to be. They do take up too much time, they don't fully assess a child's learning or knowledge, they are often a blunt tool being made to do surgical work, but they do turn up results that aren't total bull.

Part of my argument, and the general argument, for students making to learn in class and being more open to student choice is the learning is still happening, and it will be reflected in assessments. I don't stress myself or my students about The Big Test At The End or the DIBELS tests or any of the other hoops we jump through any further than telling them, "I expect you to do your best on everything that happens in this class. That's the baseline. So you'll do your best on this Big Test just like you'll do your best when we build trebuchets." And I expect the learning and perseverance and problem solving to transfer, with a good helping of explicit instruction on my part. And my principal, may Admina the Goddess of Principals bless her, trusts me when I tell her it works.

So what happens when we sit down to look at data and instead of letting it roll off my back because I'm affecting disinterest because hey man I didn't want to be invited to your club anyway I take it more seriously and it shows that my way doesn't work? And I've built this whole classroom and philosophy on sand? What if it really shows that I'm not good at this?

I think this plays a bigger part in my fear of data than I let on. Now, my data has never been as bright and shiny as some other teachers to being with, but it's easy to shake that off when the default position is "Your data doesn't matter, maaaaaaan. My kids aren't numbers, maaaaaaan. You can't just assess us with your toy." Now that I'm making an effort to understand it and use it, now that I'm honestly and openly trying to put stock in it and see it as a useful tool...what now? I have to face up to problems in my instruction. Holes that the making and freedom don't effectively fill. Gaps I'm creating in my kids' learning.

It's good to see the gaps, it means I can fill them. But it's not all the fun to sit in a meeting (or alone in your classroom) and look at numbers that tell a story contrary to the one you thought you've been writing.  What if the data shows I'm bad at this?

If it does I'll see that, pout and stomp my feet, gnash my hair and pull my teeth, and find ways to get better. I will remember that nothing is everything in education. I will internalize that my class is doing things and learning things in ways they never would have if I didn't give them the chances to explore and build and fail safely how we do. I will look for more effective ways to balance that with other methods of instruction that are less natural for me but better in the long run.

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, February 6, 2018

Gimme Four Down Low For Risk and Failure

I've wanted to learn an instrument since forever. But it's always been a want that was far away, a Soooomedaaaay want. Someday I'll buy a drum kit or a bass. Someday I'll learn an instrument. Someday.

That day, friends, was today.

And I'm totally freaked out about it. Excited. But also kinda freaked out.
Pictured- Excited but freaked out
Some musical background on me- I played both the violin and trumpet in middle. When I say "played" what I actually mean is "held". I didn't do the work to learn either of them. They didn't speak to me. I never learned to read music. I'm pretty sure that I guessed at half the notes when we did our recitals. And then I discovered swimming and that was the end of my musical extra-curricular activities. As far as playing went.

In high school I fell in with a bunch of guys who would become my best friends and remain the only people I really still talk to from those years. One of them married my sister. Traitors. They were all musically inclined and started a metal band. I was the Fan. I hung out. I was Young Neil from SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD. I did not play.

In college I had to take Music For Children for my education program. But to get into Music For Children I had to take the prerequisite Fundamental Structures of Music. I almost failed two classes in college- Human Anatomy and Physiology (remember, with the skinned people coloring book?) and Fundamental Structures of Music. We had to learn to read music. We had to learn to really read music. And, like, discuss what was happening. We had to learn a short piece on the piano. With one hand playing one thing and the other hand playing something completely different. I remembered my struggles in middle school well, so I'm sure I didn't go into this with the best mindset, but man I sucked it up in that class. I also probably didn't practice as much as I should have, but it was one thing in one class. And I have another excuse- I was in college. Needless to say I basically bombed that course.

The follow-up to that story is that I still had to take Music for Children. How stressed was I? So stressed, dear reader. I just barely passed Level 1, how am I gonna survive this? Easily. Music for Children was singing carpet songs and basic recorder and tambourine and all that cool stuff teachers who aren't music teachers but want to teach music stuff need to know. I'm pretty sure Fundamental Structures of Music was later dropped as a prereq. Long after it would have done me any good.

Fast forward all the way to today. The Bug had bitten me a week ago. The Music Bug but also something else. The Challenge Bug. I like learning new things. I know every time someone says "growth mindset" they owe some edu-author a gold doubloons, so let's just say I like being uncomfortable and expanding my horizons. Can't talk the talk with my kids if I don't walk the walk. But I'm also not doing this just to use as an example in my classroom. That's a happy accident.

Over a decade ago I decided I wanted to ride motorcycles. I found a class and took it. I was nervous. About looking dumb. Failing. Getting hurt. At the time the TV show "Orange County Choppers" was popular, and I vividly remember looking at those guys and thinking, "These guys are morons. If they can figure this out, I can." Learning to ride was the best thing I ever did that isn't getting married or having kids or becoming a teacher. When I was single my motorcycle was the most important thing in my life. Now it's the most important non-human object.

Half a decade ago I decided to take up triathlon. I could swim, hated running, and knew how to ride a bike but didn't own one. I felt foolish going to my brand-new wife and saying, "I wanna spend money on a bike and then train a whole bunch on do a triathlon. If I hate it I'll do one, sell the bike, and be done." I borrowed a bike from a friend, learned to not hate running, but not get fast, trained for a few months, felt sick with nerves the morning of, and fell in love with a sprint triathlon (500m swim/12mi ride/3mi run) that hurt so bad. But I didn't puke and I didn't walk and I didn't crash the bike. A few years later I was on the Big Island of Hawaii crossing the finish line of the Honu Half Ironman (1.2mi swim/56mi bike/13.1mi run). Still slow, still loving every painful, awful, wonderful second.

Around the same time I decided I could write a book. I didn't know if anyone would read it, but I had to try. So I did. And people actually liked it. But writing it (and every book after, but slightly less so every time) I felt a cycle of exhilarated, dumb, scared, nervous, excited. Who am I? Who will care? Is this any good? Same basic emotions as before I started that first motorcycle class, and then practiced figure eights on my street. Same basic emotions as when I wobbled down the street and fell off my bicycle because I couldn't get my clips unclipped from the pedals at a stop light. Dumbass. Oh well, get up, let's go. None of these stories are directly related to teaching, but all of them inform everything that happens in my classroom and every pedagogical choice I've ever made, from moving schools when it sucked too much to taking the legs off desks to getting more into making and projects and robotics. I don't know how to do this. I'm gonna look stupid. I'm gonna go anyway because I want to.

I needed a new project. A new thing to make me feel stupid and anxious. A new personal risk, putting my ego on the line and getting it punched in the face. So back we come to music. Remember, where we started all those paragraphs ago, when you were younger and didn't have so many lines in your face? I bought a bass guitar. And I'm gonna learn to play the thing. Well.
Pretending to be badass while actually freaking out
about holding my very own bass

Ibanez sells a really good starter kit
#Ibanez #MuchBranding
Here's the big difference between learning the bass and learning all those other things. I never had a negative experience with the others. Not a major one. I knew I could write. I knew I was physically capable of most of the triathlon stuff. Those worries were mostly about the amount of dedication and work the thing would take. But this? I've got baggage about music. I honestly have a knot in my stomach when I think about what I'm going to do. I'm constantly telling that jerkass that lives in the back of my head to siddown and shaddup and stop talking about middle school and the piano in college and come on dude, really? This is a risk for me. I have the fear. But I'm also older and more mature (relatively). I know what real hard work is, what struggle is, what sucking for a while is. I know what time commitment really means. You have to if you want to not die during a half Ironman or finish a book and then edit the damn thing and then rewrite it and then finish it again and then edit it again and then and then. I have the tools to fight the fear.

When we talk about risk, those emotions are what holds us back. I believe, deeply and fully, that who we are outside of the classroom impacts who we are inside in ways we can't even explain. I believe that if we want to take risks in class we need to make that part of who we are in more aspects of our lives. I believe if we want to accept multiple points of view or try other things we need to take ourselves out of our comfort zones in hobbies, in the media we consume, fully. Envelops exist so that there are envelopes to push against.
Pictured: Metaphorical envelope
I'm excited to learn the bass because I want to learn the bass. Because bass is cool and different. Because Geddy Lee and Les Claypool and Mick Harvey and Cliff Burton and Brad Whitford are the weirdos who hold the line and push everything forward at the same time. Because when I say I'm a "rock star front man of a never-ending education funk machine" I really do not-so-secretly wish the rock star part was true. Because I know the time commitment is going to be huge and I'll have to find other things to cut, but it'll be worth it in the end.

But I'm also excited because I know that on this personal journey I'm going to learn so much about teaching and learning. It'll be professional development sideways, which is often the best way.
Pictured- The Squee
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.