Monday, January 28, 2019

It's So Easy

Parental Warning: It's a GnR Video, know

 "It's simple, really."

Ah yes, the death knell for anyone trying to explain a new technique or philosophy to a roomful of teachers. We know what you're trying to say. You're trying to assuage concern that it might be too hard to implement on top of all the other things we've got going on. You're preemptively answering anyone who might say they aren't familiar with the baseline knowledge needed to start your simple idea.

But that's not what is actually being said. What's actually being said is, "If you don't get this there's something wrong here." Just like I try to avoid telling my students anything we do in class is "easy", why I cut off students who try to explain to their classmates, in the most genuine, not condescending way, that it's "easy". Because it might not be. And few things are as demotivational as being told the thing you're worried about/struggling with is easy. It's simple. Come on, man. Why can't you get this? The rest of us have it.

"Implementing project-based learning in your classroom is simple, and so rewarding!" the person in the video happily chirped. I could hear eyes roll. The low bass rumble of deep in the throat grumbles from certain areas of the staff meeting reverberated in my lower spine. These are good teachers. They work hard. And making stuff makes no sense to them. These are hyper-organized teachers who have worked very hard on procedures and control and their rooms work like well-oiled machines. Before I say the next thing I want to double down- these are good teachers. But they aren't all that comfortable with discomfort or the seeming deconstruction of their control. Some might think their kids can't do it, can't handle it, for whatever reason. Age, maturity, class size, The Big Test At The End, whatever. I don't think those are excuses. But I've also been doing this in my room for over half a decade (doesn't that make it sound longer and fancier than "five or six years, I can't remember exactly"). I've always been comfortable with looser reins in my classroom, I'm not naturally organized, my room would be kinda messy anyway. I have the time and experience to have faith in the process of project-based learning, and I still get to the middle of projects and have panic attacks about things not working and no one learning what they're supposed to. Projects crash and burn all the time in my room. I've learned to be ok with that.

That's not what most teachers are used to though. This doesn't make me special (it might contribute to the weird thing, though that's more the standing on desks, quoting Star Trek, randomly singing, making bad jokes than anything), but it does make me better suited to jump in to something that seems a little off-center. I like off-center. I live there. I like it when projects don't work, as long as we learn from the not working. It's real easy to say something like "FAIL- First Attempt In (At, but whatever) Learning! Let them fail! It's simple." It's easy to say. It's hard to believe, hard to embrace. As we discussed a moment ago, calling something simple rarely means it is. You know when adults tell kids something isn't going to hurt, and that means it probably will hurt? Teachers remember.

It's not simple to convince someone the process is more important than the product. It's not simple to get a teacher to see that her kids not doing a project correctly can be as valuable as them all doing exactly what they were told because the directions were super clear. Especially in the lower grades, at least in my experience. Again- NOT saying they're bad teachers. AM saying telling them "it's simple" is a bad way to convince them to do something.

Know what "it's simple" sounds like? Sales. It sounds like sales. It sounds like you think you've got The Answer and you're happy to give it to us, we're welcome. It's simple friends, it sucks as it cuts! Well it certainly does suck. It's simple, just buy this book, bring in this keynote, do this training, and you'll be on your way! Simple. Anyone can do it. Oh, then quote Yoda, a fictional teacher that took failing so badly he hid in a swamp for the rest of his life!

But it's not simple. None of it. Teaching isn't simple. The act of teaching isn't simple. Making groups isn't simple. Choosing read aloud books isn't simple. There isn't one single solitary aspect of teaching that's simple, and there isn't one aspect of it that's made easier by someone telling you to "look in the mirror and say, 'Boy, I've got some great opportunities this year!'" Yup, and it's gonna be a challenge. Ignore that and you just make it harder. Don't focus on the challenge, but don't pretend it doesn't exist either. I've said before that calling teaching a marathon is a bad metaphor because marathons suck and hurt the whole time and no one likes them and more often than anyone mentions there's accidental poo. But calling it a baseball games makes sense. It's long, challenging, there's a million tiny changes that are constantly being made, fun, and often someone in the stands spends the whole time trying to tell you what to do.

To go back to implementing project-based learning, since that's the video that got my back up in the first place and it's currently très en vogue (that's French for, I think, "three in poses*")- project-based learning, or PBL as we say in the biz, is freaking hard. It's messy. The learning curve for the teacher and the kids is all over the place. It's not consistent, that's for sure. My kids will make a rocking, amazing big project, then I'll give them a smaller palette cleanser project that suddenly has taken a week and a half and used all the tape left in my room. Projects are messy and letting students discover their learning on the way to the Big Goal is easier said than done because they need to be constantly reflecting honestly and thinking deeply. Those don't come right away so on top of learning to make, they're also learning to reflect and meta-cognate (*bing* fancy teacher word bonus). Just building projects for them to build is tricky and takes a lot of trial and error.

In the video I'm all teeth-gnashy about the teacher had smaller kids, first or second grade. She doesn't have them doing any kind of big project. She's got these wooden building blocks and half pipes and spheres and whatnot, and one of her reading group stations is making stuff with the blocks. We were shown the kids making a two level ramp with a turn. Real cool build, simple in theory, but with a lot going on. Good problem solving, good basics of construction. But the video skipped right to "So while I have a small reading group there's another group over there building the assigned whatever." Which led to the "it was so simple." Nuh uh. Your jodhpurs are alight. You skipped chapters one, two, and three. You skipped introducing it, and kids arguing over blocks, and teaching them how to use the build cards, and teaching them how to keep it down, and reteaching them how to keep it down, and taking the blocks away for two days because they didn't believe you about keeping it down and not playing hockey with the sticks, and the phone call home you made because of what Tommy made with the spheres and stick. The only way it was simple is if you've only got those five kids in the video, and even then it wasn't.

See the problem with telling us it's simple? I LIKE making stuff to learn, I'm way in on it, I'm sold already, and I can see all these things. What about the teacher who is looking for reasons to roll her eyes and nod while not actually trying it until she's forced to?  Be honest with us. Yes, it's hard. Yes, there's failure and noise and mess and struggle. Accept that and be excited about that, see it as positives. Hear the boss say she's good with you doing it.

Here's where I'm completely honest- I say all this, but I also don't have some silver bullet way to bring teachers into things like making to learn. I am not a salesman. Even when I want people to buy my books (buy my books) I don't do it by telling them it'll revolutionize their practice because ugh, I love hyperbole more than anything in the history of ever, but gross. I don't sell teachers things. I'm not getting commission. I will tell them my experiences. I will talk about things I like, like project-based learning. But I do not know how to convince anyone else to do it because I come to things in my own time, in my own way. I come to things because I see someone else doing it, think, "Oh, nifty, I wanna try." Then I try. I assume others aren't like that, but I'm not sure what combination of words is the key that unlocks the frame of mind that makes someone say, "Yes, I'm in!" If I am a leader at my school, it's almost entirely the "Lookit this cool thing. I'll come show you how if you want" kind.

Starting something new in teaching isn't easy. Doing something you've already done seems easy, but it's not either because (and this comes from having faith in all of you out there), even when you're doing the same thing you've done before I don't believe you're doing it in the exact same way. If nothing changes for you year to year at all...then I'd like to have a conversation about who's central in your classroom, because it's you and not your kids. But that adjustment won't be easy either.

Don't reduce this beautiful, complex work into slogans and cotton candy. Don't pretend it's easy to talk us into things. Be honest. It ain't gonna be easy, especially not at first, but it'll get easier, and then it'll get cooler, which means you can make it more difficult.

I said a lot of this in a twitter thread too, but I wrote the blog post to get into more detail. Rather than come up with a really deep, clever closing, I'm going to embed the twitter thread here.

*Greta Garbo, and Monroe
Dietrich and DiMaggio
Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean
On the cover of a magazine
Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean
Picture of a beauty queen
Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire
Ginger Rogers, dance on air
They had style, they had grace
Rita Hayworth gave good face
Lauren, Katherine, Lana too
Bette Davis, we love you
Ladies with an attitude
Fellows that were in the mood
Don't just stand there, let's get to it
Strike a pose, there's nothing to it

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird 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.

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