Monday, May 20, 2019

The Eyebrows OR I'm A Better Teacher Because of You

"I'm a better teacher because I teach across the hall from you."

This is what I said to a teacher I work with last week. His class of fifth graders, forty* fifth graders, had just finished putting on a stellar Performing Arts Showcase (aka- a school talent show). His kids did everything themselves. He put it completely on their adolescent shoulders. The auditions, the planning, the scheduling, the lighting, every single thing needed to be done by the kids. He would supervise and project manage overall, he is the teacher, but it's for the kids to do.

And they did amazingly.

Here's the thing- the talent on display was no better or worse than it had been any other year. Lots of budding singers, a dancer or two, a bunch of jump ropers because that's big at our school, a kid who solved a Rubic's Cube live on stage in about a minute, a gymnast, and a piano player. I probably missed a few acts, but you get the idea. On its own it was a completely unremarkable talent show, excuse me, Performing Arts Showcase.

But this teacher cannot leave well enough alone. He has than internal drive to look at everything and think, "Ok, but how can this be better? Cooler? More professional?" So he found out that our school's stage not only has a high quality lighting rig, but the control box isn't terrible complicated. He grabbed a few volunteers who made it their mission every Wednesday morning for two months to come in early and learn the lighting system, and then build lighting cues for the entire show. He went on Donor's Choose and bought three clip-on lav mics for the hosts and one singer to wear, because you and I know that when children hold microphones we hear only every third word. Hands-free is always better. So the hosts had the mics- yes he had hosts who had bits written and rehearsed with specific comments relating to our Lifeskills (flexible, initiative, integrity, etc) for each and every act- but, because that's not enough when you've got one leftover mic. So for one of the singing acts he had the kid sit with his class instead of wait backstage, and when he got introduced the kid clicked on his mic started singing from his seat, slowly walking to the stage. Freaking dramatic, going that extra step. He also realized that we had UV lights and put that to his kids, and what they landed on was the final act of the performance featuring two of his kids roller blading around the auditorium while a bunch of others danced on stage, and then they hit the lights and everyone lit up in that cool blacklight green.

That whole long previous paragraph doesn't even mention that he assigned kids to be ushers, leading parents to specified seats and, and I freaking loved this, holding classes and students at the door if an act was on stage performing, not letting them in until the act was done. Or how he printed special Backstage Passes and handed them out to a few classes to give to deserving students so they could watch it from the back. Which is a brilliant freaking idea because my fourth graders are the ones who will be doing this show next year, so they got to see how it worked. They came back blown away.

This whole time the teacher stood near the back, headphones on to be in communication with his stage managers in the back. But the kids were doing it. It was there show. Fifth graders. When I asked him about some of the moving pieces he admitted that some of the best ideas came from necessity. He's got forty kids, so how do you keep all those kids busy? You find jobs. And those job make the show better.

This is the same teacher who put on a play a few weeks ago, and a few years ago worked with me to build our MakerSpace and our first MakerFaire.

"You make me a better teacher," I told him. I'm naturally an above and beyond person. I love looking for ways to make a thing go bigger louder faster cooler more more more. I'll do that whether anyone else cares or not. But having him there, right across the hall, helps me to see those places where the eyebrows need to go.

About the "the eyebrows" thing- When Frank Zappa would write songs with his band they would always get to a point where the song was good. It was pretty, it was complicated, it met with everyone's approval. Except Frank's. It was then that Frank would push his band to "put the eyebrows on it." What will make this song special? What makes it different, better, pushes it to eleven? Because I love Frank and I'm constantly inspired by him, I've adopted the phrase. It says it exactly right.

Tomorrow (today is Monday, 5/20/19) my school is putting up our fifth MakerFaire. We've rebranded it to Powell Valley Makes: Cardboard City, however. The idea is that families will come in with their students and grab a pre-made cardboard house (made by the students and buddy classes), and then travel to five places on campus representing STEAM- a Science Room, a Technology Room, and Engineering Room, an Art Room, and a Mathematics Room. In each room their will add to and improve their homes. Parents and students will work together to use STEAM to learn. Then the completed houses will go to the gym stage, where a giant map has been laid out. At the end of the night, in theory, we'll have a giant tiny cardboard city built by our families.

I put the eyebrows on stuff in my classroom all the time, but I'm in charge of the Powell Valley Makes, so I've gone ahead and really dug in here. So first we needed a promotional video to explain the concept to the students, to put on the Facebook page, and to show the night of to keep the explanation going. That's a lot of jobs for one video. I could have made a shoot-and-talk and gotten the job done, but what fun is that? Instead I made this-

That took a long freaking time. I did it alone. But look at how cool it is!

Then one of the other teachers working with me, who has also done hours and hours of work, casually mentioned that our city needed a Welcome sign. Of course it does! So I made two, one for the map and one for the front entrance. One one would have cared if they were just big signs, but that's not what city signs look like.

And I also needed to make the map. Now, no would knows what to expect, we've never done this before. This map could be anything. It could be as simple as possible. But what fun is that? It needs two water features (maybe someone will build a bridge!), and a bunch of different type of road layouts. What's our city going to look like? That's up to the kids. I'd put my home near the river, flood danger be damned.

(Yes, the sound in the background is an interview with a bunch of Zappa's old drummers. No, I didn't plan it that way, it's just a real good interview.)

I can't wait to update this blog with pictures and a video of what it looks like when it's done and fully lit tomorrow. Was this a lot of work? Of course. So much extra work. But it's gotta be done. That other teacher would do this, and probably other things I haven't thought of. He dropped the idea on me today that we should have "busy city sounds" softly playing over the PA on the night, which is a freaking brilliant addition.

I didn't do this just because he makes me better. I would have done this anyway because it's who I am. But I made that big giant sign look like that because I know he'd have, and it would be sweet. I also go this big for the few (very few) teachers at my school who can't, or their kids can't, when really they can I know it because specific reasons that aren't fair to blog about. I'll admit to living with a perpetual extended middle finger about a lot of things. Sometimes- not always, it's not healthy, but sometimes- you gotta do something because screw you I'll show you how cool this can be. Spite ain't the best fuel, it doesn't burn long, but it can be a great launch mix.

I hope my students look at what they are going to accomplish tomorrow and note the eyebrows everywhere. It's something they hear from me all the time (Frank's picture and a quote is the header image of both our class website and our Google Classroom). Model what you want to see from your kids. Model what you hope to see from your staff. And find someone who inspires your eyebrows.

*not a typo

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, May 13, 2019

No One Cares How Busy You Are

That's a suitably provocative title, innit it? 

I think the first time I heard the axiom "Nobody cares how busy you are" was on a podcast. It wasn't in an educational space. That's something people would think but never say out loud. It was one of the music podcasts I listen to, said by some musician who just got out of a van after a six week run playing eleven shows every twelve days, traveling so much he wasn't even sure where the last place he had a hotel room was. When he described it the host started to make sympathetic noises he was cut off by the artist. "That's what we do. We're all busy, no one cares how busy you are. It's how you get work done."

Because I'm broken and can't help it, I immediately filtered this through my Teacher Lens. I'm constantly busy. I'm so busy I don't make To Do lists because I would run out of paper and patience. I am on so many committees and a part of so many training groups that if there's a week I don't have two extra meetings odds are I forgot to go to a meeting and there's a passive aggressive email waiting for me somewhere in my inbox (related: what's the opposite of Inbox Zero?). All this doesn't include my normal teaching work, and it really doesn't include all the Dadding and Husbanding that I would never call a job because I love my wife and my kids and I already have a job where the People In Charge think being paid in the love of children should be enough.

What I just described is basically what anyone else at my school would describe. Maybe a few less meetings, but they're doing more grading or planning or copying. It balances. We're all slammed. All year. Sometimes in meetings people like to say, "This is a real busy time of year." When is not a real busy time of year? The start, when we're getting geared up and our classes together? The next few months when we're getting early assessments done and really getting the ball rolling? The few months after that when holiday breaks are coming so we've got to prepare for all of that and make sure we're all caught up? After break when we're reminding everyone what happens in our classrooms and we're charging towards testing? As testing comes and everyone is Not Just Preparing For The Test but that's also right there. During testing? After testing when report cards and the rest of the end of the year is tumbling like an avalanche towards us? When exactly is a good time? Never. Which is why I never wait to do something in my class, it'll never be a good time. But if this is a boat we're all in together, then does no one care how busy I am? They're just as busy.

So how do we talk about it?

There's a difference between venting and complaining. There's a difference between venting, complaining, and explaining. There's a difference between venting, complaining, explaining, and walking slowly away from the Google Invite while breathing and counting backwards from ten to one.

Let's add to the saying. Details matter. No one cares how busy you are if all you're doing is talking about how busy you are. No one cares how busy you are if it feels like you're trying to be a martyr, trying to impress us with how late you stay, how much you work, like Busy somehow equal Caring.

But we all understand how busy you are. We empathize. No one understands how busy a teacher is except another teacher. We know that glance you share with a teammate when the consultant tells you how easy it will be to add their fancy idea to your classroom. We know the silent sigh in the training, even if right after the sigh you get your head down and figure out how to implement the good from the training because it did have its good moments. You just need to break it a little to make it fit, like fitting a whole chicken into a motorcycle saddle bag.

Today I had a meeting with my principal after school because I'm the lead of the MakerFaire committee. As we were leaving she said, "Get some rest." I laughed, not because I don't respect her or appreciate the sentiment, but because in the next breath she was remembering that we have a meeting with a student tomorrow after school, on Wednesday I'm reviewing the MakerFaire plan with the staff in the morning (it's next Tuesday), and on Thursday we're got School Site Council after school. Friday though, nothing Friday. Except a Inside Baby Weirdling doctor's appointment. But that's not a school thing.

I don't think no one care how busy I am. I work with some very cool people who have open doors and open hearts and open ears. I still tell myself no one cares how busy I am when I'm feeling slammed, because I think that if I admit how busy I am it'll start the avalanche and all the plates I'm spinning will start to crash to the ground (how's that for a horribly mixed metaphor?). But, because balance, I also know how to move away from it. I'm school busy at school, and I'm home busy at home because I've decided it's important to me to leave stuff at school and not take it home. That's not for everyone. I recently had to do school work at home over a weekend and it bothered me to cross the line, but lines are meant to be crossed.

I don't think no one cares how busy you are. I think we do know how busy you are, and we aren't impressed. We aren't impressed, but we care. I care how busy you are. Because I care about you. You're a teacher, you're a human. We're in this together. Busily loves company.

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, May 6, 2019

Translating DeVos

Betsy DeVos is pro-school choice. Did you know that? Because if you didn't she'll tell you. And if you did she'll tell you again. In fact, it's the only thing she'll tell you about education. Most likely because it's the only thing she knows about education. She knows public education doesn't run like a business. She knows it should make her and her friends a profit. She knows those are her only talking points. And she's not even shy about flaunting how much she doesn't know. Like the rest of this administration, ignorance is a feature, not a bug.

Today, Monday, May 6, 2019, Sec of Ed DeVos gave a talk and interview with the Education Writers Association in Baltimore. It was a greatest hits tour of her thinly veiled attacks/talking points. Most of this blog will come from the livetweeting done by Evie Blad and Joy Resmovits.

DeVos began by claiming that she is an introvert and the media's focus should be "on the students." This is the first time but not the last time that she uses the children she claims to care about as a shield. It's a classic move that anyone who has been teaching for any length of time has seen a million times. Teachers constantly have students used against us. Also, she might be an introvert, but I think the real reason she doesn't like the attention is because she can't open her mouth without loosing a stream of falsehoods and nonsense and we are too smart to fall for it. I'm sure that she would disagree with me, but then she wouldn't have turned student journalists away if she was actually about focusing on the students.

Moving on, two examples that should alarm all of us...

Twice DeVos uses the language of business to describe education. First, she calls parents "consumers". Let's pretend that should be taken seriously for a second- What are they consuming? I know that DeVos would argue that this means that parents should be allowed to shop around, like when she tries to decide which new forty million dollar (not a typo) yacht to buy.  But here's the problem with that- How are those kids getting to the school their parents choose? Note- she doesn't have an answer for that. I'd make a cheap crack here about how she doesn't know how children get to school because her driver always drove her own children to their school, but I don't know if that's true and I'm not gonna look it up just for what's probably a joke. How about how do parents do this shopping around for different schools? How are the parents judging the quality of a school?

 She is advocating for parent choice, claiming that it will increase competition, and that competition is good for schools. Again, she would deny she thinks schools are businesses instead of a public good that exist not for profit but to strengthen humanity as a whole with no other gain in mind. As evidenced by this proof. No wait, that one is about her being ok with failing colleges making money off students. Hold on...Ok, this link. Crap, no. Sorry. That one is about her cutting student loan forgiveness again. You know, like someone who has "the students" front and center in her priorities.

And what about this?
This is important. So on one hand she's saying that competition is good, but right after that she's saying that it's up to the states themselves to monitor and prevent problems. So her plan is, "You deal with it." This falls in line with the idea that her real goal is to tear down the Department of Education as a whole. I know I can't type that without sounding like this, but I see no evidence to the contrary.

She also tried to argue what is and isn't public education, which is like my students when they haven't done their research well enough trying to explain to me what the Louisiana Purchase had to do with the Oregon Trail and settling for "it's in the west?" Rather than respond to it though, I'm going to let Jenn Binis be much more subtle and clear than I can be-

Evie Blad has a real great stretch about another blatant lie about school safety from Betsy that I'm not going to go into because she does a great job.

 Let us move on to her Top Two Most Egregious Stances of the time she spent lying on stage.

Oof. I mean...yeah. Bring it. I love it when the Secretary of Education openly attacks teachers in a public forum. This woman, who the newest National Teacher Of The Year had to meet (the President* wouldn't meet with him for some reason...I'll give you a hint- it rhymes with 'he's black'), is straight up saying, "The teachers aren't being adults and they're hurting kids." By trying to get paid a reasonable wage and by fighting for funding for schools so walls aren't falling in and computers are better than the ones from the Apollo missions and textbooks aren't so old that they only list six planets and are called Ye Olde Alchemy Booke.

And what does "adult time" mean? I mean, I know what it means in my house, and I guess that could be what Betsy means here- "Adult time" is when she tries to *&%$ us. I'm not surprised or shocked that she'd lay this at our feet, that she would stand on a national stage and claim that the teachers of this nation (during National Teacher Appreciate Week) are purposefully hurting children. But I do hope that those who welcomed her into their classrooms think back to that and wonder what they were thinking. You should have never given her a chance. We all knew.

And, to top it off, what's "great" mean? Who is to judge? Please tell me it's the person who failed the most basic part of her job interview. The person who admitted she doesn't even visit schools that underperform.

Let's close this bad boy out with her most awful and dangerous stance- How much she hates students of color, LGBTQ students, and students who are special needs. Again, "Gee Doug, hate seems like a real strong word." Yeah right.

Civil rights for students was governmental "overreach". Because she can't think of one instance in history where the government stepping in on a civil rights matter turned out well. Because we all know what side of the fence Betsy DeVos would have been on as Ruby Bridges made that long walk up to her school. She'd have been against the "overreach".

This is literally the Nuremberg Defense. "I only followed orders! I had nothing to do with the war! I didn't even know there was a war on! We lived at the back, near Switzerland. All we heard was yodeling... yodel le he hoo! Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo, Yodelay, Yodelay, Yodelay!" As for the "first born" thing, what a weird aside, but ok. "I'm a first born and a terrible person, so I am especially good at following laws about hating gay people."

Now, if it sounds like I'm being too hard on Sec DeVos or you think I've taken some cheap shots, then please click on literally any one of the links I've supplied for you to read and tell me which one justifies her place in the United States government. Or find your own and leave it in the comments, tell me where I'm wrong or unfair. Please, it might actually make me feel better. There are a hundred ways the government is failing Americans right now, and it's easy to feel helpless against it while we wait for enough someones, anyones, to do the right thing and change things. I rally against a lot of it, but this is my home. This is the Sec of Education saying teachers are hurting students. This is her trying her best to scam my kids and their parents. She is attacking us. And we can not stand for it. We must call her out at every turn. We must grab her speeches and red line it like it was a final exam, checking every reference and claim. We must fight for us.

Oh yeah, she's still on her bears attacking schools thing too. Which is really funny. Until you remember it's all about her getting guns into schools.

**Thanks to all the education reporters who are covering her and giving us this information so that we clearly know who the people pretending to be in charge are. If you're on the tweets you should follow all the people I linked to, then follow who they RT.**

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, April 29, 2019

Commit to the Go

Post-swim Halewia Sprint Tri 2013
I vividly remember the moment I realized I am capable of more than my mind or my body thinks I am.

I was a swimmer for forever. For years before high school on a year round team, and then once I got to high school I swam for my year round team until swim season, then I switched over to the high school team. It was in high school that I became a stroke specialist, because in high school the coach needs to place swimmers in specific races. Due to my experience I could have swum just about anything (though putting me in the breaststroke or backstroke would have been pushing it), but I got put into the butterfly. Fly is the most notorious stroke, and the most difficult to to master. Yeah, I said it breaststrokers. Take your frog-looking nonsense into a different lane before I smack you in the back of the head as I fly past you.

Fly is hard. And it was mine. And I loved it.

It was a morning work out early in the season my freshman year. We were one or two sets into the workout when coach called out the set. "10 x 100 Specialty stroke" on some time that would make things interesting. 10 x 100 means ten reps of 100 yard swims. The time was probably 1:20 or something. So you have a minute twenty to swim four laps. The faster you do it the more rest you get. The faster you do it the quicker you get tired. Up until this particular practice I thought about this set as a survival set. How do I swim it fast enough to get rest, but not so fast that I burn up? This morning, completely on accident, I blew past that and learned something about myself.

I crushed that first 100. It felt great. Checking my time when I hit the wall it looked like I went out way too hard, but it didn't feel like it. So I punched the next one too. That one felt good. I was strong and my stroke way working exactly like it should. I went harder on the third one. By this point I the Governor in the back of my head was waving a calculator around and shouting, "If you keep this up you will die by the eighth hundred! It'll be bad!" I ignored him. It's hard to hear that voice when blood and water pound in your ears. It started to hurt around six. Here it comes, I thought. But it didn't. My times didn't drop. My arms didn't fall off and sink to the bottom of the pool. Swim hard. Hit the wall. Suck wind. Go again. Get some. Go again. During the ninth hundred it finally clicked. I'm so much stronger than I thought I was. I've got this. Holy crap. if I can do this races should be so much more intense.

Changed. My. Life.

Right at that moment. In the pool, heart pounding, shoulders and abs burning. Everything changed. I found another gear. I found a strength in myself that I didn't know was there. My body didn't know it could do that. My brain didn't know.

This became advice that I would give to other swimmers. "How do I go faster?" "Commit to the Go and don't question it." It's the only way.

Yes, I see you waving your hand. I know this is a teaching blog. But really, at this point if you can't start drawing these parallels for yourself I don't know if you're actively reading.

I don't shy from Big Projects. Cardboard arcade. Rube Goldberg machine. Benches with a local construction company. Westward Expansion in the from of a Beautiful Mind string web. I have faith. Faith in myself that I can plan and execute a Big Project. I have faith that my students can find an extra gear and get the Big Project done. I will put things in front of them and have the same feeling I felt around the fifth 100. "I dunno about this, seems like it could end poorly." But I still put it in front of them because what's the worst that could happen? It does go poorly? Then we learn from that too. (I've got a principal that understands this is how I teach and she is ok with it. I've been less lucky other places, so I know how lucky I am now. If she ever tries to leave I'm chaining myself to her desk.)

I can't go straight to a Big Project, of course. But I start with projects that push them to different places than they thought they could go. We do the spaghetti towers immediately. We do a Quick Build in the first week. We're constantly finding limits and expanding them outward.

We fall down all the time too. Fourth graders don't just do cool projects because I'm like, "In high school I learned I could swim faster than I thought I could!" But I also had a lot of practices after that realization that kicked my butt and crushed me. My kids make bad projects. They don't put full effort in. They're ten, they don't know what full effort really is yet, mostly. But they're learning.

Here at the end of the year it's easy to stumble. I don't begrudge anyone who does either. This job is unspeakably difficult and to push hard all the way through is sometimes more than you can ask of a teacher. Sometimes we just make it to the end. Sometimes our classes do too. Been there. But that moment in the pool broke me just enough to allow me to see that the bottom isn't always the bottom. Sometimes it is, and it moves around. There's too many variables in a classroom to believe someone who marches in and says, "You Can Do Better! Have More Passion And Tenacity And CRUSH This Final Month." But what I'm saying is I know that, for me, if I can see it clearly, I can find the end and find it with a proper level of intensity.

Then the end of the year comes and I promptly get sick for a week, so...

*I know this should have like a big Rah Rah ending or something, but I just can't do that. I know how much we struggle and I don't want to finish on some disingenuous, disconnected note. So what's the goal for this post? What do I want a reader to get out of it? "Be inspired, be hardcore, but know thyself." Doesn't look good on a t-shirt or a hashtag, though. Ah well, that's for someone else to do.

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, April 22, 2019

The Snap

On May 8th teachers across Oregon will step out of our classrooms and take to the streets to raise our voices in unity to protest the proposed state budget. Current recommendations coming out of Salem will leave Oregon schools underfunded by a whopping 100 million dollars. Closer to home, this means that my own school district will be losing two millions dollars. In human cost, that's twenty educators.

Later this week the superhero film AVENGERS: ENDGAME will come out, putting to bed the current cycle of Marvel films which started over a decade ago when Tony Stark announced to the world, "I am Iron Man." ENDGAME will, presumably, solve the problem set into motion at the end of INFINITY WAR in which (spoilers for the two of you who haven't seen it, but it's on Netflix so come on), big bad Thanos collects all the Infinity Stones on his Infinity Gauntlet and snaps his fingers, effectively wiping out 50% of the population of the universe. (Side note: Did he kill half of all the universe's puppies? What a bastard.)

I don't know why the Oregon legislature saw AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and thought, "That Thanos guy has a point though."

This is not a new development. Teachers have slowly been asked to do more with less for as long as I've been a teacher. That's one of the reasons people in education circles who advocate "The best teachers do what needs to be done with a smile" are doing more damage to the profession than they are helping it. Ours is not to suffer. Ours is not to be martyrs. Ours is not to roll over and simply make do. It makes us easy targets. I've worked in a state (Hawaii) where we were inches from striking over a contract dispute, and the narrative quickly turns to, "Look at these teachers. If they loved their kids they'd do this for free. So greedy and lazy." Do you know what hurts our case when we try to argue against that? People in education circles saying, "Teaching is a passion and a calling, not a career." No, it's a job first. A job that's hard and a job that deserves to be treated with the same respect as lawyers and doctors. Let us also not pretend that a major part of the reason teachers get pushed around so much is that it is a traditionally female-heavy profession in the teaching ranks, but male-dominated in administrative ones, and the lawmakers, I feel safe in saying, have always been men. And if there's one thing the last few years have loved driving more super clearly, it's that men in power think they can push women around without consequence. This makes teachers an easy group for them to want to pick on. But not an easy group to actually pick on because I work with some smart, hard, badass women who won't put up with that kind of nonsense. Captain Marvel is about to shine that golden glove up real nice and shove it somewhere that'll make Thanos regret where he placed the Stones.

(I want to note here that I'm not gonna chase the Avengers metaphor too much deeper because I can't stand it when teachers call themselves superheroes either. It's not a super power, we're not heroes. The kids don't need saving. They need teaching and support. That's very different. So I'm good calling the Oregon Legislature Thanos, the baddie who murdered half the universe and thought he did good by doing it, but I'm not Doctor Strange...even though my chosen handle kinda resembles that. *makes wizard fingers*)

On May 8th all the teachers in my district, and teachers across my state, will line the streets and rally in city centers, doing our best to raise awareness for our plight. But it's important to me that people understand where we're coming from. Maybe someone might be thinking, "Twenty teachers? That's not that much." I'll illustrate it thusly- There are two fifth grade classes at my school. Except there's really four fifth grades classes at my school, and only two teachers to teach them. One of the fifth grade classes at my school has 39 students. The other has 40.

I'm not making these numbers up. If I were making them up I'd look at them and think, "Nah, that's ridiculous and no one would believe it. It's not even good hyperbole." 39 and 40 fifth graders. And that's just one grade level in just one school. Both of those teachers are amazing and they're doing work that is just mind-boggling, but they're both honestly doing the work of two teachers. I don't care how great you are, you can't be the best teacher the world with 40 eleven year olds in you room. In contrast, I've got 31 kids right now (maybe 32, there's a weird attendance thing happening right now). Now, in a normal person's mind, 31 fourth graders is a lot of fourth graders. My room is full up. But I've had upwards of 37 kids in a class before, so my personal scale is all screwed up. I'm no longer able to look at a class of 31 and think, "That's too many kids." And that's part of the problem. I've been trained not to notice how screwed up my own situation is. Could be worse, could be 40.

And if the Oregon Legislature snaps their fingers and makes 100 million dollars disappear, could be worse isn't the worst of it. Imagine, as Heather Marshall and Elion King on twitter suggested I do, that half the staff at my school vanished in a "Mr. Stark, I don't feel so good" puff of ash. If they can cut 100 million dollars, what's to stop them from cutting more? We're not quibbling over money at that point, because the willingness to do it, the willingness to look at education and think, "They've got more than enough" *snap* is already there. And when we complain they say, "But look at the wonderful work you've been doing with you kids! You've been doing so good and we're so proud of you. Less is more, after all, so here's less money and more kids." Less Music and PE. Less technology. Less aides. Less support. More expectations. More to lift.

My district, and many other districts across the state, are supportive of the Day of Action. They know. The beef is not with them because at some point we must look past the ends of our noses to the balled-up fist closing in for another shot. I'll be walking out with my fellow teachers, and I'll stand together with them every single time I'm called to. Because that's how we act for the kids. Doing this? This is for my students. They deserve the best, and by cutting 100 million dollars my state is saying they don't.

It's not too late to stop this snap. The Oregon Legislature can still hear what we have to say and see what they're going to do to the world of education. They can grab their own Time Stones and look into the future and see that teachers aren't going to stop coming at them until we are treated like the job demands we should be. Not because we're superheroes or called to it or being the best, but because you do not come for us and our kids and expect us to not come for you.

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, April 15, 2019

The Great British Teach-Off

The best teachers on TV (and a goth)
The Great British Bake-Off is the best show about teaching and learning on television, and has been for its entire run. (Yes, I'm about to rave about a baking show for an entire blog post, but stay with me and put on your teaching caps, because it's about baking, but it's really about teaching and learning.)

For those of you who have not yet become addicted to this baking show from across the pond, let me give you the five pound tour. The show starts with a group of twelve amateur bakers, one of whom leaves at the end of every episode until it's down to the final three. They must be amateurs, no pros allowed. Inside The Tent these bakers are given challenges by expert bakers and judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (Prue replaced the always complimentary Mary Berry a few seasons ago). Each episode takes place over the course of a weekend and it's always themed- Bread Week, Pastry Week, Fancy French Whatever Week. Each weekend is divided into three bakes-

First- The Signature Bake, in which bakers are given a set of parameters to work within and allowed to do whatever the want within those parameters. Bakers have the previous week to prepare their bake.

Second- The Technical Bake, in which bakers are given a pared down recipe and identical ingredients. The Technical is always a surprise and bakers are given no warning or preparation.

Third- The Showstopper Bake, which is similar to the Signature Bake, but blown up to 11. Expectations are higher, decor and appearance matter greatly, and a ton of time is given.

The Signature and Showstopper Bakes are judged in front of the baker, with feedback given immediately to them in front of everyone else. The Technical Bake is judged blind, with Paul and Prue unaware of who's bakes they're tasting, giving feedback on, and putting into a last-to-first order until it's all said and done.

All of these bakes take place under a time limit that allows for them to be completed, but only just. Especially if the baker is ambitious.

This is the best show about teaching and learning on television.

Let us think about these bakes in teaching terms. Both the Signature and Technical Bakes require the baker to do lots of work at home. They demand careful planning, research, and practice. Bakers who waste the week fail. Bakers who come to the tent practiced and prepared normally do well, except for when Mr Murphy (of Murphy's Law fame) injects himself into the proceedings in the form of weather or accidents. This is giving your students detailed expectations of a project, but leaving it open ended. "You will use this, this, and this. It will be in this general shape. Everything else is up to you." This is perfect project planning- huge range within narrow bandwidth. They have to check a lot of boxes while still making their bakes unique. And also while fulfilling the basic needs of a good bake- it tastes good and it's fully cooked.

The Technical Bake is always the one that says the most about the bakers. Often the recipe will involve some specific skill that the baker, as "one of the best amateur bakers in Britain", is expected to know how to do. So the recipe will say, "Make a sweetbread pastry", "Slice into four pieces", or something equally vague and the bakers will need to use a combination of prior knowledge and guesswork to puzzle out exactly what they're supposed to do. It's not uncommon for the Technical Bake to being with a bunch of the bakers looking at each other whispering, "I've never heard of this. Do you know what this is? What does this look like?" This is a project involving following directions that are just good enough that truly assesses what you can do and what you know. It's all about thinking on your feet and showing what you know. Educated guesses are still educated, and they can still pan out.

And here's where all that gets really teachery- Even when there are twelve bakers in the tent the two judges give deeply detailed, specific feedback that shows their expertise while also taking issues and ambition into account. Paul Hollywood never ever says, "This is good" or "This is terrible" without following it up with, "Because you can really taste the blah blah blah in it, which is impressive because with that mix of flavors it can be difficult for it to not get overwhelmed" or "It's underbaked, you needed another ten minutes in the oven at least, look here at this piece you can see how it's still doughy because it does this and this." They aren't cruel, but they aren't patronizing. They understand ambition without giving too much ground for it. Did the baker try to build the Leaning Tower of Piza out of chocolate cake and it ended up being the Laying On The Platter Mush Of Piza? If they went big and the taste and texture is still there, then they don't get hammered. Oh, the criticism will still be there, but along with "But the taste is delicious. I wish it had worked." I love how the bakers will often go Big and take the risk because they want to show what they are able to do. And while it's about winning, it's not really about winning anything. I'll explain that last bit later.

Paul and Prue and Mary give the kind of feedback I wish I could give to every one of my kids all the time. You can tell they know everything about everything they're asking the bakers to do, you can tell they've made all these mistakes and know why they mistakes were mistakes, and you can tell they aren't flaunting it, they're just using it.

On top of all the planning the bakers (remember, every time you read "the bakers" you can substitute "our students" or even "we as teachers") have to do, there are still plenty of times when something doesn't go right. It's hotter in the tent than it was at home so the chocolate is melting too quickly. The caramel isn't coming together. And then we get to see the bakers scramble and adjust on the fly. It shows just how good they really are when nothing is working and everything seems dire and yet they manage to pull out a good-to-excellent bake anyway. Staying calm and working the problem saves the day. Even if one bake goes horribly sideways, you get three chances over the course of the weekend. Multiple opportunities to be successful and show what you know. One bad bake doesn't get you sent home (unless you, like, poison Paul. Then I assume you'd be sent home right away).

Now here's the really really bestest part- The winner of the entire show, the person who makes it through all 30 bakes and ends up on top at the very end, the person who spent the last ten weeks using their own money and time to practice and prepare culinary delights wins...basically nothing. They get a bouquet and a glass platter. No prize money. No endorsements. No job in a bakery. They get to hear their names announced at a big picnic, cry a little, hug their family, be filled with an deep sense of pride and accomplishment, and that's all. This creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie inside the tent. Bakers become friends, they comfort each other, they cheer each other on. When someone's bake is stuck in the mold two other bakers will stop what they're doing and help. When someone wins Star Baker and everyone claps you get the impression that everyone is actually happy for that person. When someone gets sent home, even if they totally deserve to go home, you get the feeling that everyone is sad to see them go. It's a competition without cut-throat competitors. I've watched enough of this show that if there was a real animosity between bakers I assume the show would play that up because it's good TV, and its never happened.

The real point of the show isn't to win because there's no physical prize, only an internal one. The real point of The Great British Bake-Off is to become a better baker. To learn new skills and push yourself to be better than you ever thought you could. It's like the ideal classroom. I don't want my kids to learn because they'll get great grades or great jobs. I want them to learn to love learning, to love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with being your best. I want them to learn very specific skills, but then be able to apply those skills to a wide variety of things (this is me climbing on my The Content And Standards Matter, People, Stop Saying It's Only How They Feel soapbox, in case it was too subtle).

Watch The Great British Bake-Off. It's on Netflix. After a long day of teaching it's perfect for decompressing, at the very least. But at the very most, it's a great lesson in project-based learning and specific feedback.

Also, I'm team Noel and Sandi. Nothing against Sue and Mel, but Noel and Sandi are funnier, plus I love them from The IT Crowd and the original Who's Line respectively.




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, April 8, 2019

I Know This Training

Half of having a good professional development experience is going into it with an open mind, giving the presenter the benefit of the doubt.

The other half is the professional development actually being worth a damn and being presented in a way that engages those in the seats. But that's out of my hands as the person sitting in it, so let's talk about the half we can control.

I need my students to meet me halfway when it comes to lessons and projects. Yes, I feel like it's my responsibility to engage them and draw them in, but it's so much harder of they've got their heels dug in before I even get there. It's hard to teach past "This is stupid, why do I have to learn this?" We explain it and all that jazz, but having to justify my existence takes time that could be used moving things forward.

So it goes with professional development. We all have had to sit in training sessions we weren't looking forward to. Oh, who's it gonna be this time? The Expert who hasn't been in a classroom in a decade. The researcher who can't talk to humans. The Icebreaker. *shiver* But then we get to be pleasantly surprised. Hey, this is good stuff! I can use more than 25% of this. Sweet. If I start those days thinking about how I can use the material, I normally have a better day. A bad presenter can still torpedo it, but at that point I feel like I've done my work. I came in caffeinated and fed, I left those tabs on my computer closed, I raised my hand. I'm here with you. Now it's your fault.

Being trained in something I don't know well also makes that easier. When something both has value and is new to me, it's easier to be on task and engaged. We covered what a bad presenter can do. So what about the other way? What about when you know the material that's about to be covered? What about if you've run sessions on the material about to be covered? That's a different ball of wax.

This is not, as I'm sure you can tell, a hypothetical. This week I'll be spending three days at a Fancy Institute Training for Project-Based Learning. I'm looking forward to it, because I like PBL. I'm having some trepidation about it because I do PBL. Like, a lot. Like, it's what most of my class revolves around. I do run conference sessions about Making and Projects. When I told my kids why I was going to be out they raised their hand, "Don't we do that?" Yes, yes we do. "Then why are you going?" I gave them both honest answers, because they deserve both of them- First, because I can always learn more. I'm not an expert on this, I just do it a lot. I make you reflect after every project so you can improve. I reflect after every project so I can improve. This training is another step in that process, hopefully I'll come back with even cooler ideas and better academic ways to integrate projects into our work. And second- and then a kid interrupts me.

"Is the second one that you're gonna have your hand in the air the whole time going 'I do that! And that! And that!' Is it?" I'm honest with them, like I said. So I nodded and smiled. Of course! It's fun to be That Kid in the class sometimes!

I want to go to this training because even though I do a lot of projects I know I'm not doing them as well as I could be. I know that my years of experience doing it have gotten me quite a long way, and then my connections to others who do it both in my school and on social media have moved me further along. I also know that I'm not technically formally trained in it, and if I didn't think there was something to being formally trained in something then I have no right to be teaching in public school because that's kinda literally what I do for a living. I'm all for "Hey maaaaaaan, just do it and learn from it that way maaaaaan. Like, follow your instincts and reflect and it'll all come together." But I know that's not the only way to learn something and trying to do that exclusively will hurt in the long run.

I'm worried about this training because what if it's a bunch of stuff I already know? At least if it's stuff I know then I'm getting reinforcement. That'll be good, at least for a day. Worse though, what if it's really stuffy and formal and takes this free, exploratory learning that I love so much and codifies it into little boxes on forms to the detriment of the process as a whole? What if it's humorless and takes PBL serious as a heart attack? I'll still be able to learn from it, of course, that's what we do as professional teachers. We extract useful information from anything. That's why some terrible presenters still have jobs- we vampire out anything useful from the eight hours and discard the rest, and then three perky teachers happily tweet, "OMG Life Changing Revolutionary Where Have You Been All My Life."

I present on project-based learning, and one of the major facets of my sessions is always having the participants DO SOMETHING. Why listen to me talk about it? If you teach it, have them do it. Don't watch me build a Google Slide Show, you build one. Don't listen to me go on and on about the benefits of PBL, build something and then you tell me what you learned and how you can use it with your kids.

I recognize my hesitance when it comes to this training, and by seeing it and acknowledging the truth of it I'm able to suppress it enough to be open to the training. I can't fake excitement if I'm not excited. But I can see the value for my kids in this. And that's good enough for me to get into it.

At least for a day. For three whole days it better be real good.

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, April 1, 2019

Who Would You Nominate?

Recently an email came in from my principal. It's an email that's sent out every year about this time. This email is asking staff members to nominate one of our own for special mention.

Dig it.

I like this practice. I don't think it's making teaching a competition because, even though there will be one person chosen for the special recognition, that isn't really the point. There's no Big Cash Prize or anything, and I think anyone who is nominated gets told that someone on staff thought they were worthy of the honor. I will never be against teachers holding each other up for being great. Please note that this is different than someone cheerleading us to work above and beyond reason because that's what "good teachers" do.

Look at the criteria listed-

•Has the respect and admiration of their colleagues.
•Is an expert in their field who guides students of all backgrounds and abilities to achieve excellence.
•Collaborates with colleagues, students, and families to create a school culture of respect and success.
•Deliberately connects the classroom and key stakeholders to foster a strong community.
•Demonstrates leadership and innovation in and outside that embodies lifelong learning.
•Expresses themselves in an engaging, articulate and respectful way.

This is who we all want to be. We may have different personal definitions about what some of these criteria mean. For example, I imagine my take on the leadership one may not align with others. I know that my definition of "expressing [myself] in a(n)...respectful way" sometimes means "biting my tongue so hard I taste copper." And I'll be completely honest, I have no idea if I have the respect and admiration of colleagues and that's never been a primary goal of mine anyway. It's incidental. I do my thing, and if that leads to some respect then that's cool. That's why I respect the people I do. 

Last year I nominated one of my teammates for this honor, and he ended up getting it. I've said before, to him and to others, that if there's one teacher I measure myself against it's him. His ideas push me to push mine, the things he gets his class to accomplish inspires me to get more creative with mine. I think that goes both ways. I believe we should be nominating someone every year, each of us. I work with excellent teachers and I know some of them well enough that I feel confident that I could write a strong recommendation for them. But it's hard because I don't actually get to see them teach. Maybe some observations. Is that enough? That plus faith? 

Here's where I really get inside my own head though- Why shouldn't I nominate myself for this? I know the Answer- because what an ego trip, man. But go back to what I said about the criteria- "This is who we all want to be". Yes, I just quoted myself back to you, speaking of ego. 

I feel that I'm about to walk a fine line between one of those rah rah cotton candy posts you see some post and a post of substance and reflection. If I'm doing my best teaching as often as I can. If I'm accepting myself as human who isn't perfect and has no interest in being a superhero because seriously, that whole thing needs to be shot into the sun, our kids don't need a superhero, get over your savior self (Seriously, the superhero narrative is dangerous and ugly and stoppit.) If I'm breaking my tail and flexing my creativity and doing my level best then I should get this nod. Then you should get this nod because you are too. 

Isn't this a perfect self-reflection tool? If you look at this and honestly think, "Yeah, I deserve this," aren't you doing something right? Or are you full of yourself and that's why the nomination should come from the outside, because you are unable to see yourself honestly in this way? But if you're unable to see yourself honestly in this way doesn't that make reflection even more difficult, if not impossible? Shouldn't we be proud of the work we're doing? Shouldn't we all think we deserve this? But teaching is about service, so rather than boost ourselves up we elevate those around us. Not because we hope they'll do it for us, but because damn that 5th grade teacher with 39 kids is still kicking ass and doing some incredible work with those kids and she deserves to know we see her. Maybe it's a thought experiment then. "If I were to fill this out for myself, what would I write?" It's hard to get that honest distance. I know, because right about now in the school year we're all feeling a little beat down and frustrated. The kids have grown so much, but it also never feels like they've grown quite enough. Which means I could have done better by them. What's the phrase? "Perfect is the enemy of good." Celebrate the good while continuing to strive for the better then, in our teaching and ourselves. 

I think we should all be able to fill this out for ourselves. But I'm a pretty privileged white dude who's ego always loves some stroking, and who also comes from a place of  "If no one else will I will" that extends to getting things done and laughing at my own jokes, and I recognize that my take on this is very colored by my point of view and personality. Would you fill it out for yourself? Even if you didn't send it in? Do you think it would be a beneficial thought experiment or just masturbatory nonsense?  

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, March 18, 2019

The Teacher Was a Robot

*note- every time you read the word "robot" please pronounce it "robit" in your head, just like I did. It's fun.

“Last year when I was in Asia, I watched a class being taught by a robot and it was really fascinating because at the end of the session…I had the opportunity to talk with the kids and I asked them about the experience. And you know the story: the teacher-student relationship is critical; the student-student relationship is critical. What did these kids say? ‘Eh, we prefer the robot to the teacher.’”
- John Hattie

This is a quote from edu-luminary and constantly referenced Director of the Melbourne Education Research Center, John Hattie. You know his name, you've heard it before. There's books and stuff. He said the above recently at the Visible Learning World Conference in Edinburgh. He went on to say, “We need to be very welcoming and interested in how the robots can help us in our work to reduce some of the problems that we have that are related to human interaction and all the biases that relate to it.”

I really like this whole premise. It tickles me. I want to be clear right here that I don't for one instant take it seriously. Robots are coming to take my job, and the kids will be happy about it? K. My school doesn't even have Chromebooks for everyone yet and the printer outside my classroom has been repaired so many times it's basically a brand new printer that still constantly jams. Less than half the classrooms at my school have SMARTboards. But the robots are coming.

I have to assume that part of this whole thing is 1) not everything from the speech is being reported and b) he's intentionally being hyperbolic because that's how we get heard now. But, for a moment, let's take his points at face-value. To review and expand, Hattie says that the robot is not judgmental of the students, it doesn't care if the kid has a disease or a problem, it doesn't get frustrated, and it will help us normal fleshy teachers overcome bias.

First- HA!

Second- Hahaha!

Ok, who programs these robots? Because they aren't programming themselves. The assumption that technology is lacks bias simply because it's technology is purposefully blind. He's making the leap that whoever is coding these teaching robots will code them to, what, not see color? Or they'll be coded in such a complex way that they'll see and understand every student's cultural background? How would that even work? You code a robot to respond in a completely neutral way to students, regardless of what inputs the student delivers. Which makes it a better teacher, or even helpful how?

Listen, I can't stand the constant "Relationships Matter" nattering that we're subjected to by thought leaders, but just because it's annoying doesn't mean it's wrong. My problem with it is more "Yeah, we know, move forward" than "I disagree". The kids do want a teacher who cares, they want a connection, humanity in general operates better when there's a connection. And I honestly think Hattie knows this, which makes me suspect he's using the "kids told me they prefer the robot" story as a hook to get people to listen to the "robots will reduce bias" part. Because I would not be surprised if he and others believe that is a thing that is possible. Taking "I don't see color" to the nth degree and then wiping your hands with a satisfied, "Welp, we solved it." Because in what universe does data support that? And don't tell me that's not what he's saying, because what else can it mean about reducing human bias? Being able to do that purely makes this whole idea fantasy instead of science fiction. You can't remove bias, you can only see it within yourself and respond to it. That goes for the programming team too.

The idea that it's good that a robot could answer the same question multiple times without getting frustrated means that Hattie does not live with both a child and an Amazon Alexa. Did you know that if you say, "Alexa, ask for a fart" she will make one of a dozen hilarious fart sounds? She will. And she will never get tired of the question. Never get frustrated with the child laughing and shouting for another fart, a juicier one this time. I'm a grow'd up, and if I were presented with a robot teacher that would answer the same question over and over without getting frustrated I know for a fact I'd see that as a challenge. Can I kill this thing's battery making it tell me if my essay is good enough yet? Of course the kids liked it more!

Robot teachers are antithesis to everything I hold dear as a teacher, but I'm still not taking his idea personally because I still can't take it seriously. How far away is this technology? I mean, what he's saying, a fully automated robot teacher. In my lifetime? Are we talking Robby the Robot? Are we talking Robot Daddy? Are we talking my favorite golden-skinned android Data? If so, listen- I want Data as a teacher's aid. Data is cool. I mean, he only took over the ship and endangered everyone on board four or maybe five times. I teach in the United States, we won't ban anything just because it endangers students. Give. Me. Data.

If we do get robot teachers will they be coded with Asimov's Three Laws?To review, for those of you who didn't grow up nerdy-

First Law- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law- A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second law.

The crux of most of Asimov's Robot books hinge on the inherent paradoxes of the Three Laws. I would give my students until lunch time to completely wreck a Three Laws Certified robot.

I'm also forced to assume that Hattie, a distinguished researcher, studied many many classrooms that were taught by a robot teacher before reaching this conclusion. The examples in the speech in question couldn't possibly all come from a single experience, cherry-picked to prove a point. That's bad data. (Not bad Data though, this bad Data.) Most of my information is coming from this article on written by Emma Sieth. But I'm not trying to make a point at a giant conference, I'm trying to mock one made at a giant conference.

At the end of that article there's a reference to this one by Tes Reporter from 9/11/17 about Sir Anthony Seldon saying teachers will be glorified aids while robots do the real work within ten years. To which my response is *copy+paste entire blog post*.

Hattie's biggest failing here is the idea that not getting frustrated, not remembering who got in trouble yesterday, not understanding bias are all positives. That the Human Element is what's holding teachers and students back. The programming needed for this to be actualized will require something to be centered as "normal." And I wonder wonder Ooh, ohOhOhOh, who'll write the book on that.

Honestly, I love technology and I'm really excited about all the possibilities of the future once we get past the backwards bigots holding us back in a past that never existed, and I think having robots would be real neat. But until a Roomba won't drag dog poop all over the house, I'm gonna feel pretty secure in my job.

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, March 11, 2019

I Used To Do But Now I Don't- Spelling Test Edition

When I eventually get around to writing the second Weird Teacher book ("He's the Weird Teacher II: Maybe This One Will Make Me Famous") I plan on doing an entire chapter on this very topic. But, because I think it's an important topic that I'd like to talk about and reflect on we're doing one now. The idea, for those of you who didn't pick it up from the title, is to look at something I used to do in my classroom that I no longer do, and investigate why.

With few exceptions all my favorite musicians have evolved over their careers. That is, quite frankly, one of the things I enjoy about them. I like it when a band follows their hearts and the muse and changes their sound. Even when it doesn't work, at least it's interesting, at least they tried something (I'm looking at you, Lulu*). Nick Cave is constantly reinventing himself, you never know what the next album will be while at the same time you can track him from album to album and in that timeline everything makes sense. Devin Townsend is the exact same way, every album he releases sounds like exactly the album he needed to make at that time, regardless of whether or not it sounds like anything he did before. Rush changed over their career, constantly redefining what it meant to be Rush. The only bands I really love who never did that are Slayer and AC/DC. And that's because they immediately perfected what it what they were and did that to varying levels of success their entire careers.

If you've read pretty much anything I've written you know that I filter a lot of my thinking through music. I naturally think in metaphor, and because teaching is an art and a science and everyone does it slightly differently even though at the core we're all using the same 12 notes, I think about teaching like I think about music.

All that to say, much like my favorite bands I have evolved my teaching over time. And, much like the bands I've mentioned above, it's not intentional. I do not set out at the start of every school year with the goal of "I Shall Do Things Differently This Year." Why would I make that a goal? I mean that honestly. That kind of a goal is performative. It's saying "I Will Make This Harder Than It Needs To Be To Make a Point." Nope, that's not why I do things differently every year. I do things differently because I change, my thoughts about teaching change, my students change, so my classroom naturally changes. Not everything changes. I've been using puppets for near on a decade and I don't see them going away any time soon, though I do use them much less than I used to. I've been building in my room for about five or six years, never used to do that. Tech came in hard and then ebbed and now it's all about balance. What works when and why? It's why I lucked out with the Weird Teacher thing (also not intentional)- simply being "weird" means changing things is right in the name. Lucky break that.

Let's get specific though, because it's not like me to speak in generalities. Let's pick something I used to do, something I even wrote about in He's the Weird Teacher, that I no longer do.

Spelling tests.

I used to give a weekly spelling test. I'd assign the fifteen or twenty words from the book on Monday, along with some kind of homework (that'll be in here too) that went-

Monday- Write each word five times. 
Tuesday- Pyramid Write the words (ie s, sp, spe, spel, spell, spelli, spellin, spelling)
Wednesday- Write a sentence for each word.
Thursday- Have some one give you a spelling pretest.
Friday- Write only the words you missed on the test five times.

During the week we would spend some time talking about whatever the spelling skill that the words were practicing were, like tense or prefix/suffix or the /ei/ sound spellings. At some point in the day on Friday I'd give a spelling test. Half sheet of paper, write your name and the date, number one to twenty, I'll say the word, use it in a sentence, say it again, here we go.

I tried to make the tests fun. That's a big part of the chapter in Weird Teacher. How I'd play with the words, get silly with the sentences so the test wasn't a drag. "Scrambled. I went to a diner for breakfast and when the waitress asked what I wanted I said eggs, and she asked how and I said scrambled. She repeated 'Scrambled?' 'Scrambled,' I confirmed. 'Scrambled, got it,' she said. Then I ate scrambled eggs. They weren't good. Should have gotten over easy. Scrambled." All the laughs, right? Except, upon reflection, who was I entertaining? Me, way more than the students. For every kid who laughed at that silly sentence, how many were confused or overwhelmed by it? Who wasn't I helping by doing that?

After the test I'd settle down and grade all of them, or we'd trade and grade each other's. Make sure you use red pen! Make sure you're polite and cool, we're all in this together and no one makes fun of anyone else. Did that work? What was that like for my kids that always bombed the test? "Oh great, someone else is gonna see how bad I did, but Mr Robertson said 'be respectful' so I'm sure it'll be fine."


I stopped giving spelling tests completely a few years ago. Looking back, I think my initial reason was that it was just eating up too much time on Fridays. The test took forever, plus I was still giving the comprehension and vocabulary test at the end of the story every week. Friday's reading block was Test Day. Easy to plan, but what a waste of a fifth of my week. I was also finally noticing that the same kids always did poorly. It wasn't working academically. So I dropped it completely.

Now I tie spelling into reading and writing. I try to make it as organic as possible. You learn to spell as we read and as you write, because you need to know the words. You see patterns emerge because I'm guiding you to seeing them, until you start seeing them for yourselves. I'll stop and point out unique spelling characteristics of words, especially things that native English speakers do automatically but others might not, like doubling the final consonant in single syllable words when adding a suffix. No one know why they do it, they just do. And WHY is the Big Question in my room. We learn those things.

However, I'm getting to the point again where I'm not sure I'm on the right path. I don't want to go back to spelling tests and spelling homework (oof, let's not go into the assumptions built into "Have someone you live with give you the pretest Thursday night"). BUT, at the same time I'm not real sure my laissez-faire, let it be organic, it'll come naturally maaaaan thing is working as well as it could be. I may have de-emphasized spelling a little too much. It's part of our editing process. I call it COPS (Capitalization, Organization, Punctuation, Spelling), so the kids do it. They know it's important to do. But maybe I'm not teaching the How as well as I could be. I know spelling is 90% memorization of rules, so the "read a whole bunch" thing ought to work, but only if the kids are actively paying attention to the spelling of the words.

I think I need to start easing spelling lessons back into my language arts time. Not Big Spelling Lessons, not tests, but be more intentional about finding those opportunities to stop for five or ten minutes and get into the weeds.

What did you used to do that you don't any more? Why?

*Lulu isn't good, but it's also not the awful monstrosity that fans like to make it out to be. (That's St. Anger.Lulu is a real interesting experiment that shouldn't have worked and mostly didn't but still deserves a listen just to see what Metallica and Lou Reed wanted to try and do. I like that this band that could make the exact same album over and over into forever instead decided to try and make a weird, off-putting, ill-advised thing, and then put it into the world. They didn't have to do that. Risk, right?

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, March 4, 2019

Teach Like a Monster Truck Driver

I just got to see Monster Jame for the first time.

What a show.

I've never been a Car Guy. I love motorcycles, two wheels kickstart my heart. Four wheels I could give or take. In fact, the only time my head has really been turned by a car was on a trip to a camp for future teachers in Indianapolis between my sophomore and junior years of high school. We were taken to the Brickyard where the Indy 500 would take place and driven into the infield. Everyone on the bus was like, "Yeah yeah, Indy cars, whatever." Until the first one went screaming by doing a practice lap. Every head turned. What a demonstration of power and speed and noise. It's impossible to not be impressed.

For Christmas my boys were gifted tickets to Monster Jam Portland. They love trucks and cars, so we figured they would dig it. I figured it would be cool.

From the second it started I had the BIGGEST smile on my face. You know what it immediately reminded me of? WWE. I was a huge pro wrestling fan in college (I'm so cool, friends), and got to see a few live shows. Monster Jam feels very much the same. Larger than life performers doing big, ridiculous tricks in silly/awesome costumes.

To continue to WWE metaphor, I never cared about monster trucks but I think everyone who grew up around when I did can name at least two- Bigfoot and Grave Digger. For some reason in my head I associate these with two of the the biggest names in wrestling. Bigfoot was the Good Guy, the babyface, so Bigfoot is Hulk Hogan (this was before, you know, everything was out). And Grave Digger is the Dead Man himself, The Undertaker. I'm a 'Taker guy, so of course Grave Digger is where I'm at. And there was a truck dressed up like a giant shark. I've got three, yes three, shark tattoos, and I still popped harder for Digger soo...that says something.

ANYWAY, to connect this to teaching, which I know you're all here for. All the trucks do basically the same moves. Which makes sense, I don't know how wide the range of possible tricks is on a basic course. You've got Big Jump, Big Jump Into Wheelie, Stoppie Into NoseStand, and Make Truck Make Loud Noise To Make Simple Thing Look Cooler. Anyone else feel like I just described their teaching bag o' tricks some days? "I'm not really doing anything fancy, but it sure looks cool because it's loud and big."

Then I noticed it seems like 70% or more of the tricks depend on luck. The driver would drive towards a certain part of the ramp, downshift (or whatever, I don't speak gearhead very well), throw the truck into a move, and hope it worked. The coolest things happened when something didn't go quite right. Or maybe when everything lined up exactly right.


Video taken by Weirdling One

Here's what I think happened there- The jump went well and the truck got a lucky bounce coming down, which the driver was able to turn into a nose stand, and then the momentum of the truck carried it over, so the driver was able to react by turning it into a cartwheel round-off thing. The driver, Elvis McDonald, managed to balance that massive thing on one wheel and get it to land just how he wanted it. So it's a series of lucky accidents that the driver is able to link together through skill. 


Sometimes teaching is turning accidents into positives over and over, stringing them together into one coherent whole. We've all got lesson plans, and we all know that plans survive intact until put into contact with students, and from then on it's about tap dancing and adjusting. So I'm in no way taking away from the skill of the driver of El Toro Loco. He's good enough to have an elaborate If/Then flowchart in his head, and then execute as things happen. 

The best at this was Grave Digger's driver, Tyler Menninga. I don't know if he's actually one of the better drivers on the circuit, but he was that night. Head and shoulders. He turned more tricks into other tricks than anyone else, and he was also the only one to try something different. Rather than wait for the truck to end up on two wheels like that, he would drive it at the ramp at an angle, forcing it onto the two right wheels. Then he'd jam on the brakes and the power transfer would carry the back of the truck up and over the nose where he'd balance it on the front two wheels before letting it fall back. It never once looked out of control or accidental. But at the same time these are giant trucks on dirt tracks, so no reaction is guaranteed. Tyler had to be good enough to make luck happen and to capitalize on that luck over and over. 

Because I'm a giant nerd I went to Monster Jam and came away with a teaching lesson- Teach like Grave Digger: Be good enough to turn circumstances in your favor and make your own luck.

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.