Monday, February 25, 2019

What's Leadership?

This is going to sound like it opens with a brag. But it doesn't. Not really.

A few days ago I had my mid-year goals meeting with my principal. We looked over my data and the growth goals I'd set for my students and saw that things were going well. With a little time left in the meeting the conversation veered towards the other things I'm a part of at school. You know how you know you're busy, but you don't realize how busy until you start listing everything out? It was one of those moments. I'm the head of the MakerFaire committee and on others, my grade level teammate is a first year teacher so I'm doing what I can to help and support him, I'm taking a math studio training to improve my math instruction, I'm part of a group of teachers that is working with the district to revise evaluations and make them more teacher-friendly, and I'm teaching a seven week Google course to fellow teachers through a district-sponsored program, and I just started being a part of an exciting joint partnership with a construction business to help kids see how what we're doing connects to the future. And I'm, you know, teaching. It's a lot. Sometimes everything comes crashing together all at once and I've suddenly got five meetings in four days, but for the most part it's not bad. I'd say no to things if I felt like it was too much.

When I was leaving the meeting my principal said something very nice to me. "Thank you for being such a leader at our school."

I replied, "I appreciate that, but I really don't feel like a leader. I'm just doing things."

This weighed on me. What is leadership, dear reader?

In my head leadership looks like something specific. After a moment’s reflection, I was surprised that idea conflicted with my normal stance of “everything different depending on everyone.” When she called me a leader I immediately thought about how I don’t think anyone at school would call me a leader. It certainly never feels like anyone is saying or even thinking, “Look what Doug is doing, we should be doing that! Let’s follow him.” Leaders need followers, right? Otherwise you’re just someone talking to yourself.

If you asked me what my style of “leadership” is, I’d tell you that it’s completely “Dig this.” Not Terminator “Come with me if you want to live,” but more like “I’m gonna do this, you do what you want with it. I think it’s cool.”

I’ve been spending some time recently speaking to a class of education majors at a local university. (I know this seems like a sharp right turn, stay with me.) I got to go into their class and speak to them, and then they came out to my school and got to check out my room and do some making in our MakerSpace. Helping education students is my biggest education passion that isn’t directly related to something happening in my classroom with my students. The only way to impact education on a deep long-term scale (outside of legislation), is to get ahold of teachers before they become teachers and get them thinking about the job in honest, productive ways. I will run to any chance to speak to education students. I wrote a whole book about the mentor teacher/student teacher relationship. This is Important To Me.

At the end of both my talks I begged them to please email me, tweet me, DM me, carrier pigeon me anything anything anything they want or need to talk about, whether it’s related to what I talked about with them or not. By the time I got home that first night I had an email from one of them. I’m not going to share what it was about, mind your business, but it was the start of what will hopefully be a longer relationship. The night after they came out to my class I had another email from a different student, asking to meet for coffee and talk. Right after I finished at the conference I was speaking at I headed to my favorite local coffee shop and we chatted for at least an hour, probably closer to 90 minutes. We shut the place down. Again, the specifics are none of your business, but I did my best to listen to her and give her the advice and wisdom I feel I’ve gained in my time in the job. And again, it seemed to help.

Helping baby teachers out is what we should all be doing. This job is hard and scary and we all remember those early days. I hope more of them reach out.

I was telling a friend about this, a friend who I’d previously told about my conversation with my principal that ended with the “I’m not sure if I’m a leader” thing. She pointed out to me, “This is leading too. That’s how you lead. It’s not loud (first time I’ve ever been called ‘not loud’), but it’s mentorship.”

Which dovetails nicely with a follow-up conversation I had with my principal earlier the day before. We were the only two people from our school at the conference and ended up having lunch together. I brought up to her that I wanted to clarify my comment about not being a leader and explained my thinking- how I don’t see anyone wanting to follow, and I don’t expect that, how I’m just doing what I’m doing, but I don’t know if it’s having an impact beyond my room. She explained to me that that was because I can’t see beyond my room. I’m too busy getting my head down and trying to do what’s best for my kids. Too busy trying new things and running with ideas. Which is true. Classrooms are often closed systems and it’s hard to see what’s happening in other people’s worlds, even when doors are open. She told me how she had seen the school change in the last four years, since I was hired. I don’t want to make it sound like I changed my site, one teacher really can’t do that alone, but in her paraphrased words my willingness to use technology, to take risks in my room, to building things, echoed through the building. She has a better view of the school than I do, and she’s seen changes happen. People taking risks, trying to use things they hadn’t before, and it was her impression that what I do is part of what helped make that ok. I am not the only teacher like that at my school, I’m lucky to be on a team with one of the most creative teachers I’ve ever met.

I responded, “No one comes to me though. Not really. I offer help all the time. It’s only occasionally taken up.”

“You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” she replied. Which rings so true. That day I’d given a keynote that I’m very proud. I’m also aware that the keynote would never have flown at, say, a staff meeting. Wrong audience, wrong delivery system, right message. But if we brought someone else in for a PD and they said everything I want to say, people would listen better. Isn’t that weird?

That tied itself to my thinking around helping new teachers. It’s not about flashy leadership. It’s not about being the one at my school. It’s about setting an example through choices and actions and being willing to help. Or not help, if help isn’t wanted.

Is leadership “I just want to do things I think are important and do them the best I can, and if that rings true to you then come play too”? Because then I might be a leader, even if few people come. I realize my brand of nonsense isn’t mainstream pop and I’m ok with that. I don’t want anyone else to teach like me, it wouldn’t work. I want everyone to teach like themselves, so purely and truly that they feel one with their process. The only way to keep making stuff and stay happy about it is to accept that not everyone needs to like it as long as I like it. Is not really caring what others think a leadership quality?

I want to be Lemmy. Or Prince. Aim high, right? Lemmy and Prince were leaders. Not because they followed trends, but because they didn’t care and were so good that trends followed them. If I am a leader, I want to lead like Lemmy. From the front, hard and loud, try and keep up.

Leadership is many things. Recognition is nice, but at the end of the day I just want everyone to steal good ideas and change them to be better, and let me do the same. Ultimately, leadership isn't thinking about something or telling others to do something. You can't lead from the outside, because then you're not even modeling things, you're talking about modeling things. Leadership is a verb, it's an action, and it just needs to be done. Do 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.

Friday, February 22, 2019

STEAM in the Stars- from IPDX19

This is the text of the ten minute keynote lightning talk I got to give at IPDX19 on January 21, 2019. 

It’s not STEM, it’s STEAM. It can only be STEAM. If we plan on using it in schools, in our teaching then it can be nothing but STEAM. (It can also be MEATS if you really want to play with the order of things, it’s just an acronym. “We need more MEATS in school!” But then you STEM people have to do Mets, and that's just a recipe for losing.) We can’t leave out the Art. Even if you are dedicated to STEM, stomp your foot, say the blue-haired handsome modest guy on stage is wrong, you’re still including Art. You can’t help it.

Dig it.

I think most aspects of STEAM make sense in schools. It’s easy to see how Technology and Engineering and Math play together. Those go together like peanut butter and jelly, like James Brown and Bootsy Collins. The essence of STEAM, after all, is to combine these disciplines. To help students see how all the things they’re learning relate to each other.

And I’d argue that the two that make the least sense to many teachers when trying to join them into one mega-discipline are Art and Science.

Art and Science may appear at first glance to be the most different from each other. Society certainly thinks so. We divide people into right brained and left brained. Oh I’m the artistic one, my wife is the more logical scientific one. Here’s this prize for science, here’s this prize for art. We have a science museum and an art museum. And never the twain shall meet.

This is incorrect.

Art and Science are one in the same. They are the easiest to join into one concept. The yin and yang of the whole deal and what makes STEAM such a powerful teaching tool. Art and Science are the glue that holds STEAM together. They should be the bookends of the acronym. AMETS! ATEMS! SEMTA! Hashtag SEMTA!

What is Science? Science is an effort to understand the human condition and the world in which we exist. Science is how we examine who we are, what we know, where we came from, and where we can go. Science is where we create our futures and learn from our past. Science values mistakes as Eureka moments. Science stands on the shoulders of other scientists, building on what was known. Science is the study of the world that we may know it better. Science looks at stars and knows they are made of the building blocks of the universe.

What is Art? Art is the effort to understand the human condition and the world in which we exist. Art is how we examine who we are, what we feel, why we feel it, and where that can take us. Art is how we envision our futures and represent our past. Art springs from mistakes. Art responds to the art of others, stripping it down and reinterpreting it. Art is the study of the world that we may know ourselves better. Art looks at stars and sees nature’s pure beauty.

Science and art are one in the same, and the sooner we stop siloing these things off mentally and in our classrooms the better off we will be. Science is a creative act built to test hypothesis. The end result of science is not to prove an idea, but to discover where the idea leads regardless of what the scientist thinks will happen.

Art is a creative act built to see if you can do a thing beautifully. Even if it’s an ugly thing, a challenging thing, can it be done beautifully? Art exists first in the mind or the heart or the soul, then it is created on an easel or a document or by stripping away the pieces of marble that hide the statue. It’s fine-tuned until it says what it needs to say, whether that’s what the artist intended at first or not.

They are the same.

We must stop telling our students in words and actions that art is the beautiful thing we do with glue sticks and colored paper before holidays and when parents are coming and science is the technical thing we do when well we don’t really have time for science today, sorry, but if we did there would be beakers and eye protection and bubbling and lots of note-taking.

Science is beautiful. Art happens constantly.

And here’s where it gets really good, my friends- My favorite argument is Kirk or Picard? Picard, obviously. But my second favorite argument is Is Teaching Art or Science? If we’ve gotten this far together and you’re still with me then you know my answer. Is teaching an art or a science? YES, yes it is.

I’ve started thinking about teaching math as an art form. It’s hard. The kids weren’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for it. Numbers have never been art to me. It took time. But if I’m right and teaching is an art and a science that means math must be beautiful and creative. Even the standard algorithm. Even dividing fractions. And I don’t mean because I’m drawing pictures of brownies and cutting them up, though I am an excellent brownie artist. Just ask my kids while I’m standing next to them holding a report card.

The joining of Art and Science is the maker movement. Making gives the maker control. Control over your learning and over your world. How many of our students feel as though they have no control? Making gives them that control, it shows them they can make an impact in the world that they live in that is both productive and beautiful. When there is nothing and then, because of your hands, there is suddenly something, that’s power. The true joining of science and art in our classrooms is an act of power for our students.

Teller, of the magic duo Penn and Teller, said this in regards to why magic (and what is magic but scientific principles applied artistically?) works- the most important decision everyone makes from day to day, minute to minute, is deciding what is really going on. We want our students to get that critical thinking muscle so strong that they will always be able to make that most important of decisions- what is going on- no matter what. Art and science help our kids see the truth of the world. Science and art allow them to decide for themselves what is really happening.

Making is a joy! My students recently earned some free time or a goofy day- you know Pajama Day, Crazy Hair Day, whatever. They voted to have 45 uninterrupted minutes in class to free make. Like, Mr Robertson isn’t giving us a goal, we just create. This is what I want. I steepled my fingers like Mr Burns and intoned, “Excellent.” And it’s vital that I celebrate the making of anything, the creation of a passion that isn’t driven by curriculum because I can tie anything back to teaching. We all can. Adam Savage of the Mythbusters says that “It doesn’t matter what you make and it doesn’t matter why. The importance is that you’re making something.” Making makes our students critical thinkers. The joining of art and science in making forces hundreds of choices, and inspires students to discover the answers on their own without lining up at my desk to get them. I want them to make because they have to, the music is inside of them already, so my job is discovering how I can exploit the curriculum and the standards to let it play loud.

Listen! What is teaching? Teaching is an effort to understand and explain the human condition and the world in which we exist. Teaching is examining through instruction, work, and reflection what we know, what we want to know, and what is yet unknown. Teaching is mistakes upon mistakes. Teaching is constantly responding to the past to create the future, both immediate and long-term. Teaching is the study of humanity that we as humans may understand ourselves individually and as a whole better.

We design lessons. We design projects. We design assessments. We design, build, test, revise constantly, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute. I won’t say we are both artists and scientists because by now you know that artists are scientists and scientists are artists. But this is only the first step, this understanding. It’s great that I get it. It’s not enough. I need my kid who thinks she’s not artistic to see that what she’s doing, how she sees the world, is already art. And my kid who thinks he’s not good at science, I need him to see it as art, as creation. I don’t need to be a scientist or an artist because I already am- I’m a teacher. And so are they, because they’re students. And so are we, because we’re humans. And we are made of stars.

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, February 11, 2019

Weather or Not

As my students left our classroom last Friday afternoon snowflakes filled the air. The weather report had been getting worse and worse all day and, even though I know they weren't checking their phones for updates like I was, they all seemed to know Snow Days Were Possible. That wonderful mix of a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of hope blended together like ice and slush in the clouds, turning them all into meteorologists. "You see, Mr Robertson, there is a cold front moving in over the mountains, and that will carry with it a 98% chance of precipitation, and since the temperature will be below freezing (thank you for teaching us that, bee-tee-dubs), the roads will become dangerously icy and perhaps even snowy. As you can tell, we probably won't have school Monday."

Friday night fulfilled that promise. It snowed good. Good for here, so a couple of inches. I know I know, all my Mid-Western and Canadian friends scoff when they hear that, but that's because I live in a part of the country that doesn't expect to be covered in snow four months of the year. They live where settlers reached, built up, got snowed on, and then couldn't be bothered to tear down and move on to a more comfortable clime. I live where people saw that snow and said, "Forget that frozen noise" and kept right on moving west. Portland and the surrounding areas are incapable of dealing with snow, and even when there's not snow we get serious ice. The Friday night in question, however, simply snowed and snowed a lot. Deep enough to build snowmen and go sledding all without reaching the grass layer. The weather report said that this would continue through the weekend and on into the next week. Before I left on Friday another teacher had joking remarked, "Well...see you in two weeks."

Then it stopped snowing. Then it rained. And everything melted away. As a precaution my school district had a two hour late start this Monday, just in case the ice needed a little more time to melt. It wasn't needed though. The roads were fine.

My kids felt so betrayed. They had been promised snow days! The internet showed days and days of little cloud icons with tiny cartoon snowflakes. Phrases like "up to ten inches" were used*. Then nothing! How dare the weather lie!

I exaggerate for comedic effect, of course. No one was stomping their feet and huffing at school today. But there was a definite sense of WTFness. Expectation unfulfilled.

Personally, I am happy there were no snow days *knocks on wood*. I don't like the snow. I grew up in the desert and then moved to Hawaii. Until I moved to Oregon I had actively avoided snow. Snow sucks. It's cold and wet and no one can drive in it. So just as a personal preference I'm glad the snow chose not to fall. But also as a teacher, snow days are awful. Most of the time. There's snow much to do and snow little time. I can't flake on the mid-year assessments, and it's easy to drift off the pacing guide with too many missed days. Snow days always result in flurries of activity later.

How should I feel about my kids being excited about not having school? Should I take it personally? Some would argue that it means I'm not doing my best work if my kids are happy about missing school. The kids should be snow excited about coming to school every day! They should love school that much. These people, who get listened to mostly because they talk with authority regardless of weather or not they deserve it, go further and accuse me of not doing my best work if I myself am happy about a snow day.

Snow days suck because they put us behind. I need every single day I can get.

Snow days are pretty freaking sweet. An unexpected day off always is. And feeling like you're promised one and then not getting it is a bummer.

I tell my kids I don't like them having any days off. Holidays, weekends, whatever. I tell them I want them at school all the time. Of course, I also tell them I want them to enjoy their breaks, relax, and try to read and get a little math in if they can. Double message? No, two sides of the same coin.

Teachers who are excited about snow days are human. That's it. Now, teachers who complain endlessly about not getting a snow day are obnoxious, even if they're joking. We all work with one, laughing a little too loudly at their own jokes-but-not-jokes-because-jokes-are-funny about having to be back while making copies. But they are few and far between.

Currently the weather report for my area says we're getting snow Tuesday night, and it might be bad enough to cancel schools. But over the last 72 hours the weather report has changed forty-seven times. Will I be sad if school gets canceled? Yes, because we've got a lot to do and I like spending time with those kids. Will I be happy if school get canceled? Yes, because I like spending time with my own family and any extra day with them is welcomed, plus the break from teaching is also nice. Do I want my students to be excited about snow days? Yes, because I like the idea that children are excited about things. I don't take it personally. I loved school, and I still loved a day off.

I'll continue to check the weather reports hourly on my phone during this cold snap. I need to know if I have to set my alarm like normal, set it back an hour, or turn it off and let my loud children wake me up instead.


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, February 4, 2019

Build a Better House Pt 1 and 2

I built two cardboard houses. Then I challenged my students to make better ones that are also easily reproducible. Then I realized I'd made a big ol' mistake and had to take it all back.

(That is called in media res which literally means "in the middle of", and it's a literary device which allows the author to hook the reader/viewer with an exciting, interesting, or mysterious action in the middle of the story and then rewind to the start of the story and work towards the previously seen part. If you knew that, high five. If you didn't, now that you know the name you'll notice it all the time and annoy the people you watch TV with too.)

My school has put on a MakerFaire for the last three years. It has always been awesome, but the first year was easily the most awesome and every year since then has been progressively less so. Still cool, still proud, but not as great. The committee decided before last year's that it was time to rethink it come next year. Next year has come, and rethink it we have. Previously, the MakerFaire was a giant affair with student projects, class projects, TEDtalks, a Film Fest, an Art Gallery, and a Make and Take. Go big or go home, ya know? It got to be too much though, and we were having a harder and harder time getting teachers involved or excited about it. We'd plateaued. Perfect time to change things up.

We set two goals- A) Get families more involved, and show them what their kids are learning with STEAM and how it works. 2) Better show the integration STEAM across all subjects. We kicked around a few ideas, the best of which was breaking the Faire all the way down into two sections- A big Make and Take and a big Coding room with a bunch of computers and bots going. But then one of our number, one of those teachers that not only always has great ideas but also loves finding ways to make them work, a kindred spirit in other words, landed on a greater idea- Powell Valley (my school's name) Makes. We rebranded (I know, but the terminology works) the Faire completely, going so far as to stop calling it a MakerFaire.

The full name- Powell Valley Makes: A Cardboard City.

Oh yeah. Feel the goosebumps? I know you do.

The Big Idea- In the cafeteria families will come in and make or grab a pre-made cardboard building of some kind. Then there are ten classrooms set up, two for each aspect of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math). Families will take their buildings to each of these rooms, where they will be presented with challenges and ideas relating to that aspect of STEAM that can be done to their buildings. So in the Engineering room- make a garage door that opens or an elevator; in the Technology room- make your house light up, and so on. Honestly, we haven'y fleshed this part out completely yet because it needs to be workable for everyone and scaled so a fifth grader and a kinder can both be successful in the same room. There are staff meetings coming for this. But you get the general idea of the rooms. Because everything is being done on one building, it is a literal representation of the STEAM ethos.

The completed buildings will be placed in the gym, arranged in a city-like fashion. There will also be options for kids to make  and bushes and cars and other things you might see in a city. For realism and differentiation, you see.

The first big challenge (aside from supplies and planning the rooms more clearly), is how the heck are we going to have buildings ready for 300+ families so they don't have to spend the night building the basic building? The solution we've come up with have the older kids slowly over the next few months build buildings a few at a time. But how? Hooowwwwww? Can't just tell them to build houses, that's not clear enough for the plan. And it'll take too long.

I took it upon myself to have my class work the problem. First, I built two sample houses, seen below.

As you can see, one is an A-frameish house, and one is a wall template. The full house is a little more complicated because the design when you're adding angles like that changes things. The wall template is straight-forward, could be mass-produced, and could work for any wall or roof with very little modifications. They wouldn't be fancy, but fancy should come on the night, not with the template.

I brought these two examples to my class and explain everything that I just finished explaining to you. Then I laid a challenge before them- Build a Better House. Here's what I came up with, can you do better? This is your PV Makes, after all.

I forgot what I had been teaching my kids all year. They went BIG. Too big. I wanted easily reproducible designs that could be given to anyone, and that person would be able to look at the design and the template and build the house with no further input. I told my kids that. And then they set about building freaking cathedrals and sky-scrapers.

I should be proud. Our whole thing all year has been going above and beyond. In the words of Frank Zappa, you gotta "put the eyebrows on" your design. I've trained them to take it to 11, and now I'm asking them to hang back at a 5. Too much. Too much. Too complex.

So I had to pull the chute. Today I froze that side of the project and I revamped it. I realized that there was a disconnect stemming from the idea that someone else would be building their designs, they wouldn't be able to. So all the problem solving they do as they find errors in their design needs to be done before the design is actually completed. To be efficient that means designs should be KISS- Keep It Stupid Simple.

I hit the brakes and gave them a new assignment that looked a lot like the old assignment.

As you can see, this time we're working completely inside our room first. Student pairs will design a simple building, then they will trade designs and test the simplicity by having to build someone else's plans without being allowed to ask clarifying questions. Then we see how well the finished product matches the designers mental image. This, in theory, will force design clarity and simplicity.

We started it today.

Designs are still a little bonkers. They really don't get the line between simple and bad yet. Some are also still wildly unclear. Which brings back into stark focus something I hit on last week- There's a lot of failure in Making, and a lot of Teacher Worry. I approve all designs before they're traded and I'm going to end up approving designs that aren't ready because the group bringing them to me can not see that they aren't ready. So a bad design is going to go out, and a bad building will be made, and then a serious reflection and revision will take place. It's an important process. I need to want kids who are uber-confident in their lacking designs to crash and burn, so that they can learn why. I won't let them blame the construction workers, it'll be on them being unclear. Then they'll do it again. I have faith they can do it. I have faith in the process. I also know how hard it is.

This process will take a month probably. Once it's over *steeples fingers evilly* not only will students know how to write clear design plans, we will also have a bunch of clear designs that can be used by other classes moving forward. They'll be tested. But I'm not letting my kids think about that, I want them thinking in their class first.

We're only a day into the revised Build a Better House project. I look forward to seeing the learning that's about to take place. I also have my teeth gritted and I'm braced for impact because I know it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

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.