Monday, August 27, 2018

On #WeirdEd 200

On April 15, 2014 the first #WeirdEd blog post went live. The first chat was the next day.

This Wednesday, August 29, 2018, we will have the 200th #WeirdEd chat. If you do the math that doesn't work out to 200 weeks, there have been gaps for holidays and breaks, but it's as close as matters. Every single week, with some exceptions, I've written something and then the best, brightest, and weirdest teachers on the Twitterz gather together to hash it out and mull it over. We've had a ton of guest bloggers and moderators, all adding to our collective awesome and growing our worlds.

Looking back on the first blog post, I see the mission statement I put forth.
We will be focusing on positive issues, taking action, and the kids. #WeirdEd will probably not be a place where we mull over data and gnash teeth about terrible, awful things that happen in our classrooms, our schools, our states. That doesn't mean we won't talk about problems, I will not shy away from problems, but I'm interested in getting as close to solutions as we can in 140 character bursts using the brains of the best, weirdest teachers on the twitters.
There will be silliness. And there will be silliness for silliness' sake. I like that. I like lightness and strangeness and not taking ourselves too seriously. That's the only way to last. If you don't come with a sense of humor you might not enjoy the chat. And that will be too bad for all of us.
I think we hewed pretty damn close to that over the last 200 chats. We have chatted about data, but about our relationships to it and how we can use it to our benefit, since it's there anyway. I've resisted gnashing of teeth in the chats, even during the weeks when certain twitter kerfluffles would have made that oh so easy. 

We have talked about terrible things that happen, I didn't even make it ten weeks before having to write about school shootings, and we've talked about terrible things that happened in the world, like when Jess Lifshitz gave words to our grief over the Orlando nightclub murders. Rusul Alrubail joined us to talk about pre-judgement, and the next week we had to talk about how some who came to that chat handled it. 

And there's been soon much silliness for silliness' sake that I can't even link to all of them. Hell, we had a chat about narwhals. I actually feel like I've gotten away from the foolishness in the second century of the chat, and I don't like that. Not that the chat hasn't been fun, but part of the idea of #WeirdEd is that it is thumbing its nose at the collective edchat community and the self-serious tone so many chats take. It was fun to take a nonsense topic and bang it into an educational shape for us to kick around for an hour. Part of the problem is that my writing has changed and, as I don't have a ton of time for writing, I want to spend the post I normally write each week hitting something close to home and important to me. I know the reader doesn't care how hard the writer works, the reader only cares if the final product is good. But I bust my ass to write something good every week. Which means less nonsense. I want that to change in the next hundred (more on that in a moment). Even if it means writing more than one post a week, because I have to write a post for the chat. I don't know what I want to talk about if I don't write it down.

I'm also unsatisfied with the current format of the chat. I've been trying to think of ways to mix it up and take fuller advantage of the format of twitter. Q1/A1 is great, especially when I am happy with the questions, because then it's less a quiz and more a wide ranging conversation that's occasionally aimed slightly. It helps me take responsibility for the chat. I can't hide behind the teachers participating and blame them for bad topic or poorly led conversations. I just don't yet know how to change it up. I don't know if there is a better way. Which makes me think there is. As always the thought is- how can I break this so it works

To be completely honest, as we approached 200 I questioned whether #WeirdEd needed to continue at all. So many other edchats seem to be going on momentum at this point. Topics are endlessly recycled, answers are rote and choral, what's the point? I should stress, there are still some exceptionally strong chats out there. #ClearTheAir and #EduColor leap to mind. Chats I want to steal from. Edchats aren't a competition, but seeing chats done that well does make me want to be better. But what if #WeirdEd had run its course? Bands end. Series end. Endings aren't bad.

Except...teaching is different, innit? Teaching changes every day. We will never run out of things to talk about because students are endlessly creative. Which makes me believe #WeirdEd should live on, but also loops back around to the change. How do I keep up and keep it fresh? This is four years, folks. So what's going to happen immediately after 200 will be a break. Probably a month. Which works out, because school will have just started and you know I'll be exhausted and it'll be nice to take that one thing off the plate. I'll still be writing, I need to write like I need to breath or listen to music painfully loud, but we won't chat. Unless something amazing happens like Trump gets arrested. You bet we'll have a chat if that happens.

To those of you who come every week- Thank you. I write the blog and the questions, but you write the chat. Without your thoughtful answers we wouldn't be the best chat on the twitterz. I never have to remind you all that it's a chat, not a quiz, and I never have to tell you to talk to each other and dig deep. You come to play every week and you get what I'm going for. There are weeks when I'm tired and don't want to moderate, and by the end I'm ready to kick ass and take names once again. 

Thanks for playing.

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, August 20, 2018

This Is Not What I Expected

It happens every year, right near the start of the year. A student gets that look in his eye. It's a slow dawning that, to the student, might even feel like a baby form of betrayal. That look that says, "This is not what I expected."

The student is slowly realizing that what they saw from outside the classroom door is not the same on the other side.

Outside, the classroom looked like a barrel of monkeys covered in cardboard run by puppets with a Taylor Swift soundtrack. This class looked awesome and fun.

Inside, there are puppets. And there is cardboard. And there's music. But it's all...educational. Like, we have to think about all this stuff. Inside the classroom everything has a point.

What the hell, man? This is not what it said on the box.

The greatest trick Mr Robertson ever pulled was convincing kids who aren't in my class that my class is a 24/7 party. Getting them super excited to come in, tricking them into buying-in with shenanigans that they can see, but rarely actually get to partake in. Because students don't often think around the corner of the lesson to see the point waiting to take them by surprise and jump in their backpacks.

Yes, my class has puppets. Because puppets are awesome and I love using them. Also because the kids pay better attention to the puppets than they do to me sometimes. They will ask for Sophie to teach them math. Oh yeah, they ask to be taught math. And then Sophie does a real math lesson, with real cognitive demands, asking real math discourse questions, all in her high, silly voice, while interjecting the occasional shout of "Bobble!" with her signature head wave. (She's got tiny giraffe-like knobs on her head that "bobble" back and forth when she shakes her head and the kids love it.)

There's so much cardboard in my classroom. We're constantly building things. But not for fun. Never for fun. There's always a reason. You can't build for building's sake. Do you know what happens when you do that? Your principal walks in and asks a student what she's learning right now and the child says, "Uh...building with cardboard?" Yeah, that's an email.

Instead we're doing a Quick Build- "Make a wind-powered card. You can use anything in the room. You have an hour to design, build, test, and revise. Groups of no more than three. Yes, four is more than three. Ready...go." But the point isn't the wind-powered car. The point is the design process we're practicing. Does it look familiar? Because it should. The writing process is plan, draft, edit, revise. The math process is evaluate, attempt, assess, revise. I'm not having my kids build cars to build cars. I'm having them practice the skills they will use for the rest of the year. And I am explicitly pointing this out after the lesson and then every time we write or do math. "Did you edit this? Remember how easy it was to decide to fix the car? Why?"

The kid will say, "Well, it didn't work right."

I will reply, "Good! Does this work right? Have you read it?" (Yes, we all have to ask the kids if they've read what they wrote. because, you know, they didn't. We need to teach that too.) The Quick Build lessons come back over and over and over until the real reasons are internalized.

We spend the first few weeks on a Hobby Project that tasks the class with choosing something they've never done before, a brand new skill, and getting as good at it as possible in three weeks. They need to journal every day what they did and how they felt. And at the end of the three weeks everyone will demonstrate how well they can juggle or sew or ride a unicycle or do magic or whatever. And the whole time I'll be going on about, "I don't expect you to be good at this by the end. You only have three weeks! I do expect you to be better at it. You're gonna suck. That's cool. But slowly you won't. That's cooler." And I hit that again during the reflection at the end of the project. Same thing. It's one thing to tell my kids what growth mindset is, it's something completely different to trick them into experiencing it for themselves first hand with something they wanted to do. And it comes back constantly too. "Ok, we're starting dividing fractions. This is gonna look real tricky to some of you at first. That's fine. You couldn't juggle when you started either. How did you learn to do it? Right, same muscles here. Yes Josh, 'brain' muscles. Sit down please."

In the first week we do secret handshakes. Find a partner and build a secret handshake. Its got to be at least five different movements. You have *ridiculously contracted period of time* to practice and get perfect. Go." We practice then I send them to recess. When they come back they go to the front of the room and perform their not-secret-anymore handshakes. They nail it. Some kids have gotten real fancy, adding to it at recess. Their handshake is ten, fifteen steps long. Immediately after that I pull out ten poems and say, "Ok, we're gonna memorize poems. You get to choose one. You have until next week to be completely off book."

A kid will always raise her hand. "Mr Robertson, I'm not good at memorizing."

"Oh really, my child? Huh. Hey, can you show me your secret handshake again?"

"Uh, yeah." She start to get up. Stops. Looks at me. Sighs. "'re gonna say I just memorized a bunch of stuff easily, aren't you?"

"Maybe. Don't forget how much easier it was when you were moving though. That'll come in handy." I live for those moments. The moments when they realize what they did was deeper than what they thought and the pool becomes crystal clear, so clear they can't even see the bottom.

The kids come around fairly quickly. I demand good work, hard work, focus. We play, but it's all in service of cognitively demanding overarching ideals.

Something I always think less about is how my class looks from the outside to other teachers. This struck me hard earlier this week when I was at a math training with someone else on my staff who is in the room next to mine and we had to work together to plan specifics of how we would instill a growth mindset in our students at the year's start. I said, "Well, it's baked into my class. I can't not do that and have anything about my room work." And she didn't have any idea what I was talking about. So I started talking about my projects and building and eventually she stopped me. "Yeah, I knew you did all that. But I never realized why you did all that. A bunch of us have always kinda wondered..." and she trailed off, leaving "if your kids learn reading and math and stuff" unspoken. Heard it before. It's cool. I'm not mad at her or grumpy about any of that. It's on me to have been more explicit outside of my class, just like it's on them to ask. If the students don't expect the cognitive rigor, why should a second grade teacher who I never plan with because I'm way up in, at the time, fifth, know any specifics about what's going on behind the scenes? Yes, I write about it. But I've never worked somewhere where people I worked with read my stuff. I don't really advertise around school. "Hey, I've written books, here's my blog." It's different with people you work with every day. The link to this blog is in my email signature. But it feels super weird to, like, promote my stuff to my staff. I dunno why, that's probably worth its own post down the road.

Nevertheless, "this is not what I expected" is a reaction I expect from students and from other teachers. And that's cool with me. The unexpected works well in a lot of situations. Like jokes and getting people interested in what you're selling. Not so much in colonoscopies though. Keep that very expected. And as the year progresses my kids adjust and learn that everything Mr Robertson does probably has layers to it, and then they look for the layers. Sometimes they create layers I didn't intend that I can then steal and write blogs and book chapters about. They don't learn to expect the unexpected. They learn to expect depth and meaning.

Can't ask for much more than that from a classroom, can we?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On Setting Up My Classroom OR Ourter Space

I have an incredibly scientific method for setting up my classroom, which I will share with you now. You're welcome. (I know I'm framing this like a joke, but this is 100% dead serious what I do as soon as possible when I get into my classroom every year.)

Step One- Push desks around semi-aimlessly, pretending I don't know what every single possible permutation of desk combinations looks like.

Step Two- Find an empty spot on the floor.

Step Three- Lay down.

Step Four- Stare at the ceiling and feel the room. I do this in new rooms because I want to know if I can feel the energy of it. Since I've been in my current room for going on four years it's more about re-centering myself in the room. (Step Four is both dead serious and where things get a little hippy-dippy-here's-your-crystal-go-hug-a-tree.) 

Step Five- Remaining in the same spot, close my eyes and think about the coming year, think about the kids and their energies, think about how the room will be used, and open myself to finding new ways.

Step Six- On my very last day as a lifeguard at Courson pool in Palmdale, CA, a place where I had been a pool aid, lifeguard, and head guard over the course of half a dozen years, my staff and I laid on our backs on the deck. There's a lot of context you need to really understand why what's about to happen is important, but the short version is lifeguarding was not a job for any of us. It was so much more. We closed our eyes and I said, "Remember everything about this moment. Remember how the deck feels on your back. Feel the sun on your skin. Smell the mix of chlorine and sunscreen (still the best perfume in the world). See the sun glaring through your closed eyelids. Hear the water gently lapping against the edges of the pool. The coming year will be hard. We are strong enough to make it through and triumph. But in those moments where you're overwhelmed, close your eyes and come back to right now. Come back here."

In Step Six I return to that moment, and I try to make that feeling fill the room. I want my classroom to feel like that.

Step Seven- Turn on Loud Music Loudly and push the desks into the same basic groups-of-four-or-five arrangement I always start the year with until the kids show me we need something different.

Step Eight- Putter through boxes, putting everything in its proper place, pretending that this will be the year when Everything Will Stay Organized.

Step Nine- Put almost nothing on the walls except some Pacific Rim posters I made about cooperation and teamwork, some grammar rules posters the kids don't see until I point them out, our What Am I Reading pocket chart, and whatever posters the school wants me to have up.

Step Ten- Pace, talk to myself, try to remember how to teach.

There's a lot of pushback against the Pinterest Classroom™ (aka The Instagram Classroom™) recently. For, I think, good reason. To be specific, I think that because it aligns with my particular educational philosophy. I'm not sure it's wrong. I wouldn't tell a teacher who spent a ton of time and money making her/his classroom picturesque and beautiful that they were doing something wrong. Who the hell am I? I'm working on a personal theory bolstered by personal preference and experience. I bet there are certain kids who love walking into a classroom like that. And I am sure that there are parents who see that room and think This Is A Good Classroom. Like you can tell from decor. (Again, not a judgement, you can't tell if I'm a good teacher from my room either.)

My room doesn't look like that. I can't even think like that, and there are other things I'd rather spend my time on. My room is Spartan when the year starts. It's not cold, but it's pretty naked. This goes towards setting the tone I'm going for for the year- This is our space, not mine. If I've got a Class Theme, that's it. I don't assign desks for the same reason. "Let's start out trusting you, and giving you ownership. Choose whatever seat you want (you should see some of the parents' eyes when I say that), and I trust you to make a good choice. Know that I've got final say, and your choice might not be where you stay long. There's a lot to think about with seating. But you get first crack." It's instructive to see who sits where, and how the parents react. But that all goes towards the same idea that the bare walls communicates- This Is Our Space. It's not hard to starting linking that idea to a whole bunch of stuff once you decide to do it. It's way easier than trying to make everything fit into a jungle theme.

My walls are a canvas that is constantly filled by the kids. Any anchor charts I need are made by the kids. Every year we'll take some time to make basic math vocabulary and strategy posters that I'll put up. Stuff goes up and comes down on the regular. This has become slightly more challenging because we do so much on the computer in my class, but that helps motivate me to find and connect art projects.

Back to all that hippy-dippy stuff from earlier- The classroom is like the tree in The Giving Tree except it's not deeply deeply depressing when you revisit it as an adult. It will give you everything you need, you just have to be willing to take it. Nothing is static, everything is dynamic always. We don't get a lot, especially in public school. The answer to that is two-fold- Fight for more, and make the best of what you've got. These go together. The classroom is a tool. A canvas, as I stated earlier and am repeating now for those of you with poor reading retention. I look at everything I'm given in a very simple way- How can I break this to make it work? 

And that includes the energy in the room. We spend so much time in our classrooms. We live in our classrooms. Our kids live in our classrooms. They are full of energy and experiences and I don't believe in ghosts or angels or witchcraft or that it's not butter, but I do believe places can retain an energy. Even if that energy is really just my brain trying to make sense of the culmination of all the memories and emotions I have associated with the place. Perception is reality, and that's energy in the walls, my friends. And I need to understand that energy so that I can do my best to clear it out. Clean the machinery.

Our classroom starts empty. As empty of stuff on and in the walls as I can make it. Then we spend the year filling it.

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, August 6, 2018

IDIC And Education- An Education Under My Skin Post

"Education Under My Skin" is the name of my perfect hypothetical keynote, in which I use some of my tattoos as jumping off points to talk about educational philosophies and strategies. Because teaching is a job that lives inside you and tattoos are, well, you get it. To that end, if I do end up also making it a series of blog posts the posts will be shorter and less detailed than the keynote would be. I also realize that a speaker getting up in front of a bunch of teachers and talking about his ink is an unusual way to engage the audience and make points, but that's kinda what I do. If this sounds like something you might want to know more about for your conference please reach out. Pretty please. I really want to write this all out and give it. It'll be good.

Where my nerds at? Know how you know if you're one of my nerds? You know what you're looking at and what it means. Everyone else, come along and prepare for nerdery. 

IDIC is the basis for all of Vulcan civilization. Vulcan as in Spock of the NCC-1701 Federation starship Enterprise. The guy on Star Trek with the ears that look like he had a terrible childhood accident in a mechanical rice picker*. IDIC is an acronym for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Not only is IDIC set up as the basis of Vulcan philosophy, but it can be extrapolated to be the guiding principle of all things Trek. At its heart, Star Trek is about IDIC- celebrating the vast array of variables in the universe. That beauty, growth, and progress are all born of a union of the unlike.

It's hard to take the artist out of the art in most cases, and in Star Trek's case, especially the original series, it's basically impossible. Gene Roddenberry, the Great Bird of the Sky and creator of Star Trek, had this to say about humanity- "Until humans learn to tolerate -- no, that’s not enough; to positively value each other -- until we can value the diversity here on Earth, then we don’t deserve to go into outer space and encounter the infinite diversity out there." That's IDIC. 

"In my time, we knew not of Earthmen. I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us."

-- 'Surak', "The Savage Curtain"** (Star Trek: The Original Series)

IDIC is at the heart of education. That's why it's on my wrist. The pulse of a teacher flows with IDIC. I can feel it inside me. And, I think, it shows in how I teach.

Embracing IDIC means embracing our students, fully and completely, as they are and as they will be. No class is ever the same from year to year, and no two students are ever the same. We accept that and rejoice in it, we see the beauty that comes of an education that is not One Thing, One Way. It's a constant struggle, IDIC isn't easy, it isn't immediate, and it's never over. When we look at our class libraries and think, "Huh, there's a whole lot of dead white guys in here. I need to change that" and then we do, that's IDIC. When we stop judging parents, othering students, centering ourselves, believing we are the One with the answers, we move closer to IDIC. IDIC is seeing me in my classroom, hanging off the ceiling, hooting and hollering, and seeing the teacher in the room next door speaking just above a whisper, calmly and quietly helping her students succeed, and accepting that both of these and everything in betwen are equally valuable. IDIC is looking at something from the district and thinking, "How can I make this do what my kids need it to do? How many different ways can it be used?" IDIC is eradicating ignorance, fear, and hate through knowledge and understanding and constant, living, growth.

"The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity."

"And the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty."

-- Miranda and Spock, "Is There In Truth No Beauty?" (Star Trek: The Original Series)

I don't even know if IDIC would come up in conversation if someone asked what my educational philosophy is. In fact, I know it wouldn't. I've been asked that question enough in job interviews and not once have I arched an eyebrow at the interview panel before answering. But I know why I've never mentioned it in an interview- It's always been there. Star Trek is one of those things in my life that I have no memory of "starting". I remember discovering Doctor Who, Stephen King, Metallica, fandoms that are important to me. Star Trek has always been there, from the beginning. And it's the kind of show that wants you to not just watch it, but absorb it, think about what it's trying to say, engage with it. Therefore IDIC, a foundational principle of my most foundational fandom, has always been there. Under my skin.

*You google it, then watch the episode. It's on Netflix and one of the best of the entire series
**Fun Fact- This episode also has Abraham Lincoln in it. And it totally works. Trust me, watch it. 

Credit to Memory Alpha and Fanlore for helping with quotes and details.

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.