Tuesday, January 8, 2019

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

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

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

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

Toof Telling/Spark Speaks

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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