Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ally or A Lie

I've never self-described as an "ally"*. It's a popular term right now, used all the time to describe someone says they are supportive of those whom society traditionally pushes down, walks upon, sexually assaults or shoots without repercussions.

And I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who goes out of their way to call themselves one.

Words have power, and too often words that initially carry a positive weight can be turned around. Ally is one such word. “I’m an ally” can quickly feel the same as “I’ve got a black friend.” It’s just a word. Without action it means nothing. That’s the thing about words that become labels and titles. Anyone gets to use them. Which means anyone gets to define them. And that’s where it gets tricky.

Let’s say I decide to call myself an ally. Let’s say I even am, at least at the most basic level. Suddenly “I’m an ally” becomes a cloak I can throw over myself, something I wear so everyone can see it. Look, I’m an ally. And, believing my own righteous allyship, I begin barging into conversations where it is better for me to listen rather than talk. Instead I shove my nose in, pontificating and well-actuallying. When called out on that my cloak of allyship becomes armor. I throw up a shield on which I’ve emblazoned ALLY and protest, “Hey! I’m an ally here. Why are you being so mean/aggressive?” It becomes a sword, Ally written in fancy script along the blade. “This behavior of yours will not net you more allies, you know. You should be glad I’m here to help you/support you/give you voice.” Suddenly my allyship is what’s allowing you, who I’m supposedly there to back up, a voice.

Sometimes it feels like straight white people (choose your combination, there’s a lot going on there) think being an ally is something that, once you get labeled as, you are forever. Like it’s not constant work to be better. That’s one of the problems with a label like that. Once you get it on you it’s hard for someone else to scrape it off you. Trust me, white men love to cling to the ally label. They wouldn’t self-describe (out loud, they already have in their heads) at first. But if someone else calls them “ally” - Game On. Getting that tattooed on my Twitter bio as soon as I can find the edit button. As if being called “ally” by someone else, a member of one of those groups from the first paragraph, grants a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I can say what I want, wade into the conversations and start throwing my weight around instead of listening, because Person Of Color X called me an ally. As if that person speaks for everyone. Like I was knighted. Ally Doug of Gresham, first of his name. Like there was a meeting, a vote, and I won. Lifetime appointment. “I’d like to thank all Muslims for deeming me worthy, and now I’d like to tell them how I’d do things.”

Which makes it all the worse when an “ally” is an asshole, right? Not so much when an ally is wrong, wrong happens all the time. Wrong is growth as long as you see the wrong, hear the corrections, and are gracious in accepting it. But when Ally becomes armor, sword, and shield, that’s a betrayal.

What’s better- a panel on diversity made up of allies (self-appointed or otherwise), or a panel made up of all the people Trump hates (aka- everyone but straight white men) on literally any other subject?

It should be made clear- Being an ally is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. But is it something to aspire to? Not as a noun. “What? Doug, are you saying I shouldn’t aspire to being an ally?” Kinda, yeah. Let’s break down what the word really means in this context. An ally is someone who stands up when they see an injustice, shuts up because they know they should listen and learn, and stands with those the power structures, like white supremacy and toxic masculinity, would trample. Shorter- An ally is a decent person. Should “be called a good human” really be something that needs a special name? Should I be so proud to say, “So-in-So says I am a good person.” Wow, dude. High bar. How’d you clear it without clipping your heels?

Aspire to act as an ally. Aspire for the verb. But not for the name. I suppose it all comes down to how the word relates to action. Ongoing, constant, reflective action. How often is the question asked, “But how can I be a good ally?” Be cool, shut up, help, don’t be the center, and take it to others in your circles so the burden isn’t constantly on those already burdened. Allyship isn't performative, something you do so others will stand back and be in awe. Allyship can be hard, sometimes standing up to people is. You’ll end up standing up to friends or family. Do it anyway. For others. Not for yourself. The name is great, but if that’s all it is then it’s just one more appropriation, just one more aggression. Should it be being proud to be an ally, or constantly self-checking to see if you are? Do my actions suggest that I’m in it to be seen standing on the mount shouting “Dig me and how great of an ally I am”, or to be one?

Actions, not labels, are the truth or the lie of an ally.

[Ed. Note- After I wrote this post but before I published it this brilliant thread on the same topic by Shana White was brought to my attention. Read it.]

*I’m suspicious that just saying this undercuts everything said afterwards because it kind of feels presumptive, like “I know I am an ally, but I’d never call myself one.” Hopefully the nearly nine hundred words that follow it clear that all up.

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 Teacher, THE 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.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Bordering Normal- by Guest Blogger Rebecca Miller

Post written by Rebecca Miller

My first day of orientation as a first year teacher was absolutely terrible. I understood nothing and I felt awful. For one thing, I had only found out that work started the night before. For another, I had passed out from the heat the night before. On top of that, it turned out that all the teacher meetings in my "monolingual" school were conducted in Spanish, a language I had just about managed to navigate the airport with. That included the teacher's manual, a 70-page document "we are going to try to get translated". (Spoiler: They didn't.)

The teaching job I accepted five years ago was in the Dominican Republic, a country I had visited once the spring before. It was a leap of faith, and I knew there would be some adjustment required. Leaving my home country of the United States and moving to a new country meant crossing a border. I knew crossing that border would mean learning a new language and learning to cook new kinds of food. But the biggest differences I needed to adapt to were less obvious.

My new country meant everything had a new normal. I mostly learned what the normal was by finding out that I was doing things weirdly. Normal in my new country meant that you taught all the chapters in the textbook in order, even in English. Normal meant grades were calculated every month. Normal meant you gave a student five extra points on their birthday (I'm still weird on that one.) Normal meant that small children don't have bedtimes, so 10 pm trips to the grocery store could well be whole-family affairs, even when school starts at 7:30 the next day.

Eventually I learned that some of the things my school does are unusual even for this country. We give each classroom a title like "treasure hunters" or "busy bees", though no one exactly knows why. Our sports team doesn't actually have a name; for a recent tournament, someone at the uniform company apparently picked "Lions". How did we live without a school mascot? Who knows? It was just our normal.

Every community has its "normal", and crossing into a new community means adjusting to new norms. But sometimes you're part of the community to begin with, and sometimes you have to learn a new normal, adapt it, and decide whether to accept it. Crossing into a new community brings with it feelings of uncertainty and of not-belonging.

Navigating the borders of our various communities can be tricky, and our identities are both shaped and challenged by the communities we participate in, whether we think of ourselves as belonging to them or merely passing through. I now feel like an integral part of my school, and as I start my fifth year of teaching there, I think I understand what the norms are. I am still an outsider, a foreigner, not a native to the country and culture of my students and colleagues. But as I have adapted to this new community- and the other members of the community have adapted to me- we have created some new norms together. We joke that I am now one of them, but really, the other members of the community made space for me, so that I am now included in what they understand as normal. The borders, in some sense, have shifted and become permeable. I crossed a border to come into their country, but they redrew the lines to make me be at home.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Teaching Funny

Can you teach funny?

Isn't language great? How did you read that sentence? Did did you read it asking if you can be funny when you teach? Or did you read it asking if you can teach someone how to be funny? How wonderfully those two questions connect to each other. One of the Big How To Teach lessons right now is Build Relationships. Connect with the kids. Have them enjoy being in class. This skews very closely to what some have called "edutainment".* Edutainment isn't what we do. The ratio of education to entertainment illustrated in that word is 3:8. Which illustrates what people think of when they hear the term. So let's not edutain, huh? We can be entertaining in class, but we're not there to entertain. Kids don't need a comedy routine to work hard and want to be at school. They're smarter than that.

Obvious Statement Alert- A good way to build relationships is to be funny. People like funny people, for the most part. I've got twitter mentions that say otherwise. (Int- Doug's Brain: Or maybe I'm just not funny. Could be that. Shut up, get back down into that box where I put you.) In class, laughter is a huge benefit. It's hard to not want to be where you are when you're laughing. It doesn't cut through everything and it doesn't solve every problem. I'd never suggest that. Laughter is a social lubricant. It makes other things easier. I hesitate to call it a tool though. Because teachers love tools. Teacher also love being taught how to use tools. If we label laughter or humor as an educational tool before you know it there will be some guy with a colorful bow tie standing in front of your staff professionally developing you on how to be Funny For Students. And just thinking about that makes me want to jab a whole drawer full of kitchen utensils into my eyes while listening to Creed give me a live, intimate concert.

"But Doug, aren't you The Weird Teacher? That's your Thing. You run professional developments called Teaching the Weird Way, don't you?" Why yes, hypothetical reader who knows a surprising amount about my professional development sessions. I do do that. Notice- It's not called "How To Be Funny." Weird, in my context, doesn't mean funny. It means, well, weird. Odd. Strange. Left of center. Slantwise and sideways and crossways. Unnormal. That will sometimes be funny, but the funny is a side effect of how I communicate, it's not the goal in the classroom. I would never subject a room of professionals to any kind of "Here's how to be funny" seminar. That's asking for a chair to be thrown at my head.

Trying, openly, to be funny for your students so they like you or want to be in your room- that's pandering. And kids are too savvy for that. They will see through your cutting room floor MadTV bit in less time than it takes for you to remember that MadTV was a thing. No, not the show with Jim Carey and Homey D. Clown, that was In Living Color.** Don't be Try Hard™. Be yourself. To answer one of the questions this started with- I have no idea if you can teach someone to be funny. I think you can teach timing to some extent, you can teach joke construction. But if you Try Hard™ you end up at Lt. Hauk. Don't be Lt. Hauk.

We all know there's more to funny in the classroom than timing and joke construction. Most of the time the stuff that's funny in a classroom isn't even "jokes". It's much closer to improv. Were I to design a teacher training curriculum I would include one semester of Acting 101 and a semester of Improv. Some of the introverts reading this just swallowed their tongues. But that's what we do all the time, all day. It's all tap dancing, yes and-ing, and playing off what we're given. We should train for that. My classroom is funny, but it's not because I'm up there doing bits. It's because I'm silly, I make myself laugh, and that gives the kids permission to do the same. Have you ever tried to tell someone not in education about something funny that happened in your classroom? They look at you like you're describing the dream you had last night and slowly inch towards someone else, anyone else. Teaching is alllll inside jokes. I would bet that by the end of each year you and your students have two dozen shared jokes that, to an observer, sound utterly mad. For example, my students and I last year were correcting some writing and the sample said "Put this phrase in the proper order - Wooden squeaky gate." We swapped wooden and squeaky and that would have been the end of it. Except I've got my mouth set to /run/ and said off-handedly, "You know, Squeaky Wooden Gate was the name of the band I was in in college." For literally the rest of the year kids were finding album and song titles in random things we did in class. Two promised to form a real band, name it Squeaky Wooden Gate, and dedicate their first album to me. I demanded royalties. They agreed, mostly because I didn't let them Google what royalties are.

This, by the way, also means that their ears are perked up more often and they're listening harder because they want in on the fun. Doesn't mean they want to chime in, but they wanna get it. It's important to make sure that happens to. We're not laughing at the kids. And not every joke is for the kids anyway, sometimes I say stuff just to tickle my brain. References that, in five years when they finally see Monty Python and the Holy Grail, will make them wonder for half a second why they knew that joke was coming.

This, I think, means I teach funny. My students would describe me as a funny teacher. But what they're actually describing is our room is fun. Our room is silly. I let things slide that others might not, and I encourage tripping down those side roads of conversation to see what we can see. Do I think I'm funny? Yeah, I do. I better, my second book is exclusively supposed to be funny about teaching. Not everyone agreed. Which is cool, humor is subjective. But writing a funny book is not the same as being a teacher, funny or otherwise.

I'm keeping that dude's dollar though.

Were I to try to teach a teacher to be funny, I'd approach it like I approach most other classroom soft skills- I start with "Be who you are. Unless you're an asshole. Then get out of the classroom." Be Who You Are covers a lot. Don't try to teach like anyone else. I don't encourage my student teachers to try and set the same tone I do. They wouldn't be able to. Not because I'm amazing and they aren't, but because my brain works differently than their brains. Plus, if you tell student teachers (or teacher teachers) "Try to be funny, then the kids will build a relationship with you easier" they'll immediately go Full Lt Hauk. Don't be like Lt. Hauk.

This relates directly back to my last post about Teacher Voice. Don't try to be anyone in your classroom but who you are, and let your kids be who they are. A funny teacher is nowhere because we aren't in this alone. We're not on stage with a brick wall behind us and a paying audience in front of us, there to laugh. We're all in this together. Don't think about which teachers are funny or silly or weird. Think about which rooms allow humanity to thrive. That's where you'll find the funny.

*Total aside- the Brazilian thrash metal band Sepultura called a song on their Nation album "Sepulnation". When asked about it in an interview, one of the members explained, "We think you can put Sepul- in front of just about anything and make it cooler." So every time I read edu- used as a straight-faced prefix I think about Brazilian thrash metal doing the same thing.

**For you youths who have no idea what I'm talking about, back in the BeforeTimes TV shows were on only at specific times and you had to watch them at that time or they were gone, we thought, forever. In Living Color was a sketch comedy show, like that YouTuber you think is funny, but with writers and a whole cast and production value. Hit up the YouTubes. Also- I have no idea if it holds up and there's probably a ton of what 2018 would call Problematic material that was still offensive when it came out, it through. Times change.

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, July 9, 2018

Vox Enim Praeceptor

It took me at least five years before I really knew who I was in the classroom.

Five years of teaching, experimenting, screwing up, changing, and evolving before who I am as a teacher shines through bright enough to start lighting my own way. That's not to say, of course, that newer teachers don't have a voice. They do. It's just not as strong, clear, or uniquely their own as it will grow to be.

This isn't a bad thing. Think about it in terms of music. Metallica's best album, their most clearly this genre is different now album, is their third one, Master of Puppets. The Clash's third album, London Calling, is the one that best balances what they were with what they were to become. Aerosmith's third album is Toys in the Attic, or "The one with Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion" on it, for those non-Aerosmith fans out there. Radiohead's third album is Ok Computer, which people who like Radiohead tell me is good. Of course, since they admit to liking Radiohead their taste is suspect, but let's take them at their word.

Maturity takes time.

This is where I will always be concerned about the impact of social media on teachers, especially our new teachers. I believe you should have role models, people you look up to, emulate, and copy. People you straight rip off. I do a thing in my classroom where I scowl at my students and growl that, "School is not a place for fun! It's a place for work! That's why there is no smiling here!" I 100% stole that from a principal at a school I subbed in all the time. He was hilarious, the kids loved it, and I folded it into my portfolio of bits and nonsense that makes up my classroom voice. Its grown into its own thing now, and my students will point out every single instance that I smile in class. Which, you know, sends a pretty nice subtle message because they are noticing their teacher enjoying school. Hey, lookit that, it's working on a bunch of levels.

But I found all that for myself, through trial and error, from teachers that I worked with and knew, and from books. Intake, absorb, adjust, do. Most of it wasn't preached at me from On High. Either the whole "Relationships Matter" thing hadn't quite hit the critical mass we're now at back when I was a baby teacher or I just wasn't hearing it. I wasn't getting a constant barrage of "How To Teach" tweets, memes, books, messages, Instagrams, Snapchats, podcasts, YouTube videos, and Facebook pages. And I think that matters. Information is good. Too much information is paralyzing, and it becomes difficult to sort the signal from the noise. And there's a lot of noise. "Teach all in!" "The best teachers blah blah blah!" "Be best!" That's not terribly helpful information, and it's not really that motivating unless you assume teachers a) don't know teaching is important and/or b) don't know they should be working hard to be good at their jobs. I secretly think new teachers should limit how much time they spend on social media absorbing a ton of information, but I also might be an old man who just wants kids to do it the way I did it. Totally possible.

I worry that the oversaturation will impact the teachers they become, but not in the best ways. Like, what if you run into a problem in your classroom and, instead of trying to solve it, you run to twitter and ask twitter what it would do? You'll get a ton of answer, and probably good answers. But you won't have learned to deal with that problem on your own. You won't have screwed up dealing with it. And I think that will impact your voice in the long run. I think voices will become more homogenized. When I see chats where everyone gives the same answers to the questions I wonder if that's a badly written question (totally possible), or if everyone in the chat knows the "answer", which makes it a quiz, not a chat. Those voices are converging rather that diverging, which is especially funny when you think about how many conversations are about the benefits of divergent thinking. It kinda reminds me of why Marilyn Manson was so popular in the 90s. He made his audience feel like they were all alone and he understood that. Sold out auditoriums of teens who thought no one understood them. I'm alone! Just me and everyone else in this building! I'm thinking differently, just like everyone else in this chat!

Wouldn't your voice be stronger if you didn't participate all the time? Not a complete shut-off. Nothing in education should be inflexible. (I know, I know, that's like "Only a Sith deals in absolutes." It still works.) What would your album sound like if you stopped listening to all other music while recording it? It would be more you, wouldn't it?

And if your voice is more you, wouldn't your room be more you too?

One of the big, on-going conversations in the education space currently surrounds student voice. "How are you sure your students are heard in your classroom?" "In what ways can you amplify the voices of your students?" "How impactful do your students feel their voices are in your classroom, in the school, and in the world?" These questions are vital, key, and deserving of the time given to them (provided those conversations are honest and put to use).

Let's put it out there so there's no mistaking it- This is not about elevating the teacher's voice above that of the students. Education should contain a balance in all things. Saying teachers should have no voice is drawing a line in the sand just to be contrary (pronounced- revolutionary).

It's our room too. I spend 180 days in my classroom just like my kids. I'm not going to flood it with my stuff, but I've got a few pictures on the walls (posters from the movie Pacific Rim, because on the surface it's a big dumb movie about robots punching monsters, but it's actually a deep investigation into human interaction, vulnerability, communication, teamwork, and understanding being the only way we succeed, and I feel like that's a pretty good metaphor for my room, plus it's my favorite movie). I've got some toys on my desk. And the attitude in the room is dictated by me. Its aimed, amplified, and directed by the kids, because it's there room too. But I get to start the song. I keep the beat underneath everything they're playing. My voice drives the room just as much as their's does. Not because Teacher Ego, but because We're All In This Together.

If I'm funny, my room gets funnier because my kids reflect what I put out. I'm not In Charge of everything about it, but we set the tone and then adjust based on the kids. It's a conversation. It comes from my Teacher Voice, and how I use it.

Teacher voices are so important, in the classroom, in our schools, and in the world.We should use them.

And here is where I get to drop the other caveat into this conversation- Hi, I'm a straight, white guy. So it's reeeeaaaally easy for me to say "Use your voice! Your voice matters! Say what you think! Woo!" Because straight white guys can pretty much get away with saying anything at this point. Go ahead, argue with me. Then check out who is still president after saying [ERROR- List Exceeds Character Limit and Good Taste]. An extreme example that makes the point better than anything else I could say. I'll find others later. The power structure currently in place make it much more risky for some teachers to use their voices than others. That's not to say they don't use them, or that they need me to help them use their voices, just that when it comes to sticking your neck out I'm not really stretching that far and others are.

Part of using our Teacher Voices is knowing when to shut up too. So much of teaching is shutting up and listening so you can hear other teacher voices. Now, earlier in this I talked about new teachers not listening too hard to too many voices in order to develop their own. This is different that that, teaching in complicated, and you are able to keep up. Yes, shut out voices who are trying to dictate your voice. Also, shut up and listen to unique voices and learn something. See? That's not hard, just kinda complex.

And yet another part of using our Teacher Voices is to move the conversation forward by pointing out when the conversation is being purposefully stalled or directed by a small group of people who think their voices carry more weight. (Again- Hi, straight white guys. Lookin' at us.) Who is shutting down conversations? Who is reacting personally to things that aren't personal? Who uses their voice to rejoice when they think a dissenting voice has been knocked down? Teaching is a conversation, but you can't talk to someone lecturing, stentorian, down from the mount. Push thinking and allow your thinking to be pushed. Stop being so damn sure all the time.

When we talk about teaching we should talk about how difficult and complicated it is, without fear. Yes, I'm concerned that if I tell parents teaching is a challenge then they'll think I don't know what I'm doing. But that's not fair. Teaching is freaking hard and complicated and that narrative should be ok to share. And not in the "Oof, you gotta work with middle schoolers! That must be tough!" way. But in the "I'm working with 31 individuals, guiding them towards one specific goal among many specific goals, while honoring ancillary goals and bonus learning along the way, while also keeping in mind all the things happening in each of their lives that makes this more difficult." That doesn't make me a superhero. Being a superhero isn't presented as complicated, just hard. Teaching is a complex art, and the narrative should reflect that, but the only way it will is if we use our Teacher Voices to talk about it. Don't simplify, don't dumb it down. There's a difference, too, between dumbing teaching down and making a complex thing simpler for ease of explanation. One reduces it to catch phrases, the other drops the professional language and speaks plain.

We change hearts and minds when we step up and acknowledge this is hard and constantly in flux. Not just amongst ourselves, but in the public narrative of teaching. Yes, this job changes all the time. Yes we make mistakes, but we learn from them, just like our kids do. I'm still a professional. I'm still good at my job. They blew up so many rockets to get to the moon. Because it was hard, and complicated, and with every explosion they learned something, and they had a PR flak out front explaining what happened, what they learned, and what will happen differently next time. We don't have a PR flak, but we do have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and blogs and friends who aren't teachers and and and. Don't dumb down your teaching stories. Don't focus on just the end result cool stuff. Talk process. Talk growth and failure openly and honestly.

The Teacher Voice is a powerful, valuable tool. It communicates ideas, facilitates conversations, helps build in-roads. Like any tool it can damage and destroy if misused. Like any tool it can do the bare minimum it was created for, or it can be wielded with creativity. In classrooms. In schools. In the world.

Find your voice. Use it that it might strengthen and grow. Let it evolve. Let it be who you are. Teach like you.*

*I rarely mention this because it doesn't come up much, but that's the whole core of the "weird teacher" thing. There is no way to teach like a weird teacher because you're already weird, you just gotta find your weird and run with it as hard as you can.

**a blog title in Latin? How pretentious. Shut up, I like it, it works.

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.