Tuesday, September 17, 2019

This Post Is NSFW

WARNING: This post contains things that are Not Safe For Work.

 I have four rules in my class and I regularly violate one of them (depending on your definition of the rule). That rule? Be Safe. The other rules, before you ask, are Be Responsible, Be Respectful, and Make Good Choices. And, just to simplify as much as possible, my Big Class Rule That Covers Everything is Be Cool.

But am I safe in class? Is my classroom safe? I wonder. Let's take a look at some of the things in my class that might be NSFW.


I stand on desks. Sometimes I even stand on chairs. OM gosh, amiright? "Doug," I hear you ask. "Do you stand on desks because of that one Robin Willi-" Imma stop you right there, my friend. No. No I don't. To be honest, I've never seen that movie. I know they stand on desks and recite poetry and it's this amazing teaching/learning moment. That's not why I do it. My kids don't stand on the desks. This is one of those few times where I flex that Because I'm The Teacher reason. Why do I stand on desks then? Honestly, because it's there. Because I'm used to having 35 students in a room and that's a lot of desks. You know the easiest way to get across a classroom with 35 desks in it? Straight across, as the teacher flies. Plus, I have changed the heights of the desks in my classroom, so some are as low as a desk can get, mere feet off the floor. It's not even a big step to get up there. I like having the kids track me around the room, and sometimes all a class needs to get back on track is the surprise of a teacher stepping up onto a desk. Or the thought that the teacher might step up on a desk.

I'll also stand on chairs, but I don't really have stable chairs in my classroom so I only stand on a chair if the spirit moves me, and even then it is almost immediately followed by my near death. "What happened at school today?" "Mr Robertson died! It was amazing."

I know I just said I don't let my kids stand on their desks, because I'm not a complete nut, but I do let them sit up there. What do I care, as long as they're working and gravity isn't especially strong in that area of the classroom. Be comfortable.

Know what else happens in my class that's NSFW? Google. Oh yeah, we Google things. Like, all the time. I know, risk taker. Some of you are scoffing right now, like, "Lolz Doug. Ok, whatever, nice jokey joke. 'Googling things is NSFW' I get it because Google has security issues we don't fully understand and yet we've embraced it completely."

Nah man. It's because my kids do things like animal research projects and you've never known stress until you hear a kid say, "Mr Robertson, I did an image search for cougars and...umm...can you come here?" Or, "Mr Robertson, I Googled literally anything about the president* and what does this word mean?"

Teaching digital citizenship is vital (I'll also forever argue that we don't need to call it "digital citizenship" anymore, it's just "citizenship" now). But part of learning the ways of the internets is failing and finding those places online that aren't awesome. Talking about cyberbullying is one thing, experiencing it is something else. Talking about how little YouTube regulates is algorithm is one thing, but experiencing how quickly a student can go from legitimate research results to autoplaying "101 Ways The Government Is  Keeping The White Man Down" radicalizing channels is another. The internet is great, but it isn't exactly safe.

That's not a reason to not use it though. It might be a better reason to use it, because it's real.


I've got half a dozen steel plates across the back of my classroom. Why? Because I'm METAL!

Ok, that's not the real reason. The real reason is I wanted more writing space in my classroom and whiteboards and freaking expensive. Any kind of decent-sized whiteboard. I wanted a few too. My wife discovered a website that suggested thin stainless steel plates. You can write on them with whiteboard markers and they erase. They're light and thin, so they're easy to hang, and they're shiny so they actually brighten the room up a little. And they're metal so they look cool. We bought a few and screwed them right into the wall of my classroom and my students use them all the time.

They're still metal plates hanging on the wall though, so I'm sure plenty of people would have safety concerns and questions. "Aren't the edges pointy/sharp?" They would be if the wizard hadn't given me a brain and I hadn't bent those edges in. I don't want a student walking by and snagging a sleeve or a piece of skin on the board, or on a screw. Much like most heavy metal, it looks dangerous, but it's actually safe enough for ten year olds.



I have over a dozen knives in my classroom. This took some doing, I'll admit. You can't find an administrator who will be ok with a teacher asking for the k-word in their classroom. Especially not an elementary school administrator. As I've said hundreds of times and will continue to say, I'm incredibly lucky on this front. My principal was not thrilled with the idea that I'd have cardboard knives in my classroom, but she also trusts me that one I'd teach my kids how to use them, and two, I wouldn't bring something actually dangerous into my classroom. Look at that picture, these aren't that dangerous. You've got to either really try or really space out to hurt yourself with one, and even then it's just going to be a thin paper cut. The edges are barely serrated and the tip is dull. We have a loooooong conversation about the proper way to carry and use these tools. Frankly, if you are ok with your students using serious scissors you're already ok with them using sharp, dangerous objects. These are safer. And why do I need them? Because w build with cardboard all the time. My class is all about the making and building, that project-based learning, that STEAM. Cutting cardboard with scissors, even good ones, sucks. But with a cardboard knife? It's quick, it's easy to get curves cut, everything is better. Like any other tool, use it right and it's all good.

Do any of these things actually make my class unsafe? No, of course not. In fact, I'd argue that my room is safer overall than most because we have the added pressure of having and doing things that could be seen as unsafe from the outside. My students know that they've got to be on top of their choices because everything we have depends on them making the best choices.

Which brings me to my final and most NSFW action in my classroom...


The Unknown.

Just yesterday another teacher who teaches with a similar philosophy to myself and I were trying to explain to our grade level teams an idea we had. The person who had worked with us for years was immediately on board. The two new teachers had a lot of questions, good questions, reasonable questions. The first of which was, "What exactly will this look like when it's finished?" He and I smiled and said, "We don't know. But it'll work. And if it doesn't, something else will."

I love teaching without a net. It's all trying things out, old things done new ways and brand new things I've never tried before and (because we all know kids and how this goes) old things that for sure ought to work because they've worked for years but now all of the sudden they don't because kids are similar but they sure aren't the same. Classrooms are full of the unknown, and it's up to us to choose how we deal with it. A lot of teachers try to control it and make it known as much as possible, which isn't bad. I'm teaching my student teacher to do something similar to that because it serves brand new teachers well to have one less thing to worry about. But I don't do that though because I like the discovery of the unknown. I know what should happen in my class. I know, normally, at least a general outline of what's coming. But I don't have any honest idea what each kid will bring me come Hobby Project day, or Cardboard Arcade day, or any of a dozen other I Hope This Works projects. Then it's on me to check understanding in my is and connect their learning to The Things They Must Know and I have to trust I'll be able to. Having faith there's valuable learning in the Unknown doesn't feel safe, but it is the best.

How NSFW is you class?

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.

Monday, September 9, 2019

We're Doing Squats

Well this got a lot more traction than I expected it to. Look, it even got taken by the We Are Teachers Facebook group and reposted.


Someone even liked it enough to give it one of those squinty eyes laughing mouth emoji faces, which I think is a good thing. Unless it's in pain. Can an emoji feel pain? I hope so, because they should for being a part of that movie.

A tweet catching like this makes me nervous because even though I think this is as concise as I could have made the message while still getting all the important information across with context while avoiding misunderstandings (hard, but not as hard as some professional thought leaders would make it sound since that's basically what writing is), it is still only a tweet.* A tweet can only convey so much and when something goes wide like this I want to talk about it more.

First- I really do say this to kids, or something along these lines if football isn't en vogue when the topic comes up. It's good for any sport, and if you've got kids who speak music you can replace squats with scales. Actor kids can relate to learning monologues for plays they might never perform. The point is, I didn't make up a hypothetical situation to impress EduTwitter. Too much real stuff happens in my classroom to pretend online about what might happen. I actually work with kids so I get to test run these things on human children and see how they work.

Which brings me to the next part- This example does actually work. It re-contextualizes the learning we're doing into something understandable. Adults all over the interwebs it seems really like what I said, but we all know that doesn't mean anything when it comes to teaching. How something hits adult ears is a thousand times less important than how something hits kid ears. And this conversation works. It has to be a conversation. As we all know, you can't drop something like this on kids and expect them to just nod and accept it. You've got to give them lots of examples and support, both with the sports (or whatever) example, and then with the learning that is actually taking place in class. No, I'm honestly not sure when you'll use dividing fractions outside of this class, at least not in a way that doesn't involve yet another cooking example. But yes you still have to learn it. Because the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets.

But that only works- "the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets"- if they've seen it happen in class already. We do a lot of making in my class, because making allows students to see growth in a concrete way, and they can apply what they're learning right away. You can see the thing you're making getting better. We do hobby projects that drive the point home. We're constantly reflecting on the Why of things. You may walk into my class to hear me say, "Nowhere in the standards does it say 'students will learn to build a cardboard arcade'. You do not need this skill. So why did we spend a week on it?" And you'll hear my kids give real answers about applying their learning in specific ways. Answers that demonstrate meta-cognition and reflection and understanding that purpose and process may not always be clearly aligned, but they are aligned.

Why do we do x? Because we don't know when the skills we learn while doing x will appear in other forms other places. Because we see education as a whole and not as pieces. This idea that "Some of these things are not directly useable. But that doesn't make them meaningless. Your favorite football player will never do a squat in a game, so why do a ton in practice? The skills add up to a whole." is a holistic approach to education. I believe this is pure STEAM. Moreso than building things or coding, students internalizing the idea that all of these skills are connected in ways that make us stronger as a whole is the essence of STEAM.

In the words of every conspiracy theorist ever, "It's all related, maaaaaan."

As long as we're here, let's address some of the concerns people voiced about what I said.


For the first one- It's a metaphor, so yes, it's a reach. All metaphors are suspect always. They're never as clear as they could possibly be, but they often allow things to be seen in a different light and that helps understanding. And I agree, we do need to be teaching kids things that are applicable to life outside of school. Things like seeing how various things connect in unexpected ways, things like learning for the joy of knowing something new. I didn't say that this was always my reason or that I'm only teaching things that act as mental squats. It's a piece of a whole. And anyone who has done squats knows that they're pretty rigorous. Or this person is assuming that the rest of my class is not rigorous based on the one tweet.

And the second one- You are purposefully misunderstanding the entire point while agreeing with me that squats improve overall fitness. Knowing things, working out your brain, does that as well. And bless you for calling chemistry and algebra impractical to real life. I look forward to scrolling through those 29 replies to see math and chem teachers correcting you so I don't have to.

It's like the people who say, "If students can Google it then you don't need to teach it" like that actually makes any sense or the Google gives real answers and isn't just a needle in a stack of needles. "This isn't practical" means you aren't trying hard enough friend.

I'd like to address one more thing before we call it a night tonight. And I want to make clear when I share this that I think the teachers who said it were joking or at least partially joking, while also covering for the fact that "Why do we need to know this?" is a hard question to answer sometimes, especially when you're in the middle of jumping through district hoops and everything in your brain is screaming, "BECAUSE YOU GOTTA RIGHT NOW!" A non-zero number of people jokingly (I think, benefit of the doubt and not mocking them) said they've told kids, "Because if you go on Jeopardy this might be an answer." We can all agree this is not motivational or is it inspiring or helpful, right? I'm not judging, I've probably dropped that on a kid at some point too. But can we agree that "Winning a game show" is not a great answer to why someone needs to learn something? We can? Cool. Thanks.

If I were to be completely honest, in a perfect world my answer to students about why they need to learn something would be, "Because learning is a joyful thing, and a beautiful thing. To learn is to live. You should learn this because our thirst for knowledge should be insatiable and every new skill, new fact, new connection makes the world brighter and better, less ignorant and ugly."

But poetry works in tweets and blog posts. With nine year olds, it's better to be straight up and practical. "Because it makes you stronger, and everything we do is connected." Then actually connecting everything we do.


*that's a hell of a sentence there, Robertson. Maybe less coffee before sitting down to write, huh?

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The New, The Old, The Revised, The What The Hell, and The Future



Teaching at the start of the year is wholly an exercise in Finding The New, The Old, The Revised, The What The Hell, and The Future.

This, I think, is one of my favorite things about teaching. I get to be reincarnated* at the start of every year. Teachers are the walking answer to "If you could go back in time and give a message to your younger self, what would it be?" I get to do that. I get to reflect back on the previous year, on everything we did, and rebuild all of it again. Especially when I'm teaching the same grade level again, like I am this year. Technically I could do every single thing exactly the same. I still have last year's planner. I could probably follow it if I wanted to, and once I moved where the Music, PE, and recess times went I could make it work.

I could.

But why? Where's the learning in that? Where's the joy?

I spent a bunch of days last week setting up my classroom. I had to do The Full Set Up too because they painted my room over the summer, so at the end of the year I had to take everything off the walls, move all the desks around, put everything into boxes, the whole nine. It's huge pain to do The Full Set Up. Except...I kinda like it. I like starting from that blank slate and seeing my room empty. I was pretty sure my desks would end up organized like they have been for a few years now, in six groups of four to six, a combination of low, normal, and high desks. I like that because we do a lot of group work in my class so having them built into groups helps my flow. But I also don't want big tables for groups because then you can't split them up and use them as singles or duos. I want maximum flexibility. Because every single thing in your classroom sends a message to the kids. Groups says "We're gonna talk, we're gonna collaborate, you're gonna have to figure out how to make eye contact with your friend and still hear what I'm saying." Unassigned groups, which is also what I do, adds to that. I don't tell kids where to sit on the first day. "Find a seat. Make a good choice." Choice. It's right there. Immediately. As crystal clear as a Miles Davis solo cutting through the mix.

I have a student teacher this year so he got to come in and experience The Full Set Up. I'm quite sure it looked easy to him, because even though you're constantly talking out loud when you've got a student teacher, constantly doing a running thought-by-thought, it all happens very quickly. Later in the year I will let him design the room if he wants to change it. I'll even let him build the seating chart because there will probably come a time, probably November or maybe February, when the kids get a little too relaxed and they forget that just because the big rule is class is Be Cool that doesn't mean we have no expectations, and they will need a reminder. I love watching student teachers do seating chart calculus. But right now while he watches the set up happen it seems automatic. Clear. Even if I am saying what I'm doing he doesn't really know that the class library is in a slightly different place than it was last year, and this piece of the Making Area is new and might actually help the room stay slightly more organized than normal.

I get to find The New. What a joy. Things I've wanted to try, ideas that came over the summer, ideas that came from my student teacher (The Apartment, for example, which will probably be its own blog post at some point), ideas I forgot I had until the reminder I put in my phone pops up. (Pro Tip- Don't try to remember things over the summer. But the idea in your Google Calendar, set the event for that set-up week, and forget about it until you can actually do something with it.)

I get to find The Old and see how old it really is. And why it's old. Sometimes things in classrooms are old because they've been put in a file and never looked at again. But sometimes things are old because they just work. They might need some tape, maybe a little polish, but it works because it works and that's good. And if it doesn't really work anymore, well...

Then it's The Revised. Yes, gimme that assignment that only kinda worked last year. I don't have to build it again so it's already easier to use, I've got at least one year's worth of data from the kids on it so I know what went well and what didn't, and let's get our Frankenstein on. Let's throw it at the student teacher and see what he does with it. I'd rather him get ideas like that than from Pintrest. (I get so Old Man Shouts At Cloud about Pintrest lessons for a few reasons, but one is that I think I'm a more creative teacher because when I was coming up there was no Pinterst, no Twitter, no Facebook. If I wanted a creative lesson I had to build it. I think that made me stronger. But that's its own post too, I'm sure.)

I also love finding The What The Hell. Remember those lessons? I don't think every project needs to be a home run, that's ridiculous Thought Leader talk that leads to teacher burn out and thought leader speaking gigs about burn out. Like a baseball team, we live and die on singles and doubles for the most part. The What The Hell are the pop flies. The accidental bloopers. The wild pitches that maim the mascot. The lessons I blocked out until that damn story shows up again out of nowhere (because I didn't look ahead in the reading book) and I have the exact same idea that crapped out last time but then remember how it went in a flash of teacha vu and am able to change it. Or scrap it completely.

And The Future. Mmmmmm. Even in a grade I've taught before there's the mystery of what new could happen. This, I think, comes with time and with faith. My class did some really cool things last year and I don't want to/can't repeat them. My competitive side wants to top them. My realistic side wants to at least meet them. And my rational side has no freaking idea what any of that looks like yet. But it'll come. It'll happen. Like Sarah Conner says, the future is waiting to be written (five nerd points to anyone who points out why using this particular time travel franchise is a terrible way to make the point I'm trying to make).

I start school again tomorrow. My next year. My student teacher's first year with teacher in his title. My students' first time in fourth grade. We're all jacked on nerves. Will they like me? Will we get the work done well? Will they get my way of doing things and will I get theirs? Can we get on with it already.

Time to have faith that the new, the old, the revised, the what the hell, and the future are out there for us, ready.

*I've been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica this summer and you're all lucky this didn't become a Teachers Are Cyclons But Good Guys post.

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Destroy Your Learning


Life is a process of creation and destruction. It's a closed loop, a circle of life, if I may borrow from Disney without being sued.

Education is no different.

You will often hear the argument made that "students don't remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel." I don't like this phrase. I think it discounts the way education cycles and builds on itself in a constant ever-growing circle. I will agree that my students will not remember everything I taught them, not in specifics, no matter how much I want them to. And I do want them too, so say all I expect them to remember is feels is to forget what my actual purpose as a teacher is. However, I know that what actually happens with what my students learn from me is they take it in, process it, and through that process it becomes fertilizer for what they learn next. That's the process. You could also say that what I teach acts as a foundation upon which the next layer of learning is built, and without a strong foundation each following layer gets weaker and weaker. Both metaphors work

But I like the one where they consume and reuse the knowledge better. And here's why- What my students learn in my class is almost never used whole cloth. Instead it is taken apart, rebuilt, reconstituted into something new. It's fertilizer, changing form while allowing new knowledge to grow. In order for my students to correctly and most fully use what they learn in my class they must destroy it, because only through destroying it can they find the pieces they need to move forward.

I think about my classroom. I never teach the same way twice. Things are always evolving, changing. How can I adapt this lesson, this project, based on both the reaction of the kids last year and the make-up of the kids in the current year. My lessons, whole and complete, are insufficient. They must be destroyed. I must get to the start of a new year not with whole, assembled blocks of education ready, but with pieces, chunks, fragments, building blocks of learning. And I must painstakingly reassemble these pieces day-by-day in response to the kids in my room.

That's freaking hard. It also needs to happen. I must destroy what I've done over the year. It's the only way to see it. It's the only way to make it True.

I've written four books. A Book is a major undertaking and you spend an unknown, unthinkable number of hours trying to get something in your head onto a page. It's a long process that involves destroying recent creations and remaking the world over and over. I use my experience with all other books in the process, but also the experience from the process itself as the Book teaches me what it's going to be. But there's a Goal, and End- Having a Book. Look, I made this Thing. I hold it in my hand. I have worked and toiled and I have accomplished what I set out to do and I feel fulfilled...for about thirty minutes. Because it's done and now what? At least at the end there is a Book. Maybe someone will read it.

Teaching a full school year is like that, but instead of having a Book at the end you have nothing. Nothing tangible. But the accomplishment and then the hole are still there.  The students move on, as they should, hopefully remembering what you taught them because they're gonna need it. That's why you taught it. The room is empty and waits for new students to fill it again. Anyone who has finished a school year knows this feeling. That last bell rings, or maybe after the two days of packing and report cards, everything is over, you lean back on a desk, take a breath, feel the stress and hours start to wash out of your shoulders. But hidden in there is a stopwatch counting down and a voice saying, "Now what?" And I destroy what I spent ten months building and start again.

I must be purposeful with my destruction. I must know my chunks and pieces and parts and remember how they used to go together so I can find different ways, or at least improved ways to combine them. I can't do that unless the knowledge is destroyed first.

At the end of every project my students make, the final action, even after Reflection, is Destruction. No one likes this process, by the way. Destroying what you know, taking apart your work, even if it is to make way for something better, sucks. This is mine and I made it and I worked hard on it and it's precious. That's why it's hard when you're challenged or pushed on something you built. That's why some say get out of your comfort zone without actually doing it. My students do not like breaking down their creations. They bargain and complain and whinge. But they do it. Eventually they destroy what they've built.

 There are practical reasons for this of course- We did group work, how are you going to evenly split that final product so the group gets what they want? How are you getting a cardboard arcade game on the bus? Does the adult you live with want a giant cardboard thing in their home? No, so we break it down.

But that's not the real reason we break our projects back down. We spend a week or more building something, learning from it, reflecting on it, taking purposeful steps with it, and at the end we have created something new, which is cool, it's amazing, it's wonderful and fun. The problem is that thing's purpose is not actually to exist. No one wants a cardboard arcade game or a giant Rube Goldberg machine. I don't want it, and I told them to build it. The purpose is the process, the act of doing. That's the point. That's why it's ok if the game doesn't work or the machine doesn't move quite right or the sculpture falls over. We reflect on it and in that reflecting we see the learning that went into the object. Then we take it apart. As it comes apart we see what held it together. We see where it was strong and where it was weak, we notice those things and learn from them. Destroying the product is the only way to see it, the only way to see what is True. We tear the tape off and remove the joints and flatten folds and fold flats and all of it goes back into the big box in the back of the room to wait to be used again for another project that I call my Cardboard Box Box.

The Cardboard Box Box changes then. It is no longer a box filled with cardboard in the back of the room. It's a box filled with experience, a box filled with lessons and learning. It's a physical representation of everything I've been talking about. Because the next time we have a project we're going to go back to that box, not to find the same pieces we just built with, but the right pieces for what we need. We're going to use what we built last time- in materials but more importantly in knowledge- to build something newer, something different. A new thing will emerge made of pieces of the past that are remembered and re-purposed and beautiful.

None of that can happen if the learning is not first destroyed.

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too where there are a million pictures of the baby being uploaded every day.

Monday, July 8, 2019

NICU EDU


Is it possible to learn something about teaching from your newborn daughter spending a week in the NICU? Is it exploitative or in bad taste to try and talk that out in a public space?

Here are my answers to that, starting with the latter- I don't think so. I'm being open and honest about an experience that, according to the messages I got during the week we spent in the NICU, many parents have experienced. Now, whether or not it's in bad taste to try and learn some message or truth about teaching from it is another thing entirely. I'll be honest, I won't know the truth of that until I get to the end of this post. Writing is how I think things through, it's how I reflect. So if I get to the end of this and all I get is some forced, trite nothing then this post probably won't see the light of day. If I get something that I want to share, something that feels true, worthy, and worthwhile without being cheap then you're probably reading this. As I write this I don't know which it is yet. You do, because you're in my future as I write this. Hello from the recent past. Has Pelosi gotten her head out of her nether regions and started the impeachment process yet?

A few months into this pregnancy my wife and I were told that our unborn child has some kind of heart issue. We ended up going in to get a fetal echo-cardiogram with about three months left in the pregnancy, and the result of that boiled down to "Yes, something is wrong with the baby's heart. But we're not sure how bad it is, right now it's mild. Hopefully it'll get better as baby grows. Come back in a month." Which began a frustrating but completely understandable cycle of doctors telling us "I don't know. We'll have to see." Which I understand, but understanding doesn't really help when it's about your baby's heart.

A month later we went back for a second fetal echo. Maybe it'll be better. Nope. "Something is still wrong and now it's moderate to severe." They start discussing what will happen after the baby is born. We were planning this birth to be like the second one- in a birthing tub with a midwife, which was as easy as a birth could be. No, now we're fully in the big children's hospital's care, we're delivering there, and baby will probably go straight from being born into the NICU. Lots of "probably"s start coming up. Maybe surgery? Maybe not? Maybe three days? Maybe three weeks? We'll see in a month at the next echo. Maybe baby's heart will get better as it grows. (Yes, it at the time because we didn't find out her gender until she was an outside baby. I'll call her "her" from now on though since we know now.) Also we're going to do weekly scans to make sure nothing else is going wrong because of the heart issue.

I told my principal right away at the start of this because my wife found out before I did. She was having a regular scan that was supposed to take twenty minutes or so and it turned into a two hour appointment. She called me from the car afterwards during my lunch time. We don't call each other, we text, so this was weird. My lunch ended while we were still discussing what she'd found out, so I went to the office to ask if someone could watch my kids while I talked to my wife. No questions asked they took care of it. Afterwards I let my boss in because she needed to know I'd be asking for time for appointments. "No problem, family comes first. Here, this is a good sub, you call her now and get the dates in." My principal is the best. Please remember that this is also now the final month of school. I'm part of the small team putting on the MakerFaire. I'm doing grades and all the other end of the year stuff. I'm focused, but there's always this thing in the back of my head now. "Something very serious is wrong with your baby's heart. How serious? Dunno." I'm shorter with my kids than they deserve a few times. Not in a Bad Teacher way, but not in a Caring and Wonderful Teacher way either.

Another month passes. The echo upgrades or downgrades her heart's condition again from "moderate to severe" to straight "severe". We are given a tour of the NICU at the hospital. We are walked through all the possibilities again- NICU, how long/dunno, surgery maybe/dunno. Our birth plan goes from "baby is born with a midwife in a tub and we go home the next morning" all the way to "baby will be born and then baby and dad will come with a team of nurses to the Resuscitation Room (this is not a comforting name for this room, true or not) where we will assess, then baby will head straight to NICU and dad will follow with us. Mom will stay, get checked in for recovery, and come down a few hours later once she's able. We don't know when you'll go home."

We're in the home stretch of school now, final week basically. I've had a bunch of half day Fridays because of appointments I was not going to miss. My kids knew I was going to baby doctor appointments, that's all they knew. Very few people knew more. You can only explain this stuff so many times. More on that later. I'm having a harder and harder time being cool with things not going exactly to plan. Again, not in a Bad Teacher way, but in a struggling way.

Here's the best example- Our bench project ended and our benches were delivered and it was awesome. This was, I think, the Tuesday after the Monday where we'd been told baby's heart condition was severe. I'm told right after the reveal that the plans for the benches have changed, they'd be inside instead of outside, what my kids and I had worked for was being modified in a small but significant way by forces outside of my control. And I kinda snapped at my principal and the other adults involved. I didn't get aggro at them or yell and scream or anything, but I made a case for the original plan and how it had to be presented to my class if it were going to be changed in a more impassioned and forceful way than I normally would have. At recess afterwards I went to my principal and told her I was sorry if I came off as rude, but I'm realizing that I'm more emotionally compromised now than I originally thought by all the baby stuff (which, remember, she knew all about). She, being awesome, was totally understanding and took it upon herself to help explain the changes to the kids so I could be on their side and she could moderate between us and the new plan, while helping me not need to directly engage with what would normally be an easy change but was at the moment just one too many things not going the way they were supposed to.

The year ended. My wife had a false labor where we went to the hospital, things were moving, and then everything stopped. This was on the very last day of school. A wonderful coach in my district helped pack up my classroom the next day because we didn't get home until after two am.

Then we waited.

Those of you who've done this know that the waiting at the end of a pregnancy sucks. Every noise my wife made had me going, "Is it time?" as I'm halfway to dialing the friend who will watch the kids. I've never been there for the start of labor. With our first she woke up in labor and I was doing a biathlon, so I came home and we left for the hospital. With our second I was at school and she called me to come home at lunch. Finally though it was time.

Labor was labor. It started, it stalled, we watched Ocean's 8 on the hospital TV (it's ok, some fun moments), we tried to sleep, then it finally got going for real, my wife was amazing, and out came our little baby girl. Angela, my wife got to hold her and see her, but only for a moment, and then they took her, put her into this rolling cradle thing with a clear top that closes over her and a million sensors, and walked very quickly to the Resuscitation Room with me in tow. Once there I got out of the way and watched a team of maybe four or five nurses work on my brand new baby girl. She wasn't breathing right and had meconium (basically baby poop) in her lungs, so they had one person with a breathing mask on her face while another was doing some suction thing to help clean her out. They did all the weighing and scanning. They were purposeful. If it wasn't my daughter there it would have been an inspiring level of teamwork. I tell you what, they were also the calmest humans I've ever seen, and they helped me stay calm. There were two who traded off talking to me, explaining what all the numbers and lights meant, what they were doing, how she was doing. I saw her face for a second after she was born, and then I didn't get to see her full face again for three days because of the breathing help she was needing.

They let me take a few pictures and then took some x-rays, when meant everyone out of the room. I hurried back to the delivery room, kissed my wife, told her the baby was doing good, showed her the pictures I took, and then went back to the baby and off we went across the hospital to the NICU.



With our first baby, he tore my wife up pretty good on his way out so they had to take her away to do surgical repairs, and I was left alone in a room with the first brand new human I'd ever met. We hung out and I did everything I could to keep his head from falling off, which it seemed to be in imminent danger of doing. With our second one she needed very few stitches, it was done quickly while I held the baby, who immediately pooped all over me. (True story- I said, "Asher just pooped all over me." My wife and the midwife said, "No, he's just all wet from the tub and baby cheese." I said, "I've been pooped on by a baby, I know what happened." The midwife took the towel I was wrapped in and said, "Oh, you are right. You were pooped on.") But now I've been in three room, walked quickly up some long hallways, and was now in a smallish room with a bunch of nurses who were still concerned about why she wasn't breathing on her own like she should be. Wires were being attached, tubes were going in her nose, gauze was being wrapped around her to keep the tubes in place, and she wasn't making much noise at all except a few squeaks. They were explaining things to me the whole time in calm, clear tones, and I'm sure I asked the same questions over and over.

At some point my wife was moved from delivery to recovery, which was a few floors directly above the NICU. I don't know how many elevator trips I took that first day. I do know that as soon as they let her we put her in a wheelchair so she could come down to our NICU room and see the baby. We couldn't pick her up or hold her without permission and help because there was so much stuff on her. We could reach in and touch her and talk to her. She didn't do much. New babies don't really, but she really didn't. She was focused on breathing.




They told us that her heart defect was impacting the operation of her lungs. Without going into too much detail, the defect had caused her heart to expand, and that expansion had gotten in the way of the lungs, so they weren't inflating like they should. Hence the breathing help. Well, we were prepared for heart problems. We were not prepared for breathing problems, no one had mentioned that one might cause the other. I'm not angry or blaming anyone, they told us plenty of times that they didn't know what her condition would be once she was born. I guess babies do a lot of equalizing to the outside world in those first few hours, and that would tell the doctors a lot. So her lungs weren't expanding and she wasn't breathing regularly.

I tried to sleep.

At some point during the night the decision was made to intubate her because she was working so hard at breathing that she was making herself too tired. So they put a breathing tube into her mouth down into her throat. They also decided to use her remaining umbilical cord as an IV access. We'd been told about this- since the umbilical cord has veins and arteries in it, and baby veins are so small, what they do is insert all the stuff into the remaining umbilical cord rather than tying it off. Which, from a distance, is really cool science. From a distance. We couldn't be in the room for this, of course, you need a sterile environment. We waited in her recovery room and then waited outside the NICU room.


Here's the kind of ridiculous mindset I have about situations like this. In order to stay sane and in control, I decided that I would be The Best NICU Parent. I'm a smart guy, I know things, I understand complex ideas, I've got a basic understanding of the human body. I'm going to listen carefully to the doctors and nurses, I'm going to use their words with them, and I'm going to ask smart, insightful questions, so they know I'm together and with them and focused on what's happening with my daughter. Here's what kind of conversations I ended up having- "So this thing here going into her mouth, this, uh, tube. Right. This tube. It's a...? A breathing tube, I see. Yes. Ok. And the purpose of this breathing tube is...what? To help her breathe. The breathing tube is to help her breathe, I see, ok. And breathing, that is...important. Right?"

If I could take one thing from this experience back to my classroom, it's that right there. The nurses and doctors probably had some version of that conversation with me a dozen times, not including that same type of conversation with however many other parents under their care. And not once, not even for a moment, did any one of them seem impatient or annoyed or anything but completely and totally understanding and willing to explain every little beep and light and number one more time if it would help my mental well being. I think I'm a pretty patient teacher, but I don't have a thousandth of the patience of these people.


All the machines in the room beeped all the time. She'd breathe over what the machine expected and a light would flash yellow and it would beep. Her oxygen would dip below a certain level and it would flash red and it would beep. Constant lights and little alarms. It wears on you. The nurses don't come rushing in at the alarms so it can't be serious, but if it's not serious why is it beeping and flashing red? Red means serious, doesn't it? I know why, but when you're in the room, trying to sleep, trying to be cool, knowing why doesn't help.

This was the hardest time for me. The tube meant that the baby couldn't make any noise at all. But she could still look upset with her eyes and her hands. The medicine they were giving her to help her heart was also, as a side effect, making her very uncomfortable and she was having regular shakes and tremors. I couldn't hold her without asking for help because there were so many things going in and out of her. And I couldn't hear her. I know what a baby looks like when it wants to cry, and she kept making that face, but she couldn't. Once they changed her diaper and did some housekeeping stuff with her, and she made that face, and I couldn't any more. I walked to the bathroom and broke down sobbing. Helpless. Impotent to help my daughter in any way even as she made that face that said all she wanted was some comforting. Not what the nurses were doing, which I can't say enough was as caring and gentle as it could have possibly been, but parental comforting. I pulled myself together enough to walk to the elevator and go up to my wife's room because I realized that if I was in the room feeling this, she must be having just as hard a time if not more having to be in recovery. I fell against her and sobbed for a thousand years. I'm not sure what day this was, but all the stress of however many days and months poured out. Eventually one of her nurses came in and I went back downstairs and cried some more over my little girl. Helpless.

So I did what I knew how to do. Powell's, the giant bookstore, is in downtown Portland, seven minutes from the hospital. It's open until 11pm. We didn't know if we were having a boy or a girl so I wasn't prepared with the book the girl would be named for- Coraline, by Neil Gaiman. Wonderful book, perfect name for us. I pulled myself together and went to Powell's. I found the book, a little book light, and, in a bizarre twist of luck a Funko Pop of Coraline from the movie. I brought it back to the hospital and read to her. Read to her so she could hear my voice, read to her so I had words to say, read to her so I could do something for her, read to her so I could maybe lose myself a little in Gaiman's wonderful world for a while. And it helped. It helped so much. Reading to her every day got me through.


That was the worst of it and the next few days got better and better. They stopped the medication so she stopped shivering and trembling. She got her breathing tube out and was given a nasal cannula, those little tubes that go up into your nose you see in every TV cop show that someone bravely rips out to go back into the field and finish what he started. They started taking monitors off her. We could finally see her whole face. We could hold her for long periods of time. She could nurse. Her numbers improved. Her heart was still not working like it should be, but things were adapting around it. Or something, I'm not a doctor and I was confused by a breathing tube. The boys were being watched by friends, then my mom, then my wife's dad, and they got to come in every day and see her too. It helped, seeing them.

Here's why I'm not being too specific- First, you don't need all that. Second, I spent a week texting various family members updates multiple times during the day. They're gonna read this, so I'm going to say that I understand why they wanted an update every three hours, I would too if I were them, but you can only explain "I don't know, I haven't heard from the doctor" or "I don't know, she's fine now I guess" or "Yes, the tube is still in" so many times before you want to fastball your phone through the window. Not their fault, totally understand, but patience is a struggle.



After one week they told us we could take her home. The cardiologist told us that she probably won't need surgery, and if she does it won't be for years. He said not to worry about anything that we wouldn't worry about with the other two kids, and to treat her like a normal baby. I still don't really understand how, to be completely honest. She's living with a heart condition that had her, I'm sure. near death multiple times in the first hours and days of her life. And now she can just live with it? I believe him, and she's been totally fine since, but it's still a miracle to me that it's true. I thought for sure we were going to have to do surgery.



What did I learn from this that is applicable to the classroom? I don't know. It ended a week ago. To be patient? More patient? That's probably the biggest thing, my personal level of what a truly patient and clear teacher is is no longer a teacher, but any one of a dozen NICU doctors and nurses we met over that long hard week. I know for certain that next year I'll be working with a struggling kid and think What Would a NICU Nurse Do and then calmly explain the process again. I know that I've seen a team in action that saved my daughter's life with their calm, professional, expert communication and teamwork, something I aspire to with my grade level and committee teams. Can I be more like that Resuscitation Room team? Can I be more like the NICU nurses when they hand off patients at the end of twelve hour shifts? I know that, even though I knew my principal cared for me and wants what's best for me as a person, I know that even deeper now, and if she ever every tries to leave I'm going to chain myself to her desk so she can't. I know that I have friends who will step up in amazing, wonderful ways to help and to listen and to be there. I'm not going to list them because a) they know who they are and b) I'd miss someone and feel terrible. But so so many of you out there did more than you know to help me through a very hard time, and I'm going to be a better friend because of that. I know that Neil Gaiman, just like Terry Pratchett, is more important to me than I ever realized and he'll probably never meet my Coraline, but if he does I'll tell him how brave and strong she was just like his heroine. I'll also tell him that, just like his heroine, people are immediately calling her "Caroline".

She's home now, and happy to nap on me or, more preferably, on her mom, who has both the milk and the comfortable pillows. Her brothers are infatuated with her and can't wait to teach her All The Things. And, as odd as I would have said this sounds, I love that I can hear her cry.


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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too where there are a million pictures of the baby being uploaded every day.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Where My Benches At?


The moral of this story is saying yes to things can yield really awesome things for your students. Especially when you say, "Yes, but what if it was More?"

My district started an initiative this year with the goal of connecting businesses to classrooms. They would enlist professionals to collaborate with teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and together the teachers and business people would create some kind of experience for the students that helped them see how what they are learning connects to the wider world (don't say "real world", our kids live in the real world and school operates there already). Because I'm one of the two teachers at my school who is known to default to "Ok, let's try it" I got asked to volunteer to be a part of the program. The other teacher did too.

We were paired up for Fortis Construction, who is currently employed rebuilding one of our high schools. An educational consultant firm (I think, I'm still not clear on what this third party does) joined in the party too because they wanted to help build a wider curriculum out of whatever we came up with. This was a pilot year, so no one knew anything. I like this, because it means steering can happen more easily. When someone thinks they know exactly where they're going it's harder to change course. We were ground floor, which means everyone was looking at each other going, "I dunno, maybe this?"

The third party presented us- myself, the other teacher, and Fortis- with a packet of ideas they'd come up with that were "elementary appropriate". The other teacher and I looked at the packet for about five seconds before tossing it aside and asking for the middle or high school packet. You see, the elementary one was fine, or would have been had it not involved our classes. It was experiments in if you make a ramp at this angle how far will the marble roll and such. Fine, but easy. My kids had already made a cardboard arcade at this point. We're past ramp building. During the initial brainstorming session we landed on what is to be key in my project-based learning flow chart from here on out- How can the product be visible and exist in the real world for a real amount of time? This lead the other teacher to suggest a bench. As is, what if our classes designed and built a bench that Fortis, being a construction company, could then build and install? The guys from Fortis looked at us long and hard for a minute and then agreed that yes they could do that. Cool cool. (From here on out I'm going to only be talking about what my kids did because the other teacher dropped out of the project. he had 40 students and a lot going on. No guilt, no complaint. But I wanted the initial idea's credit to go to the proper place.)

We planned four dates out. First, Fortis would come into the classrooms and explain the project. Then they'd go away for a week while I led my students through the design of the benches. Rather than one bench it was decided that I would break my kids into eleven groups, each group would design their own bench. Then Fortis and a panel of experts would choose four of the eleven to actually build. Fortis supplied my students with basic parameters like how long the benches could be, how tall, how wide, and what materials they needed to use (wood only). Students were encouraged to get creative.

I didn't find out until much later than none of the other adults in the group understood what the students would be able to create. The Fortis guys actually thought the whole thing would probably go up in smoke. I mean, fourth graders creating benches? Really? And I understand this point of view, especially if you don't work with kids like we work with kids. You don't know what ten year olds can do unless you let them off the leash and the room has been built to allow that kind of thinking anyway.

My kids got to work on their designs. The next two Fortis visits were them coming in, looking at designs, and offering professional feedback. I didn't want to make it sound like they weren't invested in the previous paragraph. They were, they just didn't know what was possible. After the first pass through looking at designs they realized that not only would they be getting workable designs, they'd be getting deep, creative, thoughtful designs. And they went full-on, going group to group, offering advice, not stifling ideas. My kids went bug-nutty on it. Groups designed benches to look like panthers (our school mascot). A bunch of groups decided that a problem with the benches would be the rain or the sun, so they figured out how to engineer covers over their benches, going so far as to measure how tall they were sitting and standing and trying to figure out how tall a cover would have to be to work while not taking anyone's head off. When I say there was a billion different completely organic math problems involved in this project I do not use hyperbole. Kids sitting on yard sticks trying to figure out how many students could sit to one bench, kids stopping kinders in the hall to see where their knees bent so the bench heights would be 4th grader and kindergartner-friendly. The panther group put a tail on their bench design which wrapped around to the front and could act as a footrest.


I warned the groups that were going real big, like the groups with covers and tails, that I wasn't sure their designs were buildable, but told them not to hold back. Do it, ask for help from the pros, and let's see what happens. So they did, all with good measurements and specific blueprints.

Ah, blueprints. I make my kids plan everything they build, always have. Otherwise you end up with cardboard everywhere and nothing to show for it. But the Fortis guys showed them how to make useful blueprints, with three views and how those views work together and where the measurements went to be clear.

Then Fortis showed me one of their fanciest toys- a mixed reality headset. Mixed reality is different than augmented reality (as the guy in charge of that explained to me) in that AR is Pokemon Go, where something just appears in front of you but doesn't really react to the real world in any way. MR mean the program sees the space it's in an changes how the design is placed in the world. Here's the simpler version of that- The guy loaded up the high school's digital blueprint into the helmet and put it on me. Then I got to walk around inside a line drawing of the high school. The blue lines were the beams and the red tubes were ducting and the green squiggles were wiring. And as I walked around the room in real space a GPS in the helmet told the program and I moved around inside the blueprint of the high school. It was the freaking future, and it was cool as hell. They told me that before this program they had to really check all the drawing to make sure walls didn't meet weird or wiring went somewhere it shouldn't, and with this program they could just see where everything went before they built it.

So I went back to my classroom and showed my kids Tinkercad, a 3D design program that is free and you don't have to download, it runs right in your browser. I want to stress that I didn't teach my kids how to use Tinkercad. I used one computer lab day to point them at it, briefly show them "Look, you can make shapes and move them in space" and that was the extent of my instruction. Then I planted in their heads "Wouldn't it be cool if your benches were built in Tinkercad so you could see them in three dimensions and rotate them and stuff?" I did no Teaching. I showed, suggested, and moved aside.

Which leads us to the fourth and most important week of visits- The Pitches. To choose what benches to build we had the Fortis guys, plus their superintendent, my principal, my superintendent, and some other muckity-mucks come into my room and sit on a panel and judge each of the eleven presentations based on specific criteria. To prepare, three days before we did mock presentations and I gave very specific, detailed, Paul Hollywood-style feedback about presentation style, content, models, designs, everything. Then the kids rehearsed rehearsed rehearsed.

You have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders. I have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders, and I do a bunch of presentations every year. Authentic audiences and stakes matter.

Friends, I could not be more proud of how my groups did and how hard they made it on the judges. There was great speaking, there were designs on paper and in a 3D-computer generated space, there were reasons why the benches were needed and why their benches solved the problems best. There were all the design elements I'd mentioned before but polished and reasoned to a T. They killed it. I mean, it's one thing to impress your teacher, but it's another to Wow a roomful of strange, important adults.





Four benches were chosen, and Fortis set to work on the construction. In the meantime, my class was redivided into groups that were all about checklists- Quality, Safety, Security, etc. You see, the plan was to put them outside in our school garden. We'd even collaborated with the 5th grade class who was redesigning the garden so we were sure our bench designs matched their garden plans. So much collaboration and cooperation.

Thursday the benches were delivered. Unpainted, but built, and we got to do a Grand Reveal. They looked Amazing. Again, better than any one of the adults expected. (Except me, and I don't say that to brag. I just...knew. If Fortis followed the designs the benches would look great.) And this is where my kids had to learn another lesson. You see, the plan was for the wooden benches to be painted, purple and black mostly, and according to the designs. But the wood used is really nice wood, and it looks great. Some adults resisted the painting, saying it would be a shame to cover up the wood. I advocated for my kids and their designs. We got to design them, you do what you picked. I don't care that now it's prettier than you thought. I'm still not sure how that will shake out, but I'm hearing that there's a stain that will make the benches purple while still keeping the wood grain. When I put it to my kids they agreed that could be a compromise.





Just look at how beautiful those benches are. My kids did that. Fourth graders designed that. With directions, parameters, and help but not nudging, fourth graders planned, blueprinted, measured, and justified those benches into existence. The only thing they didn't do, and I wish we could have, was turn a bolt or cut some wood.

The other compromise was a disappointment to everyone but came from above my pay grade- it was decided that the benches look too nice to be left outside where eventually the elements or other humans might ruin them. But put inside they could be used and maintained, lasting for a long time. I was not happy with this- my students designed the layout of the benches to be a social area while also allowing for an outdoor classroom feel one adult (not me) was asking for. The kids pushed back on the idea of bringing the benches inside, understanding the argument but at the same time holding their ground and proposing all kinds of covers and ways to protect the outside benches. Alas, my children, sometimes decisions are made for us. So we got to pick where in the school the benches will be place instead. And, now that I've got some distance from it, this is the right call. The benches will last for a long time inside the school, and probably only four or five years outside. But still, it was hard to change a plan that had been in place since day one. There's a lesson there too.

There is a happy ending to this part, however. Fortis, being cool  and righteous, understood our disappointment and agreed to build us four-to-eight cheaper, simpler, sustainable benches that could be placed in the garden. My kids wrote letters asking for that.

I cannot express the amount of work that went into this by the four or five Fortis guys who came into my room to help my kids, or by the district people, including my admin who supports me in all my madness, who helped guide this and make it possible. This sounds like a humblebrag and maybe it is (and if it is I earned it, damnit), but they gave me a lot of credit for setting up the classroom to be able to pull this off and for supporting the kids in all the way they needed to make this work. And I did do that. But what I really did was get handed a unique opportunity, crank it to eleven, and have faith that my kids could pull it off.

And I'm already trying to figure out how to top it next year.

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, June 3, 2019

The Madness of The End



We come, once again, to the end. With exactly a week and a few days of school left, the 2018-2019 school year doth draw to a close. The End is Nigh, as the guy with the sign screams as passersby. Unless he can't spell, in which case the end will be brought about by the sound a horse makes.

How do you close the year? I know how I do- By thinking of as many things I haven't gotten to do yet this year then cramming them into two weeks regardless of how long I know things ought to take. Also by forgetting to honestly reflect on the amount of work and learning that was done since September and instead focusing with laser precision on what was not done, not finished, not perfected, and not taught well enough. Mentally calculating how long it would take for me to write "It's not this child's fault, I didn't get to it" on 32 Post-It notes and sticking them on the front pages of The Folders. (By the way, literally the only time I look at The Folders is when they are given to me at the start of the year, and I place them ever so gently into a drawer, and at the end of the year when I remove them ever so gently from the drawer and insert the final report card, then hand it back to the office ladies who have been wondering where The Folders were this whole time because I once again forgot that I was supposed to take them, look them over, then give them back to the people who actually file things. I can't be the only one. Can I? From your silence I will take it you also do this. Thank you, dear readers.)

I end the year looking at the nine or so stories we still haven't gotten to in the language arts textbook (which I like because crap stories give me a chance to find ways to turn them into good lessons, and good stories are fodder for super neat stuff), and I let my students briefly look over them. Then I have them choose their Top Two Most Interesting Looking Stories from the remainders. We take votes and I break the class into four-ish groups based on which stories get the most votes, and I call it Final Story. The direction basically go, "You know what we've done with stories all year, with creative vocabulary things and looking at the main idea and all that? Do that with your story. Your groups will be presenting what you come up with to the class. When? Uhh...er...Friday?" Because I want to see what they think of when given the direction "Do what we did." What do you think we did all year?

Warning- This is not always a way to make yourself feel better about the stickiness of some of your lessons. But it is good for reflection. So there's that. Fun house mirrors are still mirrors.

We also build a ton during the course of the year, so of course we've going to finish with a build. A project which I've given the brilliant name of Final Design because, well, it's the final time they'll design something in this class. This comes with the wonderfully specific instructions of "Make a Thing. It must solve a problem of some sort. It must move. You must follow the design process." Oh yes, also, "It's due....er...Thursday-ish."

I allow conversations and lessons to get sidetracked much easier than they used to (and I'm not the best at this at the best of times). For example, part of the math I'm trying to cram in at the last minute is about length, liquid volume, and mass. Firstly, I love teaching volume because I will always make the joke of, "TODAY WE'RE GONNA LEARN ABOUT VOLUME! I REALLY LOVE TEACHING VOLUME!" until a student raises her hand and defines the proper type of volume for me. In fact, let's go with I do that whole shouty thing in order to get the kids to define it for themselves properly rather than because it makes me laugh every. single. time. Anyway, today we we're learning about mass, and I let myself get sidetracked into getting nit-picky about mass and weight not being the same thing, and the best example I can come up with to demonstrate that is talking about how on the Moon your weight would change but your mass would not. And if you give a teacher a chance to use space as an example, he's gonna want a YouTube video of astronauts walking on the moon. Once he shows a video of astronauts walking on the moon he's gonna need to talk about space and gravity in general. So he's gonna need a basketball, a baseball, and two volunteers to stand about 24 feet apart. And if a student is being the Earth he's gonna make that student gently rotate to demonstrate the Earth's rotation but also because how long will the student spin in place before asking to stop?

There's so much paperwork and madness at the end of the school year. Grading that has not been started yet and probably ought to be soon so it's not all having to be done in one day, because that always results in comments that read, "[Child name] was in my class well done have a good summer dont forget to read and math and stuff." that have to be changed right after pressing the Print button. There's the End of Year goals conference with the admin where we both have the best of intentions but let's be honest here, I kinda forgot what those goals are in the whole Teach All The Things maelstrom of the year and just looked at all that data again, but I will be happy to see that what I was doing did mostly positively impact the scores I set out to positively impact, and I'll feel justified in my Make Things To Learn philosophy because the scores that didn't go up like I wanted still went up. (I will also be filled with crippling self-doubt that my way might not be the best way and I should probably just teach like whatever my brain has decided a "normal" teacher teaches like because that would be better for my kids. Because teaching is fun.)

Oh, the end of the year is also the perfect chance to eye roll and wave garlic at Educational Innovators And Inspirational Peoples who will go on and on about how great teachers spend summers getting better and improving their practice and if you're not exhausted you're not teaching hard enough and your candle has two ends you wuss, why can't I see more smoke? These people are dangerous and bad for classroom teachers who really have earned some rest, relaxation, and non-teaching reading time.

We have reached yet another ending, my friends. We worked hard, we had laughs, we taught more than we know and they learned more than they realize. Relax and let yourself reflect on your own time, while your mind is distracted with other things. Unpack in dreams.

...oh crap, I still have to pack up my room for the summer painting.

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, May 28, 2019

The Cardboard City


My school built a Cardboard City. And it was awesome.

I've written about this in more general terms a few times here and here, but this post is meant to be All Cardboard City All The Time. I'm going to get into the thought processes, the workflow, the mistakes, the planning, and the doing of the thing as deeply as I can. Before I start I want to make as clear as possible that, while I was the nominal head of the operation I was by no means the sole driving force, the only operator, The Guy behind this thing. There was a team of four of us- myself and another teacher, a parent, and our principal- and without any one of us this could not have been done. Not "this could have have been done to this level", but simply "this could not have been done." As the person doing the writing about it I worry that that puts me front and center alone, and nothing could be further from the truth. You would be so lucky as to have a team like I got to work with.

The Initial Problem

For the past three years my school has put on a MakerFaire. We did it up right- Individual student projects, class projects, a film festival, TEDtalks, an art gallery, a make-and-take area. They were awesome. And they were also progressively smaller. The first one was huge, a massive success. The second was still successful but smaller. And by the third we could feel enthusiasm waning among even the staff who were invested.

We needed a change.

Our first thought was to go way backwards and cut it down to two big sections- Make and Take and Code With Your Kids. As we started to go over that we started to get ambitious. I want to point out here that part of the instigating idea that started this was to make it easier for us. We narrowed down what we wanted out of a revamped MakerFaire-

a) More family involvement

b) Students and families doing things.

c) Simpler overall, and we can add things later if we think they are needed.

d) Something STEAM-y

The solution to these questions came in the form of rebranding the MakerFaire to Powell Valley Makes. But what do we make? Brainstorming and googling gave us our answer- A Cardboard City. Yes, ok. This appealed for a lot of reasons. It's general but specific. There's a lot you can do under the umbrella of "cardboard city". It makes the layout of the rooms and division of labor very clear. Once we had the basic idea in place, all that took doing was the doing. And the specifics. ...and the doing.

Powell Valley Makes: The Cardboard City Concept 

Families will come to school on the night of. They will be presented with (or make?) a cardboard house. From there they will go to five stations, each station representing one aspect of STEAM. At each station they will do something to their houses. In this way we are demonstrating that STEAM, while appearing as separate disciplines, actually joins them together in a beautiful way. Once the house is built it will be placed on a giant map. In the end we will (should) have a big, gorgeous city made of cardboard created by families as they learned alongside their students.

What's With the Houses?

Now we had an idea, a skeleton. Time to put some meat on it. It's here where I stress that the first meeting where we came up with this idea took place waaaaaaay back in September or October. We know how much work one of these takes, and we wanted to get as far ahead of the ball as we could. 

That initial idea had families making their houses first. I probably suggested this, which probably lead to everyone around the table looking at me like I'd put on clown shoes and a red nose because my class does a lot of building and it is not...clean. So everyone immediately had a heart attack thinking about parents and kids with cardboard knives and scissors hacking through boxes, burning themselves on hot glue guns (where on Earth will we get enough?), and basically spending the two hours just doing construction. 

So that was quickly nixed and the first grade teacher on the team and I agreed to go our own ways and try to come up with a better solution. I put it to my students, as is my way. You can read about that here. While my kids came up with interesting designs, they didn't come up with ideas that could be easily expanded and translated. The first grade teacher, on the other hand, was much smarter than me. She googled house templates, grabbed a cereal box, traced it, cut it, folded it, taped it. Bim bam boom. My "I'll do it my damn self" works against me as often as it helps. Her idea was much better. Cereal boxes are plentiful, easy to cut, easy to fold, and easy to tape. We went with that and started asking teachers and families to bring in cereal boxes.

When the night was about a month away we started pairing up lower grades (K-2) with upper grades (3-5) and asked buddy classes to work together to make houses. We figured if every pairing made one house per two kids we'd have plenty. We were right. Doing it this way also allowed us to advertise the event to the kids, because they were part of the creation of the event. No, students were not able to build on the house they made. The logistics of that still give me nightmares. Every group did great, my own class worked with both a second grade class and a kinder class. It was a lot of fun, as it always is, to see the fourth graders patiently teaching the littles to fold and cut. We had the templates drawn on the boxes beforehand, and with the kinders we'd even cut out the templates so all they'd have to do was fold and cut. Probably didn't even need to do that. Kinders are incredibly capable. The only real trick was getting the folds creased hard, otherwise the houses pop open. 

But What Happens In The Rooms?



Ok, so there's a Science room, a Technology room, an Engineering room, an Art room, and a Math room. So what's that mean? Not only that, but how do you set expectations that can be met by a kindergartner and a fifth grader?

We got our principal to give us a full work day with paid subs so we could hide out in the MakerSpace and get a good chunk of planning in. The Big Goal for the day was figuring out what the rooms would be, making posters, and answering various other organizational questions.

Every room's plan came with an explanation, general ideas, and Guiding Questions that helped aim people in the direction we were thinking without dictating exactly what would be built. Our hope was that people would be creative. (Boy howdy did that pay off.)

Science would mean Earth Science, mostly because that simplified things. So in the Science room the kids would think about their plants and their yards and the animals around their homes. They could build a yard or a tree or an origami animal. 

Technology gave us a chance to use our left-over LED lights, batteries, and copper tape. "Make your house light up." How? That's tricky and it ended up falling to my students to come up with a way to modify the flashlight directions into something that could be applied to a cardboard house. I had a small group of kids who figured it out, and then I made them type out their directions in specific detail, then I made them make a video demonstrating the directions step-by-step, then I made them reshoot the whole video as a close-up on their hands so it was clear what was happening, then I made them rewrite the directions so they matched the video. Lotta learning in that process for them, and they never complained once. 

Engineering was a tricky one, and we landed on the general cop-out of "Uhh, make a garage that opens on its own, or a better door, or something." We put Popsicle sticks, glue, string, stuff like that in the room and hoped for the best.

Art was the easiest one. "Make your house purdy. Here's colored paper, markers, etc." 

Math was easy to plan too. In the process of building everything and planning the map I did more math than I would ever do on purpose and figured out the area of the map in square inches, and the footprint of the basic house in square inches. We put up a Public Record and invited families to measure their finished homes and record it so they could, in theory, figure out the total area taken up by homes, the volume of the homes, the amount of people who could live in the city, that kind of thing. It will not be a spoiler to say that, while people did this it was not as busy as the other stations.

The Eyebrows

All that done, we needed to figure out the pieces that would add to the experience and tie the room together, man. 

Video
My first order of business was to make a paperslide video which would serve three purposes- 1) Explain to the staff what the plan was as we explained it to them, 2) Explain the idea to the kids and get them excited at assembly, and 3) Be running during the night of so families could see what exactly they'd shown up for. I have to say, I'm real proud of how the video came out. That's one take, done all alone. y


Volunteers
It's not impossible to get volunteers for stuff like this, but it does take a lot of people to run. We got parents, teachers, and one brave high school student to come help us, and then we had to explain to them exactly what we wanted in each area. There was a lot of explaining the vision, but not in a bad way. I understand that "We're making a Cardboard City using STEAM" doesn't exactly translate to normal people.

Signs

The brochures and signage were another thing. We got together a two-sheet with an explanation on one side and a map on the other that every family got as they came in the door. And we got the signs put together. This was a fun pain in the tape dispenser because we wanted Big Posters for the rooms, but the district print shop couldn't do it like we wanted, and we couldn't afford to have Kinko's or whoever do it, so we ended up printing a grid of the posters that had to be taped together first by us and later by my students. We also got everything translated into Spanish. Every room needed an outside sign and two big inside signs. That's a lot of signs.

We also needed a big Welcome To Cardboard City sign like you'd see off the freeway, and a smaller version of the same sign that could go on the map. Oh yes, the map...

The Map

I measured out the map with yellow butcher paper before I made it. I didn't make it with yellow because it's a city, the ground can't be yellow. This ain't Oz. So I figured out I needed five strips of green butcher paper, each strip 12.75 feet long. I wanted a river to bisect our city so I needed a strip of blue the same length. The only problem was we were out of both green and blue butcher paper. It was ordered on rush and arrived Monday. The event was Tuesday. So after school on Monday I got down on my knees on the stage in the gym and spent however long it took rolling out green and blue butcher paper and then laying grids and cul-du-sacs of roads so the houses would have somewhere to go. And taping on my little sign of course.

Fifth Grade Help
One of the fifth grade classes helped get the city started by taking some time to build bigger structures to situate around the city. We got a massive church, a museum, a McDonald's and a 7-11, an office building, a boat to float on down our river, and a bridge to span the river. We put these out before the night started. These really helped overall, because they gave people who weren't sure some ideas and let them see the scale we were thinking. They fleshed out the city and gave it some life right away.

Sounds
It was suggested to me that we pipe city sounds into the gym where the map is, which was a great idea. After looking around for a while I found that the best, least obtrusive city noises were from the new Spider-Man PS4 game (great game). Someone had made a YouTube video of Spidey perched on a streetlight for an hour, so the sounds of the city just went on around him. Looped that on a Chromebook and plugged it in.

The Night Of

Finally it was time. You know that feeling where you're not really stressed anymore (even though you're still stressed) because you're so far past the point of no return that whatever is going to happen is going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it anymore? That feeling. School got out just past three and the team spend the next two and a half hours getting everything ready, hanging signage, going up and down the hall endlessly, helping the food people get set up, making sure all the t's were dotted and the i's were crossed. Hoping hoping hoping that people would show up, it would make sense, and something cool would happen. 

I knew what we'd done was cool. I had no idea what would happen when families started coming in. 

I should have had more faith. Even when I have faith in the power and creativity of my kids, I should still have more faith. 





It was outstanding. They Got It. They got it so much more than even I got it. Kids were coming out of the engineering room with swing sets made. I saw a Jacuzzi and a pool. A few kids made garages that opened and closed, but one or two had eyes for my heart and switched their garages over, turning them into drawbridges. I want a house with a drawbridge. And you know how the back of Kix boxes have a baseball diamond for some game? Two different kids saw that and thought, "My backyard needs a baseball diamond." Brilliant.



 The lights in the technology area weren't easy, no matter how clear the directions were. I got reports from the volunteers up there that it was a lot of fun watching parents hit frustration levels when their light wouldn't light, and how the kids would help them figure it out.


The math area wasn't terribly popular and I don't think our Public Record is that great, but that's on me too because I was supposed to be running that area for a while and I got busy doing other things. Oh well, we'll do it better next time.




I saw a bunch of creative plants coming out of the Science area. Big yards, potted plants, gardens. Then one kid came out with no plants and I was confused so I asked him what he'd done. He pointed to a gray dome with hints of green inside it. "I made a greenhouse." Oh dude. Wow. I didn't once think, "Maybe a kid will make a greenhouse!"




I knew this worked in my class- Multiple pathways + multiple unclear options + narrow bandwidth = interesting results. I didn't know how it would scale.



And the map. Friends, readers, as the map grew it got more and more beautiful. Not just because the lights added a special something to it that really made it glow. But because of the pride I was seeing. Kids would go to place their house, or hand it to the shoeless volunteer who's job it was to step on the map so kids wouldn't have to, and stop and ask their parents to take their picture with their house by the map first. So many smiling kids and parents proudly displaying what they'd built together before adding it to the community we'd all built together.




I didn't know it would be beautiful. I didn't know how much the kids would blow me away with their creativity over and over. I didn't know that at the end of it I'd be moved to tears (might also have been the exhaustion and the oncoming sickness). I'll be honest- I made a deal with myself before the night started. I told myself, "If this just goes ok I'm going to take next year off. We'll shelve this, let it rest a year, then bring it back." But it didn't go just ok. Which means instead I'm inspired to top it next time. Crap.






But damn it was beautiful.

I cannot say enough about the team that made this happen except to say you'd be lucky to have them. More than that, I can't help but use this as an object lesson and tell you to Go Bigger and Trust Your Kids More. Whatever your ideas are, pump *clap* them up. I'll help, email me. Tweet me. Make something cool.

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.