Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Best Summer PD

Imma go ahead and spoil my Big Point right up front, then work backwards-

The best summer PD is whatever works best for you.

We go on and on about personalized learning, student-centric classrooms, getting the students where they live rather than where we want, passion-based learning. Then teachers get three choices. Teacher summer options are laid out like the In N Out menu. You can have a burger with one patty, a burger with two patties, or you can go to Wendy's.

Here's the thing about posts like this- I know you know the options are out there and they are up to you. You are a smart, savvy reader, that's why you're here. That or Google really screwed up. In which case- Welcome. I know you know that you can choose any path you want for your summer break. So why write this?

Because too often the conversation in education breaks down along hard lines. This or That. A or B. Luke or Rey. Rock and roll all night or Party every day. And that's some nonsense perpetrated by people who want to reduce education to its simplest parts and pretend that it's Just That Easy. Because education is a complex machine of an operation with a million moving parts, and teaching means driving your own machine while staying inside the larger machine. As Lord Vetinari would say, "Wheels within wheels, Commander Vimes."

There are as many ways to be a good teacher as there are to be any other kind of artist. To each their own. So what are our normal options?

There's the Education Conference. A oft-over-priced yet self-funded trip to a destination with thousands of other teachers, as well as people who won't put "teacher" in their title but slip "educator" in the list somewhere near the back. For three or four days we rush from session to session, trying to absorb as much as possible while avoiding the commercials disguised as learning opportunities. Soon we feel like the boy in that famous Far Side cartoon.
So much to take in, so much to remember, and so much time between hearing all of this stuff (are we learning all this stuff? I thought Sit and Git was bad teaching, but that's a lot of sessions) and the start of school. Little tip from me to you, dear reader, about how I deal with that last bit- I do take notes on a Doc (harder to lose that paper) but more importantly I note down one Big Idea that I really want to remember to implement when school starts again in my Google Calendar, and I set it to remind me the second day back from break. That way I'm mid-planning, mid-set up and blingidy-blingidy-bling reminder from Past Doug. Thanks, Past Doug. You're the best.

Of course, the real value of conferences is the hallway conversations. Meeting people you might only know through social media, trying to put faces to profile pictures and names to screen names. Now, I think we can absolutely have complex, detailed conversations on twitter and I think the excuse that "this platform isn't built for that" just means you're not trying to word hard enough, but there's nothing like sitting down for some coffee and talking story. Teachers talking to teachers in a free environment is, in my mind, the best professional development. Hanging out. Why even pay for the conference? Just bandit it and hang out. (Dear conferences who might at some point want to hire me- That was a joke.)  Especially if we're willing to have those harder conversations like Jose Vilson, Rafranz Davis, and Pernille Ripp, among many many others, push for. Oh, and in those conversations, shut up and listen real good. But Doug, then it's not a conversation if I'm just listening. Yeah, it still is. You know what I mean.

Oh, and as an aside from that real conversations thing- A real conversation means that when someone pushes back on you or tells you that what you said requires more thought, that's not an attack. Push-back isn't negative. But that would be a whoooole other post. Anyway...

So that's conferences sorted. There's also the Professional Reading to do. Find an education book or three, crack that spine, and bust out the hi-lighter. But what books to read? There are so many options. Here's a suggestion from me to you- Go Broader. Move away from the white guys, and yes I'm saying that as a white guy who would really like you to read his books too. Not every professional learning book needs to be about school culture. Positive culture is good. Yes, good, ok. Imma link to this list with the explicit admission that I've not read most of these books and need to also, and this is a very very incomplete list of books I should read and I want to be told more (throw them in the comments) and I will also continue to actively look for more on my own. It's not someone else's job to tell me what I should read. I'm a grow'd up, just like you. I just listened to this Ologies podcast on language (which you should listen to, it's great) and there's some great reading suggestions on that site too. English With an Accent is sitting in my Amazon cart.

Now watch as I deftly segue from that summer professional development option into my next. Check it, this will be good.

Speaking of reading, reading purely for pleasure will also reap major rewards in professional life. For example, Lin-Manuel Miranda, he of Hamilton fame, famously got the idea for his smash-hit, unfathomably brilliant musical while pleasure reading the book Hamilton by Ron Chernow on the beach. It's almost like taking your foot off the gas and nothing thinking about your job allows you brain to relax and solve problems without you standing over it tapping your foot. Let your brain work at its own pace, maaaaaaan. Give it a break.


Don't think about teaching. At all. It does not make you a bad teacher. I'm serious, try to go a week without looking at something and trying to figure out how you could use it in class next year. I know it's hard, it's hard for me too. Yes, this is what we do. Yes, this is more than a job for most of us. Yes, it's hard to turn it off. Try anyway. Great artists take breaks too. Step away from the white board, let go of the guilt, and relax. Don't do it. It does not make us bad teachers to not want to think about teaching. It makes us humans. I cannot cannot cannot stand the martyr teacher narrative or the savior teacher narrative, like we are supposed to burn on the pyre of education because that's what teachers do. That's how we get taken advantage of, by administration, by districts, by politicians. That's how we get screwed, by letting the narrative that we'd do it for free become to prevailing one. You can't bargain for better pay while allowing leaders to dictate how free time is spent. This is a hard job, a complex job. There's that cliche about teaching that it's like juggling chainsaws on a unicycle while singing opera and also you're on fire. Put down that chainsaw and listen to me. It's ok not to burn all the time.

Of course, I've set these up as three separate options as though they really are siloed, when really we're all smart enough to make the choices that are best for us. I am all about full rest, stepping away completely. But I also still write about teaching just about every week and I volunteered for a two-day and four-day training over the summer. Here's the thing though- I don't care if anyone else does this training. It changes my opinion on the teaching of my teammates not one iota whether or not they come. I've seen them bust their asses all year, I know they're dedicated. Like I know you're dedicated. Don't judge someone by how they spend their summer. It's break. Take it. You earned it.

Teaching is all about balance. During the work year and during the summer. Do a professional read, then a fun read. Read some comic books. Make with the sexy times. Watch Netflix all day for three days in a row. Learn something new. Build a thing. Play with your kids and remember that a three year old and a five year old are somehow 100x more exhausting that 31 fifth graders. Go to a conference but skip sessions for coffee with new friends, learning one on few, hearing their voices. Or don't do any of that because you've got an idea that's way better, and if you do throw it into the comments. Trust yourself. This is especially a message for new teachers who might read this- Don't Buy The Hype. Listen to your body, and trust it. You really don't need to finish that reading list you made.

Be hard line about nothing in education, except being hard line about nothing.

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, June 19, 2018

Possibly Wrong and Definitely Incomplete

Background- I agreed to take part in a grant initiative for my district called Professional Growth Specialists (PGS) wherein a bunch of teachers from around the district are being trained in reflective conversations and will then be tasked with leading those reflective conversations with other teachers at our sites. It's part of the district's efforts to make improvement practices more teacher-centric and divorce them from the traditional Observation/Evaluation cycle. It's peer-based, non-judgmental, collaborative, and voluntary. Today was Day One of a two-day training (which will be followed by a four-day training later in the summer), and one of the things we talked about struck a note with me, so I needed to write about it to process what I thought. Some of the ideas presented herein that I identify as Improvement Science might not actually be identifiable as such, but they're all getting lumped in under that heading for now until my understanding changes.

Let's get this out of the way first- I can not stand the "building the plane in the air" metaphor we're subjected to in many training. I think it's a terrible metaphor mostly because it doesn't hold up to any close inspection. I mean, most metaphors don't, but this one is really bad. Like, how is the plane flying at all if it's not built? Because our plane should be built. Maybe we're updating things or changing things en route, but the plane is the plane. Rebuild the plane when it's on the ground. That's safer.

I was given a name for the kind of thinking that, in my mind, also should hate that airplane metaphor- Improvement Science. Here's what was presented to me as Improvement Science in a nutshell-

Set a Big Goal --> Set sign post goals --> affect small change --> after a short amount of time reflect and assess on the effectiveness of said small change with easy data --> adjust small change/remove small change and affect different small change --> reflect with data and adjust --> repeat.

What I like about this process is the speed of it, and how surgical it is. To openly state my bias towards this process- it's basically how I run my classroom. It's how I try to teach individual lessons, and then also how I try to think about overarching units and themes.We're always playing jazz, listening to the students around us and changing the tune to fit what they're playing. We don't want to get to the end of the song and then say "Ok, what song were all of you playing? Because I was playing YYZ and it sounded like I was getting Walk This Way over here and Bring the Noise over here and were you playing Lust For Life on kazoo? That was nose harp? Huh. Good to know."

For the above process to work data is needed, but it needs to be easy to collect, quick to collect, and actionable. Which is its own challenge right there. That means, ideally, you're not running a ton of tests to catch the data. Could it be observational? Probably, as long as your able to observe, record, and teach at the same time. Which we are, because that's what we do. Some of us (read- me) would just need to be more intentional about the recording of said observations.

The action taken because of the data would also need to be fast and flexible. I'm thinking it would be the kind of thing, again, like I try to run projects. The end goal is X. How you get there is on you. We would need to avoid prescribing actions, which should satisfy teachers because that means boxed programs as they are wouldn't work. We'd get to, instead, do my favorite thing and break those program until they work for us. Gimme this, gimme that, lemme tape this to this, ok cool. Now this works with the quick data I've got and should help. But it's taped together so that the next time data is collected it's easy to take apart without destroying (unless you tape things like some of my students tape things, in which case the verb "tape" should be replaced with the verb "laminate").

And the goals need to be small enough to be viable, but big enough to matter. I think a major part of that process would be spending a lot of time on the Big Goal at the outset, and then letting the sign post goals be alive and letting them move. That can be one of the issues with SLGs (Student Learning Goals) if your principal is a stickler. You set goals at the start of the year, then the kids change, but you can't adjust the goals enough to reflect that.

One important aspect of the goal setting and evaluation process needs to be a close, honest exploration of intent and impact. In the training that's how it was written "intent and impact". I don't read that phrase that way. I correct to it "intent vs impact". Too often we allow good intentions to overshadow what actually happened, or what was actually said. What you mean to say or do only matters to you, what you actually say or do is what the result is and that's what matters. And then honestly looking at your intent, your action, and the result and reflecting on if what you said or did actually led to what you wanted. And if it didn't, what did you do wrong? Not what's wrong with the data, but where was your mistake.

The things a school would probably need to fully implement something like this is, and always is, buy-in. Ain't that always the first sticking point? You have this great idea and then you see a vision of That Teacher/That Group and you think, "Crap, how am I gonna get them not to complain about this?" By going around them. I don't think you aim for big buy-in. It's too hard. Start small. It's a giant cliche at this point and everyone has seen it, but I'm gonna mention it anyway- That Shirtless Dancing Guy/First Follower video is a pretty strong metaphor for this whole process. Go small, grab a few followers and let it trickle in. Maybe you don't catch everyone, some resist, and that's cool. Doesn't make them bad teachers. Do what you can with what you get and be patient. Which creates a cool dynamic within the program- it moves fast internally, but it can be allowed to grow slowly.

You also need an admin who is cool with all of this. Which, you know, is hard to control. And with that comes the look at privilege inherent in your school and the system. It's super easy for me to say "We should change things, shake things up." I get away with a lot. White guy, hi. I'm basically trained to be ok saying that kind of thing and trying it. I mean, it's always been my personality, but I'm seeing more and more why that is and why it's not so easy for others. So there's an understanding that with all of this there's trust that needs to happen. And trust is hard. But starting with the small group would help with that too. A few trust me, then others trust the ones that trust me, and so on.

The key to all of this is the ability to accept and understand one thing about all of it, every action that we take and every choice me make-

It's possibly wrong and definitely incomplete.

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.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Ode to the Whiteboard Marker

Oh whiteboard marker
You write what I will say
And I love that when I write wrongs
You can right them right away

Oh whiteboard marker
Your scent is like perfume
When I open a new pack
It spreads and fills the room

Oh whiteboard marker
Why won't your cap stay tight?
I tell my students to press down hard
Yet soon you'll write so light

Oh whiteboard marker
I love how you erase
And yet no matter how I wipe
You always leave a trace

Oh whiteboard marker
In the rainbow you do come
In packs of neon, fruity, and black
But why that yellow one?

Oh whiteboard marker
You let my students show
Their work on desks or tiny boards
I can see you doodling, you know

Oh whiteboard marker
In my hand you are good luck
No wait this one's a Sharpie
Too late now, oh

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, June 11, 2018

Not the End, But Only a Transition

Man, the end of the school year is hard.

First, it's utterly exhausting. Nothing is small at the end of the year. Everything is heightened. The kids are so high they're practically bouncing off the ceiling. They're louder and have a harder time making strong choices than they've had all year. Dancing happens at random times. RIP The Floss (2017-2018). There's a million things to do, checklists that are updated daily, but added to instead of checked off. Report cards to write. Inventory to take where the hell is that book did I ever even have that book I don't think they gave me that book in September I'll just check the box that says I have it it's fine. Depending on how your school's summer cleaning goes, there's boxes to pack. They're re-doing the floors in my school over the summer so literally everything that touches the floor needs to be labeled, packed, and put up. There's dear future 4th grader letters to write, dear future me letters to read, field day to finish planning and to do and, for my 5th graders, an end of the year field trip to SkateWorld, and skits and and and all the other things my team and I have come up with that are both educational while also being oh sweet David Tenant just stay busy and not too mad for a few more days.

I'm exhausted just thinking about that paragraph.

And none of that is the real hard part of the end of the year.

The real hard part is that there is no way I'm ready to be done with 5th grade with these kids. They're going to middle school. Middle school! It's a whole new world! Do you remember middle school? And I had to prepare them for that? It's not that they aren't ready, but I'm not ready for them to be ready. I didn't finish teaching them yet. There's so much we didn't get to. So much I didn't hit as hard as I needed to.

Some of them still aren't editing their writing well enough. I can help fix that. Why didn't I help better during the year? I had them all year, why are some of them still not sure where the comma goes and which word that should be, and why are some still turning in first drafts? Didn't I teach that better?

Some still can't multiply decimals. Not as well as they should. I didn't teach that right. Maybe I should have given homework. Maybe we spent too much time building stuff with cardboard. I am right, those skills translate into other, more basic educational skills. I think.

I know my kids enjoyed the year. I kept a class of 5th graders mostly engaged, mostly smiling and laughing, mostly on task, mostly creating and learning, for an entire school year. Were they wholly any of those things? For pieces of time. Most of the time. Some more than others. I did my best.

We laughed a lot. My class was hilarious this year. So creative. I got to be surprised so many times in different ways. So many came out of their shells, became more who they will be going forward. That's one of the things I love about teaching the bigger kids- personalities blossom as maturity grows. Those who matured. *significant look to camera*

Was I more creative? Was I better with data? I wanted to be. Those were my goals to start the year. Their data didn't all shake out like I wanted it to. Like I needed it to, because even though I don't care about data and I know that it doesn't represent the learning of a whole child, I care about data because it's a snapshot of things that matter. Matter to me? Yeah. I want my kids to be able to read fluently. Matter to me as much as the data matters to others? Let's put it this way- my job, my passion, is that the 30-some odd kids in my classroom learn as much as they can in the time they're with me.

Did they learn as much as they could? Because of me or in spite of me?

We had a good year. They're ready for the next step. I'm ready to send them on their way.

Next year I'll be better.

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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Draft

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My school has a check-in system in place for students who need a little more positive adult interaction and accountability. There is a fourth grader who checks in with me twice a day, every day. First thing in the morning, and then right at the end of the day. He was having impulse control, respect, and aggression troubles. Rather than have him constantly in trouble- check-in system. We have a quick chat about what his plan for the day is and then how his day was. I try to ask specific questions about choices he made during the day and we work together to make sure those are good choices, and we celebrate when they are. There's a form and he can earn a 0, 1, or 2 in each subject and for the four main school rules. Lots of accountability, but all geared towards positive reinforcement and student reflection. When he started with me he was having a rough year, but now, nine days out from the end of the year, he's been doing great. Really the last month or so has been excellent. Almost all 2s every day. It's cool.

Yesterday I asked him which teacher he wants for fifth grade. It's always instructive to hear what kids who aren't in your class/grade say about your class/grade. What impressions leak out of the classroom doors and into the hallways. His response was something I'd never heard and loaded with layers.

"I dunno. I just hope someone picks me."

Holy brutally honest, Batman.

Let's unpack this, dear reader. On the most basic level, this student is under the impression that teachers pick students for their classrooms for the next year, like an academic NBA draft. "With the third pick in the 2018-2019 School Year Draft, Mr Robertson takes..."; or like picking kickball teams on the playground. I don't know how your school does it, but in every school I've worked in near the end of the year grade levels get together and make Pinks and Blues (I know, but let's stay on topic). Then we shuffle those cards into however many classrooms there will be the next year. Let's say it's the fourth grade team making classes for fifth grade. There are two fifth grades next year, so the fourth grade team is tasked with making two classes as balanced as possible, while keeping in mind which kids probably shouldn't be with which kids and so on. But they aren't putting them with teachers. The groups are blind. We are making classes, but we don't know who's class is which. That's an admin thing.

That kids, and most likely parents, don't know this is a failure of communication on our part. I bet this kid is not alone in his assumption. We should be more transparent at the end of the year when students ask which teacher they'll get next year. Now, as a fifth grade teacher, my students are heading to middle school so I honestly have no idea who their teachers will be aside from a very general idea of the middle school faculty. "Here's the website, check it out." But it should be fairly simple to make that explanation part of one of the End Of Year spiels in the grades where the kids aren't moving to a brand new school.

And on top of that impression, this kid is pretty sure he's getting picked last. Look at that answer. "I just hope someone picks me." I'm not taking artistic liberties with the quote. Those are the words that came out of his mouth. "I just hope someone picks me." He's talking about us. He's talking about, as far as he knows, me.* And it wasn't like in a movie where there's that long look with the upturned eyes and big blinks, played for laughs. He said it straight, looking down, tone resigned.

Oh dear sweet Jean-Luc Picard. This kid thinks none of us are going to want him in our room. What have we done? Almost all my interactions with him have been positive, even when he's come to me after a hard day full of poor choices. His teacher this year is an excellent teacher. But somewhere in all that his self-worth has reached a point where his honest answer to which teacher he wants next year is basically, "I just hope there's a teacher, the person in my life charged with my education and with whom I will spend a massive chunk of my time, that wants me."

Friends, dear readers, I was struck momentarily dumb. I quickly explained the way we actually make up classes to assuage at least that part of his worry, and then made sure to tell him that I'd love to have him in my class. But it was the end of the day, he was heading to the bus. If this were a movie I'd have knelt down next to him, put my hands on his shoulders, looked into his eyes, and said, "Any of us would be lucky to have you in our class. You're an awesome kid and you're going to have a great year next year." But I didn't. We were in the end of day swarm. We were on the move, like we were in a Aaron Sorkin show. I'll remind him today.

How many of his behavior choices stem from that one sentence? How long has he held that belief? How did we not express in some way something that wouldn't make him feel like that? Every year I'm dedicated to making sure the kids in my class feel welcome and know I'm happy they're there. I give high fives in the hallway and chat with kids in all the grades, and part of that is laying the groundwork for those who will be in my class in the future (the other, bigger, part is kids are awesome and hilarious and fun to talk to and high five). But that's not the same as making them feel like I hope they're in my class. Is it?

*I'm teaching 4th grade next year, but he doesn't know that.

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.