Monday, January 21, 2019

Toxic Inoculation


"I need you both to come to my desk right now, please." I take a breath and hold it for a moment as two of my boys make their way across the classroom to my desk. This isn't the first time we've had this conversation, and I have no idea how to make it the last time. I want to make clear before we get too deeply into this that I'm not talking about bullying or racism, those get handled differently. But if I handle this well, that heads off the bigger problems later on.

"You're arguing. Again. Loudly. Rudely. Aggressively. Please explain. You first." I turn to one boy and look at him until he starts from wherever makes him look either the best or the most victimized and therefor justified. The other boy tries to chime in, but I stop him. That's how this kind of interpersonal problem solving works in my class. You listen to the other person's full story without interruption. Then you tell your version. Then we find the middle ground. Or we find the truth, because sometimes there's one version and then there's the version everyone else is telling. Nothing is ever as clear as it seems, and often it's even more confusing that a non-teacher could imagine. I've said it before, but Sherlock Holmes would quit teaching after three hours.

Once one story is told the other gets the same treatment, down to no interruptions from the other party. I can interrupt, but I often only do to ask clarifying questions. Sometimes there's a lot of those. Any other times I speak are to prod students to "try to remember, it happened ninety seconds ago."

As soon as both stories are told I do my best to let them talk to each other. Do you see what he was saying? Do you see how he could have seen that? And you you see what he was saying? How could we have handled this situation better?

Here's where it gets frustrating- Away from me, when it's just the two of them, they will bicker and argue over who killed who endlessly. They'll dig heels in and close their ears and become rock solid sure in their side of the story. But as soon as they come over to me they start talking to each other like I've modeled. Like we've talked endlessly about. They'll start using sentences like, "Oh, when you did that I thought you meant..." and "I heard you say...but now I hear you say..." The trick, I know, is to get them out of the situation. Get them out of their lizard brain fight or flight modes and into a place where they actually can hear each other. Is part of the reason that's with me next to my desk because they know if they don't find a way to cool it out and listen they might get into trouble? Maybe. I'd rather it wasn't, but it's a start. We want everything students do to be internally motivated, but my kids are ten years old. They're internally motivated about a lot, but there's a whole lot going on inside those brains right now.

This is always the point in the year when these kinds of incidents spike in my room. That's not to say that my room is some kind of Lord of the Flies battlefest, but Winter Break always marks a I'm Gonna Try On My Big Boy Pants Now phase. Aggressive tendencies come up, little annoyances get blow bigger than they should be. We work close, and there's a lot of us. I can see kids getting irritated with other kids. I can't change the situation, but I can work to change the reactions.

I understand the behaviors too. Every year I've got a student that I can see myself in, like a little time window. I can see the struggles coming more clearly for this particular student than some of the others because I was very there. I empathize with all my students, and I know that the age they are and the places they are heading will come with all kinds of struggles unique to each of them. But there's always one kid that makes me think, "Oh dude. Middle school and high school are gonna be real tricky. Find a way to get that temper under control. Come to terms with your interests being well outside the norm of your peers. Have faith that eventually you'll find some other weird kids who aren't like you, and everyone is cool with that."

The temper thing comes to the forefront hard some years. Some kids are so very angry. I had it. My parents divorced when I was in elementary school and I struggled a lot. It's about finding power, right? I've still got a mouth on me, the only difference is now I'm (a little more) able to control it. (And I'm cleverer about how I use it.)

And I wonder- How much of the anger comes from toxic masculinity. I don't remember "Boys will be boys" being thrown around too much, but I was also the kid getting picked on a lot. So how much of my anger was me trying to Be a Man and Fight Back. I've got students now who's first reaction to a lot of situations in books we read are something along the lines of "I'd pop him in the nose." I like when they say that because it means we get to talk about it. First- No, you wouldn't. Second- How would that help? Third- Why?

What am I doing to help change these thought patterns? I'm modeling it. In the example at the top we are talking through how we're feeling. We're being open about it. And we are honoring what the other person says they feel. I can't say that enough in my room, "If someone says you're making them feel some way, what makes you think you can disagree with that?" We assume the best intention first in each other. Everyone in my class is cool, and we assume that everyone is ultimately trying to be cool to everyone else. So when we get angry about something right away, we're not assuming the best. (To be clear, I'm talking specifically about my class who are all cool to each other, not groups of people who have a history of bad faith and abusive behaviors, that's a whole different thing.) We're on a journey to see everyone as a human worthy of respect and being listened to. I don't want it to sound like my kids don't already see each other with respect. They do, our class is built on that. But it's not one lesson, one conversation, and then it's over and done. It's easy to listen when you're calm, but what about when you're heated? Then we have to talk about why you're heated. How could you avoid getting heated?

And yeah, this is big with me and my boys especially. They peacock hard. Gods, the basketball games that end in arguments sometimes feel like they outweigh the basketball games that end drama-free. "It's a recess game, knock it off!" isn't good enough either. That addresses a symptom, not a root. Why do they think they can react like that in a game? Where's it come from? Because I see it in group work too. I see slights being blown out of proportion in order to what? Save face? So we talk about that. Openly, with clear language. I model listening and I make sure they listen to each other. Most of the time they can see how small the issues actually are and we can reflect on what they were becoming. Then it's about reps. Getting the work done.

All I want sometimes is for them to listen to one another. I want these small issues to be dealt with in mature ways. I know they're ten, but maturity is within reach. They learn this now, they'll better navigate through the hormonally rough seas ahead. Everything is geared towards helping everyone be better humans. But I can't beat around the bush. I can't let things slide. We know where that leads. It leads to men pretending to be victimized by a shaving commercial while also hiding behind whiteness and toxic masculinity to justify terrible thoughts and actions. The anti-Trek.

I see Star Trek as hope, as place where we should be trying to get to. My captain is Jean-Luc Picard. And it is Jean-Luc Picard who says that before we fight we must talk. And when talking doesn't work we talk some more. And if that doesn't work we keep talking. If I can run my room like Captain Picard, if I can get my kids talking to each other even if they're angry at each other, then I can get them to understand each other. There needs to be willingness on both sides. Openness. But if I can get there with the thirty-some kids in my class, then I can make a difference.

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 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, January 14, 2019

YouTube Teaching and Learning


As an Old, I had a hard time accepting YouTuber as a job description. I didn't understand YouTube or what it could be. What it is for an entire generation. It's entertainment at your fingertips. It's more than TV ever was to people my generation because we had to wait for our shows to be on. For a long time I thought of YouTube as a place for cat videos and nonsense. It wasn't "real" content. How could it be, it was just some thing on the internet?

I like being wrong.

As a teacher I am constantly striving to go outside of the education space for inspiration and revitalization. Not everything I do is connected to teaching at the outset, but nearly everything I do echoes back into my classroom in some way. I see this, by the way, as very different from the Always Be Teaching narrative some Thought Leaders try to sell. I don't go into things thinking about them like a teacher, but I also can't stop my brain from finding the connections that impact my teaching. It's all about operating on multiple levels are trying to be a well-rounded human person. And yes, if feels dumb to have to make this distinction but, well, you've been in those keynotes and read those blog posts too.

I think there is a lot for us to learn from YouTube and YouTubers. I do not mean this in the "Watch these videos in class way, either", though I absolutely would show them in class if I thought I could. There is a depth and breadth to critical conversations happening on YouTube that constantly has me reassessing how I teach reading text and thinking critically. I want to highlight three specific channels that I think teachers should be watching and learning from.


The first is Movies With Mikey on the FilmJoy channel. The concept behind Movies with Mikey is the host, Mikey Neumann, picks a film or occasionally a genre that he feels passionate about and deconstructs it piece by piece, investigating both why it works as a film and why it works for him. In watching his videos I've found even more reasons to love films I already thought were perfect like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz (yes, and everything else Edgar Wright has ever done because he's brilliant), The Last Jedi, and the Harry Potter films, which he just finished a massive three video series on. There's a depth of investigation in these videos that any one of us would be head over heels to see from a student. The mix of personal introspection, technical knowledge, and a genuine love of film creates the perfect chemical reaction and before long you will find yourself pouring through his videos and hoping that any favorite of yours has gotten the MwM treatment.

It is through this lens that not only do I gain a new appreciation for things that I love, but I'm able to see the new ways my students and I can investigate things. The wide world of options when it comes to thinking about texts, any texts, and how students can imbue these reflections with their own personalities. Because YouTube itself is a mix of content and personality. This is not unique to the medium, television is full of people who had to not only be good that their jobs, but be creative at them, and the service industries of Hollywood and New York are littered with people who were either one or the other but not both. I have students who want to be YouTubers, and I can't scoff at that like it's not a real option. It's as viable as hitting it big in TV, although there are a billion YouTubers so you actually have to be real good to break out of the fray. I can tie that to the content in my classroom six ways from Sunday...if Sunday was a school day. Which is isn't. Check out Mikey. You won't regret it.


Lindsay Ellis also talks mostly about films and deconstructs them in creative ways. She has a relaxed we're-all-the-same-room-together-chatting style that appeals to me, and, just like the best we're-all-chatting-in-a-room conversations, all of the sudden we're talking about serious stuff, digging in, getting deep, and loving it. One of my favorite examples of the creative ways Lindsay breaks down complex concepts is her series The Whole Plate: Film Studies Through A Lens of Transformers. Yes, she uses Micheal Bay's Transformers films as a way to give a detailed film studies course. Ever wanted to know way too much about how films are made, why the choices made by filmmakers matter, and how feminism and social justice fit into all that, while also talking about giant messy robot movies that you don't have to like? This series is for you. This is the kind of appealing to the populace to make a deeper point thinking that teachers who use PokemonGo or Fortnite in their classrooms can only dream of because this comes from a place of love and understanding for all facets of the subject matter. 

One of my favorite videos of Lindsay's is called Mel Brooks, The Producers, and the Ethics of Satire About N@zis. We've all agreed that you could never make The Producers or Blazing Saddles today. But why? Is it the content, the point of view, the voice, the filmmaker? Why can Mel Brooks put a song called "Springtime For Hitler" in his movie/play/movie and it plays like gangbusters? Satire is hard to do right and frighteningly easy to do poorly. If I taught high school  or college writing there is a 100% chance I would find an excuse to use this video. It's not good enough that things work, we should think about why they work. Lindsay makes me think about that, and that translates into the stories I'm reading to my kids, with my kids, and that fill my textbooks and class library. We should investigate all those things, and YouTube creators like her help me do that better than I had before.


The third and final channel I want to highlight is not another film channel, it's a music one. Lost In Vegas is a channel where two friends, Ryan and George, watch and listen to music outside of their familiarity to broaden their horizons and in an effort understand why some things get so much love. I do not understand the Reaction Video genre as a whole. I don't get why people record themselves watching trailers or why people watch them. I'd guess that 99% of those are staged or planned in some way, they feel so artificial. Ryan and George are as genuine as it gets. 

Two confessed outsiders to the metal and hard rock genres, these videos consist of them listening to songs suggested by their followers, and then honestly trying to find the value in those songs. The reason it works is because they are open about not getting it when they don't get it, but they also never give up on a song or a band. The best example of this I can think of is the reaction video for the Cannibal Corpse song "Hammer Smashed Face". If you don't know Cannibal Corpse, all you need to know is when I say "picture death metal" what you picture is them. Exactly. Don't change a note. Buzzsaw guitars and Cookie Monster vocals. Ryan and George tried so hard to be open to this. You can see them listening intently, taking the music in, trying to find a groove to hook onto. And then the vocal kick in. 
The "WTF" moment
What you're seeing here is their faces about three seconds after the vocals start, which is right around the time it dawns on them that yes, those are the vocals. That's not an instrument or an effect, that's the singer. It's a perfect moment. They listen to the whole song, they even dive into the lyrics. They give the song more of a chance that I do, and I like (parts of) this genre of music. Complete open-mindedness, making a real effort to dig in and discover why other people like it. In comparison, their Metallica reaction videos are always right on and especially validating as a Metallica fan. Because yes, the band is the greatest metal band in the world for a reason, and that reason is anyone who gives them a chance can see why they're great. You don't need to love basketball to appreciate LeBron, you don't need to love metal to hear Master of Puppets and know it's special. 
The "I understand" moment
The lesson of this channel is keep your mind open and your ears open and who knows what you'll find to love. As a teacher constantly in search of things to do in my classroom that will challenge my student and myself, there's no better reminder. As a teacher who wants this for my students, I would love to show them these videos. I don't think I can, because I'd have to edit for language, so instead I use the channel to remind myself to be open about my journey with my kids, to model, as Ryan and George are modeling, the value of being willing to hear and truly listen. To look for the good in something that I don't understand. This doesn't mean they like everything, there's plenty of songs they get to the end of and decide, "Nope, not for me." But that's not the point, the point is in the trying of it. They've even gone back to bands they didn't like for second rounds just to try again. Oh, and they understand the power and perfection of Rush, which means they are intelligent and excellent humans. 

I am a better teacher when I leave the education space and investigate my own interests, chase rabbit trails, and open myself to things, and then allow those things to naturally find their ways into my teaching. Honorable mention to Rob Scallon as well, who I'm really into right now but this blog is long enough as it is. Watch this video of him using music theory to make beautiful music without being able to hear it, get hooked, watch all his other stuff. Do you have a favorite YouTuber you'd like to share? Throw it in the comments. 



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 A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Three Things To Do Many Things OR Lava, Monsters, and Art

This is lava monster art. Get it?
The week before a break is one of the more challenging weeks of any school year. Its match, of course, is the week immediately following a break of any length. Students come back and, even if they come back rested and ready to learn, there's something off about them. A blurriness. Which we of course understand. I spend all of my break screwing up my sleep schedule because daddy can't play Red Dead Redemption 2 while the kids are awake, I've got kids to play with. That cowboy needs to wait until the boys are all tuckered out. I'm ready to teach on Monday, but I also put a leeeeetle more coffee into the pot than normal.

It's important not to launch right back into heavy lift academics. That's not to say you can't do core content and teaching. The idea that relationship building and expectations are somehow separate from content teaching and learning sets up a false dichotomy. Everything in the classroom feeds into everything else. It's a closed loop, a little ecosystem all its own. Much like true STEAM is a joining of all disciplines, a classroom can make all things happen on some level at the same time. The teacher chooses what the main focus of the activity is, and that main focus might prioritize relationship building or a softer skill over straight academics, but that doesn't mean there's no connection. Part of the job is helping students see academic opportunities in all things. I'm constantly telling my kids, "Everything has a reason. It's all academic."

Then a student raises her hand and asks, "What does academic mean?" and I tell her that's an excellent question, backtrack slightly, then move forward.

Toof Telling/Spark Speaks

I love the weeks around Winter Break. As the natural midpoint of the year I get to stack a lot right there as a Leveling Up of sorts. The first big level up comes the week before break, when we do our Cardboard Arcade. The second comes right when we get back, when I get to introduce Toof and Spark.
Toof, Spark, and my Porg of Destiny
Toof is a little green monster puppet that I've had for at least ten years. He has been with me since I taught in Hawaii. He is, in fact, my first puppet and I am very attached to him. Years and years ago I started using him for something I call Toof Telling (you can read about this in my first book). Rather than use Toof in my classroom I created a backstory wherein Toof is an adolescent monster, and as such he/she/it (in my head Toof has always been he but I tell the kids Toof can be whatever they want) won't talk for me because I'm a grown-up. But Toof will talk for them. He's also bored of being in the classroom all year. Which is the other great part of Toof- the kids have seen him with the other monsters all year, and I've refused to talk about him at all, saying, "You'll meet it after Christmas." They are dying to know about the mysterious little guy by January. It's great. Because Toof has been in the classroom all year and is bored, he wants to go visit each of their homes. But here's the catch- When a student takes Toof home they must write about his experience at their house using first person Toof perspective. So they cannot say, "I took Toof home and introduced him to my parents." They must instead say, "This small human child shoved me into a bag, jostled me around, and then proudly presented me to larger humans like some kind of prize. I ate his cat in revenge." They must also bring in a picture, digital, printed, or drawn, of themselves and Toof doing something they wrote about.

I encourage students to go wild with their Toof Telling. Get creative. Yes, it's a puppet that can't actually do anything. But with Courson and Sophie, the other two monster puppets in my room that I use to teach with, we've built this Monster Canon that all monsters think they're better than humans, and they're a little mean because, well, they're monsters what do you expect. But the kids don't even have to follow that because Toof is a young monster, so maybe he's not jaded like the older ones. I will always get lots of stories about Toof beating them in video games, or skateboarding or eating all the dinner. I set reminders that Toof does not like water or pets, so please be careful. Then I Get Real with the kids and honestly remind them that Toof has been with me for a decade, and I've done this for a lot of classes and he has always come back to me completely intact. Please do not be the class that takes Toof away from my future kids.

Spark was added to all of this last year because I had the little dragon and I had no idea what to do with him. I couldn't use him because my hand won't fit. I think it was a kid who asked if he could go home too. Which lead to Spark Speakes joining Toof Telling.

There's a lot of layers in this assignment. There's patience because I've got a ton of kids and only two home visitors. There's creative writing, but first person, but from a different perspective. There's some form of visual art depending on how the image is done. There's presentation because when Toof or Spark comes back (home Monday, back Wednesday, home Wednesday, back Friday) the student must present their Speaks/Telling using the puppet. After all, the kid isn't telling the story, the puppet is. Because the puppet has no voice but the one they use to talk through the student, the voice can change depending on who is presenting. Which gives shy kids the freedom to use their own voice and get it over with, and the not so shy kids the chance to really get into it. And there's So Much responsibility. I make it very clear that I know they are responsible enough now and that's why I waited until January to start. In the end, students get super pumped about what basically amounts to homework. Bwahahaha.

That is a long-term lesson that does many things though. "What about quicker things, Doug? I need action! Hook me up!" you cry. I hear you, dear reader. I've got you covered. I also take no credit for the next two things I'm going to share with you. I'm not a Thought Leader so I've got no interest in passing an old idea off as my own or rebranding it so it looks new even though it's not.

10-1-10

A 10-1-10 for going to see Aquaman
The first is 10-1-10, which I stole off the twitter box from Breanne Kanak. 10-1-10 stands for Ten Seconds, One Minute, Ten Minutes. In the case of my class, I had students focus in tight on one thing they did during winter break. I gave them a piece of paper which we divided into the three sections you see above, and we labeled one small second "10", one small section "1", and the large section "10". Students were told to only use the small 10 box, and in it they had Ten Seconds only to draw the one thing they choose to focus on about break. Next they are told to move to the 1 box, and this time they have One Minute to draw the thing they focused on about break. And finally we move to the large 10 box, where they have Ten Minutes to draw the thing they focused on about break.

This assignment is so cool, and it worked perfectly. Dead silent focus in the room. My room is never silent. After they were done I gave them a chance to share with the people in their groups, then took a few volunteers at the overhead to show their work and explain the differences in the three pictures. Seems like a great way to talk about break, right? Sure. But wait- There's More!

As always I say to my students, "Everything we do in here has an academic purpose. What could this assignment have to do with school in general?" Let them think alone. Let them reflect with those near them. Let them share out. "We kinda ended up planning with the first two and then with a lot of time we got to put in a lot of details." "Ten minutes is a really long time, I got way more drawn than I thought I would." "When we got to take time our drawings got better." Huh...interesting. Does that relate to other things we do in here? Ahhh, the lights are beautiful. "Wait, like when we write? And you make us draft?" "Oh! And when you make us design before we build?" "And how sometimes you don't give us a ton of time to work but you actually give us like ten minutes and that's a lot more than I thought oh no did we just tell you how much we could get done in ten minutes if we focused?" Bwahaha.

I always close with a student-led reflection. They will make connections I'd never see. And I can use that. And they can use that. I just gave myself another tool and point of reference when I need to make a point in class. A point of reference they have positive feelings about.

The Floor Is Lava
The Floor Is Lava
The last project I did on this, the first day back from break, I really could have done earlier in the year. In fact, it might work better earlier in the year. But, to be honest, I'd completely forgotten about it until Sunday when my old student teacher Veronica was over at the house. When she was in my class she played a game called The Floor Is Lava with our kids geared towards cooperation and planning. Which that year desperately needed. I busted it out again this year because really, those kinds of lessons never hurt to reemphasize, especially after two weeks off.

The Floor Is Lava is a simple game. Break the class into two even groups, put each group on either side of the room. Clear all the desks out of the way. Lay down some kind of start/end marker, you can see the strip of tape on the floor in the picture above. Estimate (if you're like me) or carefully measure out beforehand (if you're like Veronica) how many pieces of paper it takes to go from the starting point to the end point on the other side of the room. Get two groups of that many papers, minus two (or more or less depending on how difficult you're trying to make it). Each group must choose a leader. The leader is the only person in the group who can touch the papers with their hands. The leader is the first across the lava, laying stones as s/he goes. The rest of the group must follow the leader's path, and they are not allowed to touch the stones with anything but their feet. If a stone gets moved somehow, then it's moved. Bummer, yo. Touch the lava and you must go to the side. Group with the most people successfully across the lava wins. Notice I did not say, "FIRST group." Students don't notice that. This is to their disadvantage, though it plays into the larger point I'm trying to make.

I gave my kids ten sheets, or stones. Plenty to easily make it across the floor. The leaders for both groups made good choices and spaced their stones well. Then the groups started to cross. And one group decided it was a race. And that's where things began to quickly go poorly for them.
Can you tell which group stepped calmly across their stones, and which group decided they should try to run, hop, and jump across their stones? You can, can't you? Soon the far group had completely destroyed their path, because with each hop they learned what Mr Newton learned about equal and opposite reactions. The further the stones slid apart, the harder they had to jump, the further the stones slid apart. Only about half their group made it across. While the other group stepped lightly and smoothly across, paying careful attention to their footsteps.

Failure is a result, and it's a good learning opportunity. We all know this, we've seen the memes. This kind of failure is immediate and soft, so it's easy to get over because it's easy to see what went wrong and how to fix it. The group who was unsuccessful was reflecting before I even asked them to. They knew what they did wrong, and the other group knew why their way worked. I honestly couldn't have asked for a better result. Total accident. I mean...I knew this would happen because I'm an amazing teacher...

So then the trick, as always, is not to get them to see where the problem lay, but how that relates to everything else we do. This was quick too. "Like, when we hurry through projects and we do a bad job. Like we tried to rush our cardboard arcade game and then we had to completely rebuild it because it was bad."Ahhh, so rushing might not be the best plan of action? Now, was the other group slow? Other group? "No, we weren't slow. But we were careful."

Then I get one of those connections I don't plan on, which is always great. "Oh! Mr Robertson! This is like that 10-1-10 drawing thing we did this morning. When we had more time, the drawings got better! Just like when we took more time here, the path stayed good." Yup, exactly my plan, yes, totally, actually you made a connection I hadn't thought of well done. And once again I've got a positive example I can go back to again and again as we work on more and more difficult projects.

Of these three assignments, the second and third are the easiest to do. They require almost no prep or planning, and if you let the kids dig in during their reflection time they will come up with remarkable things. I hesitate to say this, because the lowest I've taught is third and the highest is sixth, but I imaging both assignments could level up or down fairly easily as well for younger or older students. I'd be interested to see how college students handled them. But I will always proselytize for puppets in the classroom. I know they aren't for everyone, but the kids love them. My sixth graders loved them. When I pull one out at a PD the teachers love them. When the kids are tired of listening to your face they will refocus on the felt. This is where I shout out Sam Patterson, who is my puppet hero because he makes his own. Check out Puppets Tell Jokes too.

These three things are so simple on the surface, but can be so deeply used if you let them. I love that. I think it was a wise person, maybe Laurence Fishburne or Chuck D or perhaps the late, great Ursula K Le Guin who said, "Still lava runs deep."


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.