Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Where My Benches At?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Madness of The End

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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