Tuesday, October 29, 2019

What if You Classroom Was Haunted?

I wonder what it would be like if my classroom were haunted.

Would it be haunted by the ghost of a former teacher? Is that where teachers go after they die? They say your spirit can't move on if you've got unfinished business. This should scare all teachers because, really, who has all their grading done? Put your hand down, you liar. Even if your grading is done you haven't finished planning that next lesson.

My classroom being haunted by a teacher would explain why I can't find things and why student pencils always go missing. It's either that or my students and I are completely unorganized, and I know that can't possibly be it. So it's probably a ghost. This would explain why my projector sometimes freaks out and switches channels. Ghost teacher, trying to send me a message that I shouldn't be talking any more. Oh sure, Mrs Ghost. When you taught it was all slate boards and chalk so you can't understand why I'm casting a Chromebook to the overhead. You don't even know what those words mean. And you should, Mrs Ghost, because you've been in my room for years so you've heard me explain it. But I guess once you're a ghost you're not really looking to learn or grow anymore. 

If my classroom were haunted by a former teacher it would probably be cleaner though. I don't know a whole lot of teachers who are ok with my style of "organization". Mrs Ghost teacher would probably move stuff around and I'd get back and instead of Haunted Mansion tea parties and precarious book stacks every pencil would be sharpened and in a cup, all my papers would be stacked nicely, and my coffee machine would finally be cleaned. 

Maybe I do need a ghost teacher in my room.

If it were a ghost student, let's call him Kaspar for legal reasons, that would explain how so many of my students fall out of chairs and off wobble stools. It's not that they're rocking back and forth or playing around. Kaspar is a punk and he's pushing them off and laughing about it. He's also getting into their desks and stealing morning work so they can't find it even though they know they put it right back into their folder just like I said. Kaspar strikes again. 

Kaspar breaks pencils, even as the student is writing with them. And Kaspar, let's call him Kas, messed with my pencil sharpener so it never actually sharpens the pencil, it just eats it. Can ghosts climb inside pencil sharpeners? Sure they can. Kas is ruining pencils. And markers! Holy cow, this is all coming together now. Kas goes around and loosens whiteboard marker caps so the pens dry up. I bet Kas has a bunch of tiny whiteboard marker ghosts following him around everywhere, doing his evil bidding. That's why he didn't cross over. There was one more prank left to pull. 

I'm absolutely going to haunt my classroom after I die. I'm already lame, might as well lean into it in the afterlife. I'll whisper answers into student ears while they're testing, sometimes right, sometimes wrong depending on how I feel that day. I'll whoosh across the teacher's desk, scattering papers everywhere. Me and the ghost custodian will play with the lights and make sure the fire alarm never works during drills until after the administration have called maintenance. In that millisecond flash between when the teacher turns the projector off and the light actually goes out I'll stand (float?) in front of the screen so my afterimage is burned into everyone's subconscious. I'll short out the microwave in the teacher's lounge. 

Unless they leave out dark chocolate M&Ms for me as a peace offering. Leave out the dark chocolate, show some respect to the phantom of the schoolhouse, use the lesson plans I write, and hire the young teacher I secretly trained in the broom closet, and I'll leave you be.

Or will I? *spooky ghost laugh goes here*

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, October 21, 2019

"Does This Make Sense?" Doesn't Make Sense.

Yeah...so this got a lot more traction than I expected. But I also never know what tweets will get a reaction and what won't. I just say stuff I'm thinking about, and sometimes it hits a nerve.

Because it's important (to me, but I actually like the engagement of twitter, not just the engagement numbers*) not to leave a popular tweet like this just floating contextless in the education space, I want to talk about the why of it all, and where I'm coming from. Then we'll look at what some other people in the long long thread had to say.

"Does this make sense?" is a pretty terrible check-for-understanding question to ask students. How will they answer? They'll say, "Yes." That's actually the whole line from GHOSTBUSTERS. "Ray, if someone asks you if you're a god, or if what they just taught makes sense, you say 'YES!'" It's in the extended edition. Don't google it, just trust me.

Students will default to Yes for a variety of reasons- They don't want to look like the one kid who doesn't know. They weren't listening and Yes is a safer answer than No. They do actually understand, at least part of it. They know Yes will probably get you to stop talking. They think they understand but actually don't. They are a god. None of these things help me as the teacher do my job at all. The question is too open-ended, too vague. At the least, it requires a few follow-ups questions. But those need to be done one-on-one with a student and can come off as "I'm trying to catch you not being honest" questions.

The cousins to "Does that make sense?", in case you're curious, are "Any questions?", "Everyone got it?", "Soooo...yeah?",  "Can we move on?", and "Eh? *gestures at board* Eh? Right?" Holy cow, there was so much punctuation in that last sentence.

The problem is, "Does this make sense?" seems like it should be a good question. We assume our kids are honest, and I think they mostly are. We assume they want to learn, and I think they do. We assume they will tell us when they're confused, and...that's a learned skill coupled with everyone's favorite Education Word- relationship-dependent. My students will, for the most part, tell me if they're confused. By now, eight or nine weeks in, we've built a relationship and a trust and hopefully encourages that and has made it clear not understanding is not a bad thing. I've got a few kids I can depend on to ask for help, and a few who, at parent/teacher conferences the end of November, I know I'll be telling their parents "I would really like it is s/he would ask some more questions in class." Because it is on the kids to take their learning into their own hands. If this is a conversation then it should be two-way, but I can't expect them to do it all themselves. And asking bad questions like "Does this make sense?" is not helping.

We must be more specific with our questioning.

  • "What's something cool you noticed about what we just did?"
  • "If you had to explain this to my six-year old, what would you say?"
  • "Can you please give me an example based on what we just learned?"

You know- specific questions that cannot be answered with Yes/No. And those can still have follow-up questions. I love having the kids re-explain what someone else said. You know what's really fun, and I only do it occasionally because it's not a well you can go back to a lot without it running dry? For a Think Time option, rather than Turn And Talk, I tell my kids I've hidden an invisible white mouse in each of their desks. Please open your desk, gently take the mouse out, cup it in your hands, and whisper what you think/know/learned/understood to the mouse, then hold it to your ear and listen for what the mouse says. Then tell me what the mouse says. Friends, the first time I did this was because I had, as I often do, and idea that began "Wouldn't it be funny if..." and then I decided to see what would happen. And they all did it. It was awesome. They ask to explain things to their mice. They name their mice.

I'm also thinking about this question, and other in-the-moment assessment questions like it because I've got a student teacher, and he's working on these same skills. As with everything I tell him, I have to run it through my personal Teacher Brain first. What am I telling him? Why am I saying it? What's the pedagogical point? Why do I do that? He's trying to find the best way to do comprehension checks too, just like we all are.

Hence, the tweet. Now that's I've gone on for a while, let's check out some of the responses in the thread, shall we? Learn from each other.

I like a lot of the ideas in this. I think that I'll be specifically trying to add the "You must ask me two questions" thing. I also completely agree with Alicia that no matter how good our questioning is, at some point you've still got to know your kids and just be on the look out for the floating question mark over their heads. That's part of being a teacher. We should have to take body language classes in university, like Tim Roth on Lie To Me, except not to be cops about it. Never to be a cop about it.

It's also worth scrolling through the responses to the original tweet because so many teachers said something along the lines of, "Oh man, me too." This is a goodness. We're all in this together, we're all struggling and making mistakes, and we're all doing things that we know aren't the best, trying to fix them, but still being honest about it happening. It's not saying "I sucked today", it's specific, detailed reflection that is actionable. You know, just like what we're trying to ask our students.

Here's one last funny thing about tweets like this- There is no request for help in this tweet. It doesn't ask for advice. But a lot of teachers just can't help themselves. And, to be honest, that can be a little off-putting, no matter how well intentioned the advice is. We need to be able to see the difference between "I have trouble with this, what should I do?" and "I have trouble with this." Those are two very different statements. In this case, after advice continued to roll in, I choose to lean into it. Why fight the tide? Truthfully though, who amongst us actually enjoys unsolicited advice? I say all of this as a guy who has responded to tweets that do not ask for advice with advice and got shot down hard for it. The women (yes, I too succumb to the mansplain and I'm doing everything I can not to, and these experiences getting shot down helped me with that) who shot me down were right to too. They didn't ask, I assumed. So even though this whole thread came out good, and there was a lot of helpful ideas shared, I think it's important to be aware of the difference between a statement and a request. Personally, I try to remember to ask, "Yeah, do you want to know what I do?" before jumping in with "Here's what I'd do." Everyone just wants to help. Not one person in this thread was being a jerk or being rude or being anything but open, honest, and helpful. But even a lifeguard doesn't jump in until the person asks for help or can no longer ask.

We want our kids to ask us for help before we help them. Then they know they need it, they feel safe enough to ask, and they know what to ask for. We need to help them by asking the right leading questions. When everyone comes together in understanding for understanding, everything is better understood.

Does all that make sense?

*"But Doug, I hear you cry, you barely responded to anyone in the thread. That, dear reader, is because it blew up while I was teaching, then I went straight from school to my bass lesson, then straight home and my wife went to a PTC meeting at our oldest son's school and I had the two boys. Then they went to bed and she came home and we spent some time together and now I'm up in my office writing this. Sixty-two replies (as of this moment) is a whole lot to respond to. I'll try later.

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, October 14, 2019

Real Men What? Guest post by Alexander Fishman

Get it?

I decided that I was a feminist some time in high school. Deciding to claim an identity and living it out are by no means the same thing. For a long time, I marked the beginning of my journey as the evening when I argued with my father standing outside our apartment in Brooklyn. The argument ranged and meandered, as conversations between parents and children will do, but landed on me yelling at my father to stop telling me “be a man”. For a long time, I remembered that evening as my taking a stand for something. Lately, what I remember most about that night, is that while we extended our evening walk to have this argument, my mom was upstairs in the apartment doing dishes and laundry, after having cooked us dinner.

The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. Change happens in the space between the two. But if I am satisfied with my “End White Supremacy” T-Shirt and use it as a way to absolve myself from rooting out racism, then change doesn’t happen at all.

Today I was having another argument on Twitter, about being a man, and what it means to be a ‘real man’, and what the words ‘real men’ mean in the classroom. I may have convinced someone to read bell hooks, or maybe not. I definitely talked my way into writing a blog for Doug (Ed. Note- Truth, but I like hosting smart writing here). I definitely said things that people who aren’t men have already said. Is it still mansplaining when it is done among men? It is.

It might also be necessary to have men speak with one another about the harm sexism is doing and the need to examine and dismantle patriarchy. No, it is definitely necessary. But when I speak out in public, like let’s say on Twitter, it’s easy for the conversation to end at the acknowledgement. Hey look, this dude says he is a feminist and has called out a sexist thing. Applause. And after the applause, comes silence.

I have been having difficult conversations with a small group of activists within White People 4 Black Lives, who are working to examine their male privilege. Those conversations have been private, with less applause and more introspection. I am grateful for the leadership of men who’ve been discussing this longer than I have. The more I dig into sexism, the clearer it is that it’s not just in the culture but in me. As much as I don’t like the ‘real men’ hashtag that started this blog, I dislike that part of myself that is satisfied to clap-back and move on. The part of me that values competition and one-up-MAN-ship is what I need to change.

So back to the argument on twitter. Yes, it bothers me if there are people who think ‘male educators’ are somehow under privileged in schools. But there is a bigger conversation we could be having.

We could talk about the disproportionate amount of attention that men in schools get. How folks of all genders do the work, but men get the admin positions and awards. But should I be leading that conversation, when I’ve gotten those admin positions and those awards?

We could talk about how even in classrooms and schools dominated by women, patriarchy is the driving force. People of all genders need to start dismantling patriarchy in our classroom management, in our curriculum, and in our organizational structures. But can I really lead a conversation like that, when I started teaching without any knowledge of intersectionality, and certainly ran my classroom management with a deep ignorance of class, race, and gender?

We can talk about how our curriculum continues to put white men in the center, and how clumsy attempts at ‘diversity’ make the ‘hidden figures’ seem the exception that proves the rule. But is the conversation around meaningful inclusion in need of another white voice?

We could talk about how patriarchy harms children of all genders, how entitled men who abuse power, start out as little boys who are denied access to their emotions and denied the tools to understand the emotions of others. But none of these are conversations that should be led by me or by any white men for that matter. In fact, those conversations are already taking place. Kimberle Crenshaw described intersectionality in the 1980’s. bell hooks elaborated on the role of feminism for men’s liberation in the 2000’s. Since then educators, often led by educators of color, have been applying these ideas to the classroom. I just need to make room, to listen, to learn, and to support.

Meanwhile I have internal work to do. In my teaching career I have been handed amazing opportunities, and I have been constantly elevated, often when there were non-male and non-white educators who could have taken on those roles. I’ve been used to seeing myself as someone who steps up, but now I am learning to consider stepping back and getting out of the way. I used to think, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” where now I am trying out, “who in my community can I support who is already doing this work:?” This is painfully obvious stuff, but white male privilege is a powerful drug, it feeds us lies like perfectionism and “There is only one right way.” I have to admit that my way may not be right, and accept that for some reason that’s super hard for my inflated ego.

The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. The twitter persona I have is one of a woke activist teacher who is a great ally. I got a lot of digital high fives for calling out the problematic ‘real men’ language. To be honest, I even started writing down questions we could ask on #WeirdEd. Then I remembered #ClearTheAir and #EduColor and a quick search showed me that I was basically paraphrasing stuff that other teachers had already asked, in some cases three or more years ago. Questions about teaching with an intersectional lens, have been discussed in depth on those chats. And I should have remembered because I even participated in those conversations. Insert facepalm emoji.

Me ‘starting’ the conversation about male privilege in the classroom would be like that time Lyft decided they invented buses. So if I am going to contribute to an original #WeirdEd let’s ask this - What patterns are you trying to change in your teaching that are difficult to shake?

My pattern has to do with ego. It is tied to that self righteous teenager, who knew there was something wrong with ‘masculinity’ but didn’t take the time to notice how he was benefiting from it. My pattern is about a young teacher who thought he had to fight the system, but didn’t notice that he was the system. My pattern is about a teacher who was ready to lead the fight for change, but didn’t notice that others were already in the fight. My pattern is about wanting to be the change, without fully realizing that I need to change. Maybe other white men in education experience this, or is it just me?

Thanks to Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun I have a name for my pattern and it’s called ‘white supremacy culture’ Remember that t-shirt I mentioned? Getting the T-shirt was the easy part. Pulling out this thing that has roots in my ego is going to be hard. So that’s me being a real...person.

Alexander Fishman can be found on twitter. He is a teacher. His work is inspired by students who want to see real change in the places where they live. This is his 13th year in the classroom. He began teaching Regenerate Neighborhoods in Chicago and is currently the Elementary Technology Teacher at Campbell Hall in Los Angeles. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Solo Co-Planning

When you do a Google image search for "all alone" the first hundred responses (at least, I didn't keep digging) are all depressing. "Working alone" too, including this poor guy who I'm pretty sure is dead. For the header image here I even searched "working alone happily". Look at all those people who are not alone at all not even a little. This is some real interesting messaging- If you're alone, you're depressed. It's like all those teacher memes where we're supposed to get the introverted quiet kid to open up because that's like playing the video game on Hard. It completely ignores the joy of working and creating alone that many students (and teachers) feel. It emphasizes The Group. Why don't you want to be part of The Group? What's wrong? You should join The Group. The Group is good.

I like working alone. I've spent most of my teaching career working alone. Not because I'm anti-social or superior or a jerk no one wants to hang out with, but because even in grade level teams teaching is often a solitary thing.

My first job was teaching third grade. The other third grade teacher was also a first year teacher. So we planned together because it's harder to drown alone. Then I moved to Hawaii. Hawaii is amazing and they really do mean all that ohana stuff that makes it into the tourist material. Locals are the coolest people and I worked with a really big, really cool team my first year there. I got a lot of help, I was a second year teacher, after all. But the next year I worked with the meanest, worst women I've ever had to be around. I stopped eating lunch with them by the third week of school, I avoided them at all costs unless we were forced to work together. After that year I bounced around from third to fourth for a bit, all great teams, but as I started to develop my own teaching voice and style and beliefs I drifted away from the group planning. This is nothing against those other teams I worked with in Hawaii, they were wonderful (except the sixth grade team, who were the meanest women on Earth, like I said).  But the more established teachers had their Stuff and I was still building my Stuff and deciding that I would throw away a lot of my Stuff every year to make way for new Stuff. I'd always been different my whole life, and I was finally confident enough in my teaching for that aspect of my personality to come through.

So I planned with others as far as we all had to, but I was on my own out in my little portable too. This only got stronger as I moved back to the mainland and brought my growing sense of Weird Teacher-ness with me. Again, great team, great people, didn't really plan together, didn't really do the same stuff through the team.

It wasn't until I got to the school I'm at now where that started to swing back the other way, where I found a kindred spirit in Making. But he was also a loner as far as it was. So we'd bounce ideas off each other and then go to our rooms and create those ideas in our own students' image. Co-planning, but not at the same time. A happy balance. We do us, but I get to do me more. Perfect.

Cut to this year. My team of myself and two other teachers is wonderful. Really and truly fantastic. We get along better than I've gotten along with any other team, bar none. Planning takes place between cracking each other up. And we're very different teachers. One is a second year teacher, much more confident in himself this year, ready to take on new challenges, and one is a veteran teacher who is way more Type A than either of us, but willing to put up with our nonsense as long as she can see the whole and how it connects to the standards. A strong balance.

And I'm struggling with part of it. Not in a bad way, mind. I don't want this to come off like a complaint. But I like planning alone. That's the process I've built over fifteen years. So when we're having a planning session as a team and someone says, "Ok, but how can we make this more project-based learning?" I feel like I should have an answer. I'm a PBL guy. I do trainings and whatnot on it. My kids build stuff all the time. I should be able to hit them with ideas and we hash them out together and Boom, awesome happens.

Except, ideas don't really come to me like that. Ideas come to me when I'm staring at my computer, heavy metal blasting from the tiny speakers, spacing out, turning the most recent Journeys story or math lesson or whatever over and over in my head, talking to myself, waiting for something to come. Then a little light shows up, so I follow it, and eventually it becomes a Thing. But even then, most of the time I don't know if it's a Good Thing or a Bad Thing yet. It's just a Thing. The quality of the Thing won't become clear until I start saying it out loud at kids, or writing it out. And even then chances are high the Thing will change again once I'm actually working it with my students.

That's my process. It's slow and messy (unless the idea comes fast and fully formed) and it often looks like nothing until it suddenly looks like something. And that's really freaking hard to explain to a grade level team on Thursday afternoon trying to plan for the next week. "I dunno man. I gotta, like, talk to myself for a while." Even then, I know that when I try to explain it that first time it still looks odd. That's not because I'm The Weird Teacher and I've gotta stay On Brand. It's because that's how I see things. Last year I saw a spiderweb that became a metaphor for Westward Expansion that I got really excited about and didn't fully understand until my kids finished making it. Things always get bigger than they are initially. Or get too big and they have to be pared back.

None of this is a problem when I'm planning alone, or with a student teacher. I get to go on that little journey all by my lonesome, following paths and rabbit trails, pulling strings, standing in the center of my room, hands on hips, then laying down in the center of the room, then looking intently at a tabletop for a minute (ten minutes?), then playing air guitar when Slayer comes on, then finding it.

Michelangelo said that sculpture was not creating a shape out of stone, the sculpture was already in the stone and he had only to free it by removing the excess stone around it. (This is probably apocryphal but I love the metaphor of it so google it and correct me in the comments or twitter thread if you must.) The project, the plan, the idea is there, I've just gotta have faith and get to it.

That does not really work with two (or three if my student teacher is there) people sitting and waiting for you to be a part of the meeting. I'm having to change how I create and think. This is not a bad thing, evolution is good, teamwork is good, they make my ideas better just like I make their ideas better. But at the same time I like working alone. I like being king of my island of misfit ideas and wandering through it as I wish. I'm happy alone in my classroom, working out problems. I'm also happy in a small meeting, laughing and joking and hashing things out together.

For one last example of Doug Likes To Work Alone And Pretends It's Collaborative- today we had a half day training on co-teaching because of the push-in model we're doing with our SPED and ELL teachers. Who are both excellent teachers and I like working with them a lot. But as the trainer lady was explaining one of the co-teaching methods where the two teachers play against each other and focus on different things while working the same topic, all I could think was, "Hey! I do that with my puppets! I've been co-teaching with Courson. I do like this." So, in other words, my favorite kind of co-teaching is when I'm teaching alongside myself. Yeah, nice moment of self-reflection there, Robertson.

It's a good problem to have. It is still something of a problem though, and I'll have to keep an eye on it as the year goes on to see how I grow into it. I like problems.

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.