Tuesday, September 17, 2019

This Post Is NSFW

WARNING: This post contains things that are Not Safe For Work.

 I have four rules in my class and I regularly violate one of them (depending on your definition of the rule). That rule? Be Safe. The other rules, before you ask, are Be Responsible, Be Respectful, and Make Good Choices. And, just to simplify as much as possible, my Big Class Rule That Covers Everything is Be Cool.

But am I safe in class? Is my classroom safe? I wonder. Let's take a look at some of the things in my class that might be NSFW.

I stand on desks. Sometimes I even stand on chairs. OM gosh, amiright? "Doug," I hear you ask. "Do you stand on desks because of that one Robin Willi-" Imma stop you right there, my friend. No. No I don't. To be honest, I've never seen that movie. I know they stand on desks and recite poetry and it's this amazing teaching/learning moment. That's not why I do it. My kids don't stand on the desks. This is one of those few times where I flex that Because I'm The Teacher reason. Why do I stand on desks then? Honestly, because it's there. Because I'm used to having 35 students in a room and that's a lot of desks. You know the easiest way to get across a classroom with 35 desks in it? Straight across, as the teacher flies. Plus, I have changed the heights of the desks in my classroom, so some are as low as a desk can get, mere feet off the floor. It's not even a big step to get up there. I like having the kids track me around the room, and sometimes all a class needs to get back on track is the surprise of a teacher stepping up onto a desk. Or the thought that the teacher might step up on a desk.

I'll also stand on chairs, but I don't really have stable chairs in my classroom so I only stand on a chair if the spirit moves me, and even then it is almost immediately followed by my near death. "What happened at school today?" "Mr Robertson died! It was amazing."

I know I just said I don't let my kids stand on their desks, because I'm not a complete nut, but I do let them sit up there. What do I care, as long as they're working and gravity isn't especially strong in that area of the classroom. Be comfortable.

Know what else happens in my class that's NSFW? Google. Oh yeah, we Google things. Like, all the time. I know, risk taker. Some of you are scoffing right now, like, "Lolz Doug. Ok, whatever, nice jokey joke. 'Googling things is NSFW' I get it because Google has security issues we don't fully understand and yet we've embraced it completely."

Nah man. It's because my kids do things like animal research projects and you've never known stress until you hear a kid say, "Mr Robertson, I did an image search for cougars and...umm...can you come here?" Or, "Mr Robertson, I Googled literally anything about the president* and what does this word mean?"

Teaching digital citizenship is vital (I'll also forever argue that we don't need to call it "digital citizenship" anymore, it's just "citizenship" now). But part of learning the ways of the internets is failing and finding those places online that aren't awesome. Talking about cyberbullying is one thing, experiencing it is something else. Talking about how little YouTube regulates is algorithm is one thing, but experiencing how quickly a student can go from legitimate research results to autoplaying "101 Ways The Government Is  Keeping The White Man Down" radicalizing channels is another. The internet is great, but it isn't exactly safe.

That's not a reason to not use it though. It might be a better reason to use it, because it's real.

I've got half a dozen steel plates across the back of my classroom. Why? Because I'm METAL!

Ok, that's not the real reason. The real reason is I wanted more writing space in my classroom and whiteboards and freaking expensive. Any kind of decent-sized whiteboard. I wanted a few too. My wife discovered a website that suggested thin stainless steel plates. You can write on them with whiteboard markers and they erase. They're light and thin, so they're easy to hang, and they're shiny so they actually brighten the room up a little. And they're metal so they look cool. We bought a few and screwed them right into the wall of my classroom and my students use them all the time.

They're still metal plates hanging on the wall though, so I'm sure plenty of people would have safety concerns and questions. "Aren't the edges pointy/sharp?" They would be if the wizard hadn't given me a brain and I hadn't bent those edges in. I don't want a student walking by and snagging a sleeve or a piece of skin on the board, or on a screw. Much like most heavy metal, it looks dangerous, but it's actually safe enough for ten year olds.

I have over a dozen knives in my classroom. This took some doing, I'll admit. You can't find an administrator who will be ok with a teacher asking for the k-word in their classroom. Especially not an elementary school administrator. As I've said hundreds of times and will continue to say, I'm incredibly lucky on this front. My principal was not thrilled with the idea that I'd have cardboard knives in my classroom, but she also trusts me that one I'd teach my kids how to use them, and two, I wouldn't bring something actually dangerous into my classroom. Look at that picture, these aren't that dangerous. You've got to either really try or really space out to hurt yourself with one, and even then it's just going to be a thin paper cut. The edges are barely serrated and the tip is dull. We have a loooooong conversation about the proper way to carry and use these tools. Frankly, if you are ok with your students using serious scissors you're already ok with them using sharp, dangerous objects. These are safer. And why do I need them? Because w build with cardboard all the time. My class is all about the making and building, that project-based learning, that STEAM. Cutting cardboard with scissors, even good ones, sucks. But with a cardboard knife? It's quick, it's easy to get curves cut, everything is better. Like any other tool, use it right and it's all good.

Do any of these things actually make my class unsafe? No, of course not. In fact, I'd argue that my room is safer overall than most because we have the added pressure of having and doing things that could be seen as unsafe from the outside. My students know that they've got to be on top of their choices because everything we have depends on them making the best choices.

Which brings me to my final and most NSFW action in my classroom...

The Unknown.

Just yesterday another teacher who teaches with a similar philosophy to myself and I were trying to explain to our grade level teams an idea we had. The person who had worked with us for years was immediately on board. The two new teachers had a lot of questions, good questions, reasonable questions. The first of which was, "What exactly will this look like when it's finished?" He and I smiled and said, "We don't know. But it'll work. And if it doesn't, something else will."

I love teaching without a net. It's all trying things out, old things done new ways and brand new things I've never tried before and (because we all know kids and how this goes) old things that for sure ought to work because they've worked for years but now all of the sudden they don't because kids are similar but they sure aren't the same. Classrooms are full of the unknown, and it's up to us to choose how we deal with it. A lot of teachers try to control it and make it known as much as possible, which isn't bad. I'm teaching my student teacher to do something similar to that because it serves brand new teachers well to have one less thing to worry about. But I don't do that though because I like the discovery of the unknown. I know what should happen in my class. I know, normally, at least a general outline of what's coming. But I don't have any honest idea what each kid will bring me come Hobby Project day, or Cardboard Arcade day, or any of a dozen other I Hope This Works projects. Then it's on me to check understanding in my is and connect their learning to The Things They Must Know and I have to trust I'll be able to. Having faith there's valuable learning in the Unknown doesn't feel safe, but it is the best.

How NSFW is you class?

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.

Monday, September 9, 2019

We're Doing Squats

Well this got a lot more traction than I expected it to. Look, it even got taken by the We Are Teachers Facebook group and reposted.

Someone even liked it enough to give it one of those squinty eyes laughing mouth emoji faces, which I think is a good thing. Unless it's in pain. Can an emoji feel pain? I hope so, because they should for being a part of that movie.

A tweet catching like this makes me nervous because even though I think this is as concise as I could have made the message while still getting all the important information across with context while avoiding misunderstandings (hard, but not as hard as some professional thought leaders would make it sound since that's basically what writing is), it is still only a tweet.* A tweet can only convey so much and when something goes wide like this I want to talk about it more.

First- I really do say this to kids, or something along these lines if football isn't en vogue when the topic comes up. It's good for any sport, and if you've got kids who speak music you can replace squats with scales. Actor kids can relate to learning monologues for plays they might never perform. The point is, I didn't make up a hypothetical situation to impress EduTwitter. Too much real stuff happens in my classroom to pretend online about what might happen. I actually work with kids so I get to test run these things on human children and see how they work.

Which brings me to the next part- This example does actually work. It re-contextualizes the learning we're doing into something understandable. Adults all over the interwebs it seems really like what I said, but we all know that doesn't mean anything when it comes to teaching. How something hits adult ears is a thousand times less important than how something hits kid ears. And this conversation works. It has to be a conversation. As we all know, you can't drop something like this on kids and expect them to just nod and accept it. You've got to give them lots of examples and support, both with the sports (or whatever) example, and then with the learning that is actually taking place in class. No, I'm honestly not sure when you'll use dividing fractions outside of this class, at least not in a way that doesn't involve yet another cooking example. But yes you still have to learn it. Because the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets.

But that only works- "the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets"- if they've seen it happen in class already. We do a lot of making in my class, because making allows students to see growth in a concrete way, and they can apply what they're learning right away. You can see the thing you're making getting better. We do hobby projects that drive the point home. We're constantly reflecting on the Why of things. You may walk into my class to hear me say, "Nowhere in the standards does it say 'students will learn to build a cardboard arcade'. You do not need this skill. So why did we spend a week on it?" And you'll hear my kids give real answers about applying their learning in specific ways. Answers that demonstrate meta-cognition and reflection and understanding that purpose and process may not always be clearly aligned, but they are aligned.

Why do we do x? Because we don't know when the skills we learn while doing x will appear in other forms other places. Because we see education as a whole and not as pieces. This idea that "Some of these things are not directly useable. But that doesn't make them meaningless. Your favorite football player will never do a squat in a game, so why do a ton in practice? The skills add up to a whole." is a holistic approach to education. I believe this is pure STEAM. Moreso than building things or coding, students internalizing the idea that all of these skills are connected in ways that make us stronger as a whole is the essence of STEAM.

In the words of every conspiracy theorist ever, "It's all related, maaaaaan."

As long as we're here, let's address some of the concerns people voiced about what I said.

For the first one- It's a metaphor, so yes, it's a reach. All metaphors are suspect always. They're never as clear as they could possibly be, but they often allow things to be seen in a different light and that helps understanding. And I agree, we do need to be teaching kids things that are applicable to life outside of school. Things like seeing how various things connect in unexpected ways, things like learning for the joy of knowing something new. I didn't say that this was always my reason or that I'm only teaching things that act as mental squats. It's a piece of a whole. And anyone who has done squats knows that they're pretty rigorous. Or this person is assuming that the rest of my class is not rigorous based on the one tweet.

And the second one- You are purposefully misunderstanding the entire point while agreeing with me that squats improve overall fitness. Knowing things, working out your brain, does that as well. And bless you for calling chemistry and algebra impractical to real life. I look forward to scrolling through those 29 replies to see math and chem teachers correcting you so I don't have to.

It's like the people who say, "If students can Google it then you don't need to teach it" like that actually makes any sense or the Google gives real answers and isn't just a needle in a stack of needles. "This isn't practical" means you aren't trying hard enough friend.

I'd like to address one more thing before we call it a night tonight. And I want to make clear when I share this that I think the teachers who said it were joking or at least partially joking, while also covering for the fact that "Why do we need to know this?" is a hard question to answer sometimes, especially when you're in the middle of jumping through district hoops and everything in your brain is screaming, "BECAUSE YOU GOTTA RIGHT NOW!" A non-zero number of people jokingly (I think, benefit of the doubt and not mocking them) said they've told kids, "Because if you go on Jeopardy this might be an answer." We can all agree this is not motivational or is it inspiring or helpful, right? I'm not judging, I've probably dropped that on a kid at some point too. But can we agree that "Winning a game show" is not a great answer to why someone needs to learn something? We can? Cool. Thanks.

If I were to be completely honest, in a perfect world my answer to students about why they need to learn something would be, "Because learning is a joyful thing, and a beautiful thing. To learn is to live. You should learn this because our thirst for knowledge should be insatiable and every new skill, new fact, new connection makes the world brighter and better, less ignorant and ugly."

But poetry works in tweets and blog posts. With nine year olds, it's better to be straight up and practical. "Because it makes you stronger, and everything we do is connected." Then actually connecting everything we do.

*that's a hell of a sentence there, Robertson. Maybe less coffee before sitting down to write, huh?

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The New, The Old, The Revised, The What The Hell, and The Future

Teaching at the start of the year is wholly an exercise in Finding The New, The Old, The Revised, The What The Hell, and The Future.

This, I think, is one of my favorite things about teaching. I get to be reincarnated* at the start of every year. Teachers are the walking answer to "If you could go back in time and give a message to your younger self, what would it be?" I get to do that. I get to reflect back on the previous year, on everything we did, and rebuild all of it again. Especially when I'm teaching the same grade level again, like I am this year. Technically I could do every single thing exactly the same. I still have last year's planner. I could probably follow it if I wanted to, and once I moved where the Music, PE, and recess times went I could make it work.

I could.

But why? Where's the learning in that? Where's the joy?

I spent a bunch of days last week setting up my classroom. I had to do The Full Set Up too because they painted my room over the summer, so at the end of the year I had to take everything off the walls, move all the desks around, put everything into boxes, the whole nine. It's huge pain to do The Full Set Up. Except...I kinda like it. I like starting from that blank slate and seeing my room empty. I was pretty sure my desks would end up organized like they have been for a few years now, in six groups of four to six, a combination of low, normal, and high desks. I like that because we do a lot of group work in my class so having them built into groups helps my flow. But I also don't want big tables for groups because then you can't split them up and use them as singles or duos. I want maximum flexibility. Because every single thing in your classroom sends a message to the kids. Groups says "We're gonna talk, we're gonna collaborate, you're gonna have to figure out how to make eye contact with your friend and still hear what I'm saying." Unassigned groups, which is also what I do, adds to that. I don't tell kids where to sit on the first day. "Find a seat. Make a good choice." Choice. It's right there. Immediately. As crystal clear as a Miles Davis solo cutting through the mix.

I have a student teacher this year so he got to come in and experience The Full Set Up. I'm quite sure it looked easy to him, because even though you're constantly talking out loud when you've got a student teacher, constantly doing a running thought-by-thought, it all happens very quickly. Later in the year I will let him design the room if he wants to change it. I'll even let him build the seating chart because there will probably come a time, probably November or maybe February, when the kids get a little too relaxed and they forget that just because the big rule is class is Be Cool that doesn't mean we have no expectations, and they will need a reminder. I love watching student teachers do seating chart calculus. But right now while he watches the set up happen it seems automatic. Clear. Even if I am saying what I'm doing he doesn't really know that the class library is in a slightly different place than it was last year, and this piece of the Making Area is new and might actually help the room stay slightly more organized than normal.

I get to find The New. What a joy. Things I've wanted to try, ideas that came over the summer, ideas that came from my student teacher (The Apartment, for example, which will probably be its own blog post at some point), ideas I forgot I had until the reminder I put in my phone pops up. (Pro Tip- Don't try to remember things over the summer. But the idea in your Google Calendar, set the event for that set-up week, and forget about it until you can actually do something with it.)

I get to find The Old and see how old it really is. And why it's old. Sometimes things in classrooms are old because they've been put in a file and never looked at again. But sometimes things are old because they just work. They might need some tape, maybe a little polish, but it works because it works and that's good. And if it doesn't really work anymore, well...

Then it's The Revised. Yes, gimme that assignment that only kinda worked last year. I don't have to build it again so it's already easier to use, I've got at least one year's worth of data from the kids on it so I know what went well and what didn't, and let's get our Frankenstein on. Let's throw it at the student teacher and see what he does with it. I'd rather him get ideas like that than from Pintrest. (I get so Old Man Shouts At Cloud about Pintrest lessons for a few reasons, but one is that I think I'm a more creative teacher because when I was coming up there was no Pinterst, no Twitter, no Facebook. If I wanted a creative lesson I had to build it. I think that made me stronger. But that's its own post too, I'm sure.)

I also love finding The What The Hell. Remember those lessons? I don't think every project needs to be a home run, that's ridiculous Thought Leader talk that leads to teacher burn out and thought leader speaking gigs about burn out. Like a baseball team, we live and die on singles and doubles for the most part. The What The Hell are the pop flies. The accidental bloopers. The wild pitches that maim the mascot. The lessons I blocked out until that damn story shows up again out of nowhere (because I didn't look ahead in the reading book) and I have the exact same idea that crapped out last time but then remember how it went in a flash of teacha vu and am able to change it. Or scrap it completely.

And The Future. Mmmmmm. Even in a grade I've taught before there's the mystery of what new could happen. This, I think, comes with time and with faith. My class did some really cool things last year and I don't want to/can't repeat them. My competitive side wants to top them. My realistic side wants to at least meet them. And my rational side has no freaking idea what any of that looks like yet. But it'll come. It'll happen. Like Sarah Conner says, the future is waiting to be written (five nerd points to anyone who points out why using this particular time travel franchise is a terrible way to make the point I'm trying to make).

I start school again tomorrow. My next year. My student teacher's first year with teacher in his title. My students' first time in fourth grade. We're all jacked on nerves. Will they like me? Will we get the work done well? Will they get my way of doing things and will I get theirs? Can we get on with it already.

Time to have faith that the new, the old, the revised, the what the hell, and the future are out there for us, ready.

*I've been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica this summer and you're all lucky this didn't become a Teachers Are Cyclons But Good Guys post.

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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.