Monday, September 21, 2020

You Gotta Have Faith


Before I start I have to say that I deeply hate that forever connected to the phrase "You gotta have faith" is the band in the above picture. It was their first single and I was the exact right age to hear it over and over and over even though I hated that band. Remember nu-metal? With the two decent bands that came out of the entire genre? If you don't know what band and what song I'm talking about you were not in high school or listening to rawk radio in the mid-to-late 90s. I shall not taint your brain and your ears further. Google it if you must know, but I warned you.*

What does the above rant have to do with education? Nothing. I just needed to explain why I hate that header image, but it's the only header image I could have possibly used considering the title and subject of this post. 

I also would like to note that I will be using a bad language word in this post. Why? Because language exists for a reason and we're all adults here. Because I could beat around the bush and be clever with synonyms, but those don't carry the weight and impact I believe is needed to make my next statement land like it ought to. So if bad language words hurt your ear-eyes make like A Christmas Story and pretend it's another word. 

We all good now? Cool.

Distance teaching is fucking hard, my friends. It's fuuuuucking hard. And even in a few weeks when it gets easier as everything settles into something resembling a groove, it's still gonna be fucking hard. 

Teaching is never easy. Even the quote unquote best class in the world still isn't easy to teach. You could have 30 of the most wonderful "I wish I had 30 of her/him in my class" students and it would not matter. The year would be hard. There is too much going on, too much pressure, too many personalities and loads atop loads that must be carried for a teaching year to ever be easy. It's always hard. But, like Jimmy Dugan says, "The hard is what makes it great." I embrace the difficulty of the job because that challenge is what makes me better.

Distance teaching, though? That's fucking hard. Hardness, as we all know, is a scientific measure that increases exponentially (I think I'm using that word right, but I teach 4th grade math so who knows). There's "hard". And then there's "hard". And then there's "pretty hard". Next is "damn hard". Followed by "pretty damn hard". Then there's "...*whew*...I mean...mmm...this hard, man." And last is "fucking hard." I have heard tell of "pretty fucking hard" and " pretty fucking damn hard" levels, but those only exist in middle school because middle schoolers, through no fault of their own, are broken on a deeply hormonal level. Also also, if you made it through the entire preceding paragraph without giggling once at the repeated use of the word "hard" you are more adult than I will ever be.**

I am exactly one day into distance teaching. The second grader and kindergartener who live in my home are exactly one day into distance learning. Yes, I'm going to use both phrases because teachers are not distance learning. Put your hand down, I know "teachers are always learning" and "the best teachers learn from their students." You can stow the cliche pamphlet. Our job is distance teaching right now. Except for the districts and states actively trying to murder their teachers. They're still teaching teaching. Until an outbreak happens at their school. Then they're climbing into our boat. Make space. Six feet in every direction, please.

Now here is the real kicker, and the thing I cannot get past- 

Really fucking hard is still the best fucking option. 

I do not come to you bearing bad news (which you already know anyway). I come to remind you that we have no other choice. No one does. The parents don't want this. The students don't want this. The teachers don't want this. But we have no choices. It's fucking hard or it's in-person, and that should never have been an option. What are the other choices? Homeschooling. I guess, and not to take away from the parents of our students, but teaching isn't that easy. Remember the above paragraph? One does not simply walk into teaching. The character the writers don't know what to do with suddenly deciding to become a teacher (I'm looking at you Keiko O'Brian) and BAM they're teaching is bullpucky. Horse hockey. Fiddlesticks and other nonsense. I trust my parents, I know they want what is best for their children. And I know that no matter how hard distance teaching will be, those students will be better off with me because this is my job and I'm trained for it and good at it. I'm not specifically trained for this kind of teaching, but I'm more trained than they are. 

We should be working in partnership with our parents. They are the teacher in the room, while we're the teacher in the box. We should be flexible *looks hard at places requiring things that are unfeasible in the long run* and have open lines of communication so we can change things and make everyone has happy as they can be. That doesn't mean we can make them happy. Just as happy as they can be.

No one is going to enjoy this year very much. I know that sounds dire and terrible, but we have to admit that. 

I hate hate hate with the fire of a thousand suns the cliche "teaching is a marathon not a sprint." I go into why in detail here. The short version is that marathons suck. They suck the whole time. They hurt for the entire race. If you're winning you're in pain the whole time because you're pushing your body harder than it believes it can be pushed and you want to die but your will won't let you. If you in the middle or the back you're still running/walking/staggering over 26 miles. Marathons hurt the entire time. Don't call teaching a marathon because then you're saying that teaching sucks and hurts for 180 days. It doesn't. Teaching is a baseball game. Seriously, read the thing

Teaching is a baseball game...normally.

This year? This year teaching is going to be a marathon. It's not going to be very fun.

So how does one survive a marathon? The flip answer is training and suffering. The real answer is Faith.

Not faith in a higher power. Faith in thyself. Faith in thy students. Faith that is might be a fucking hard way, but it's the fucking best option. I have to believe that. I'm clinging to it. I can do this. I can teach my kids well. They will learn. We will make it through the year.

Before I had kids I did triathlons. That's the swim/bike/run thing. Sprints, Olympic distances, and once a half Ironman. That's a 1.2mi swim, 56mi bike, and 13.1mi run. I trained my tail off for that. Was in the best shape of my life. Still hurt the whole time. I loved it, because I'm broken (except for the run, I do not love the run), but man it hurt. I got through on training and faith. I believed. I can take another step. I am strong enough. I do have a water table coming. I will nom on a gummy bear for some sugar. They hurt. You survive through the hurt because you have to.

Right now all of us are having tech problems. I can't log in, why am I muted, what's the website, I forgot my password, what icon did you click on I don't see it, why can't I hear you, who left this comment in Classroom, we have to learn what program now and why? The kids will adapt. They will learn. Every year I spend the beginning of my year walking slowly through all of these issues in person and by October zip zap look at that everyone is doing what they need. This isn't every year. The timeline for everything is expanded this year. I'm hoping November we get there. That's a long time. I have to have faith. I have to be preaching to my students and their parents and instilling that faith in them. We can find the way. We will celebrate the small steps. We will find mind games and tricks to get us through the year as best as we can.

Now I will also grant that it's so very easy to say "have faith". It's so very reductive to bring what this year will be down to "it's a marathon." I agree. Metaphors are never perfect fits, they're meant to illustrate a point, not define it. It's going to take collaboration and self-care and support and a million other things too.

But if we don't have faith that even though distance teaching is fucking hard it's the best fucking option we have open to us, I don't know what we have.

It's what I got. I gotta have faith.

*If you do Google it, it's not the first result. It's Google's "Did you mean?" result. But still, don't google it.

** Honestly, I do not know why I don't get asked to write for major education publications.

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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

What's the Plan? (OR The First Week Cometh)



Today was supposed to be the first day of school.

I guess technically the first day of school was supposed to be a few weeks ago. But then the pandemic happened and we had to swap to distance learning. So we were given more time to plan for that. More on that in a minute.

So why wasn't today the first day? That's easy. 

Most of my state is on fire. 

As I type this all the windows in my home are sealed shut and there's a wet towel wedged into the crack at the bottom of the front door to keep smoke out. It still tastes like fireplace in here. My kids haven't been outside in I don't know how many days because the air quality is so bad the air quality measure online is pegged to the right and literally says, this is not a joke, "Off The Meter." Bad does not begin to describe the air quality. Imagine being trapped in a small car with a chain-smoking Keith Richards on a cross-country road trip, and he recently switched to unfiltered.

It's bad here. Others have it worse, people have lost their homes, their places of business, their lives and the lives of those near to them. Ours is not the worst. But ours is still bad. Bad enough that "Are you going to have to evacuate?" has been part of the phone calls I've been making to parents for the last week. "Where are you compared to the Level 1 line? How is everyone's breathing?" 

In other words, in the middle of a global emergency, one of the main symptoms of which is trouble breathing, major fires are making it hard to breathe. Luckily for all of us the United States government does not care at all and has no interest in making anything better. Sometimes trees just explode. Shoulda raked better.

Because the fires are so bad, causing families of students and teachers to be displaced, schools have been enlisted as emergency shelters and the various scheduled material hand-outs have been postponed. So put down your hand, Karen. Just because we are teaching from home, and we're all trapped at home now by fire and COVID-19, does not mean teaching can happen. Parents haven't had a chance to pick up computers, iPads, books, supplies, and whatnot. Teachers who were planning on teaching from their classrooms, which is an option here, now can't because social distancing has been increased to "STAY INSIDE WHY ARE YOU EVEN DRIVING WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU YOU CAN CHEW THE AIR RIGHT NOW." 

Or, in teacher parlance, an inequitable situation has now been made even more inequitable. This, though, isn't the fault of the system. Well, it's the fault of this part of the system. But that part did all the inequities on purpose. Because white supremacy*. 

All of this is a long lead in to say that the first day of school, normally a fairly stressful day even in a normal year, is incredibly stressful right now. I am starting my fifteenth or sixteenth year of teaching (yes, I should know and I could count, but does it really matter?) so I've done the first year a few times. I've felt confident and good at it for a while. I'm established enough at my school that, and I say this without ego, students coming up to my class know me and are excited to join me. They think they know what they're getting into even. They don't really, but that's ok. 

All that to say- What the hell am I going to do for the first day of school this year? Ignore the first week, just Day One.

Here's the problem, my friends- Schedules have changed and changed and changed again over the last three weeks of planning, meetings, trainings, and questions. So many questions. We're supposed to be teaching synchronously three or four times a day. For those of you not in the know, that means all 30-some-odd of my students are supposed to go to their school-issued Chromebook at 8:30am, long-in, and join me and everyone else in a Google Meet. We will Do School for a while, then they'll log off the meeting to work independently while I Do Other School. Then at 10:30 they'll all log back in and we'll Do More School. That happens for a while then they log out of the meeting and small groups happen, independent learning happens, whatever. Then there is one more block of time where everyone gathers in a Meet to Do School. Then they do more independent work.

I did not make this schedule. I suspect none of my peers (or my union or any parents of students) were in the room or consulted when this schedule was finalized. That's a different conversation for another time. 

The fact of the matter moving forward right now is on Monday at 8:30am we're supposed to have The First Day. We've been told not to try to teach content for a few weeks, but just social emotional learning lessons and tech procedures (something I'll get into in a minute). So what to do, what to do?

I'm going to be completely honest with all of you- I'm not going to follow the prescribed schedule on the first day. Or the second. I'm not. I don't think it's the best way to start the school year, I don't think it'll set the tone I want for my class, so I'm not going to do it.

Here's how the year normally starts in my class. (I should note that this has worked in third, fourth, and fifth grade. So if you teach tiny ones and you're shaking your head I get it, it might not work for you. I think it could, but I've never taught that size child.)

- My desks are in groups of four or five. There are probably six groups like this around the room.

- There is no seating chart. I greet every child at the door, shake their hand (ain't doing that anymore, foot taps all the way now), and tell them to find a seat. They ask where they're supposed to sit. Or a parent does. I say, "At a desk, please. Pick one, make a good choice." The kid is excited. The parent is not (some of the time). This has a purpose- My class is built on trust. This is the first act of trust. I will not control your body even in this. The very first act you do in this class will be your own. It might be a poor choice. That's ok. We're learning here. 

- Once everyone is in we immediately move to the Spaghetti and Marshmallow Tower Challenge. Every group is given ten strands of raw spaghetti and ten tiny marshmallows. They are told that together, as a team, they must make a free-standing tower. I don't tell them it's a contest to make the tallest one. They do assume that though. The second act they undertake in our class is collaborative work they' excited about. They talk. They plan. They test and try and fail and rebuild and laugh and start to bond. Our class is built on planning and communication and testing and trying and failing and rebuilding.

- We play the Name Game. The Name Game goes like this- You must choose an adjective that starts with the same letter as your first name and that describes you. Mine would be "Dashing Doug." Yes, I tell them my first name, why wouldn't I? They know to call me Mr. Robertson. Now here is the fun part- We go around the room and the first person says their name. Dashing Doug. The second person says the first person's name and then their name. Dashing Doug. Amazing Amanda. The third person says the first person's name, the second person's name, and their name. Dashing Doug. Amazing Amanda. Cool Chris. And so on. It is a joy to watch the feat in front of them dawn across their faces. Especially the kids at the final group of desks. I will, of course help. But the goal is you must listen to every single person in the room. You must hear their names, the way they pronounce them, over and over and over. You must say it right. After the last person goes I go. Because now I know everyone's name and face and it has only been an hour. Then I open it up. There's always a kid in the first group who wants to run the table. I challenge them, do it backwards. By the time The Name Game is over no one has any excuse for calling a classmate "Him over there in the red shirt" or mispronouncing a name. 

There is more to the first day, of course. But that's the start. See how much is set up in those few activities? They are foundational to our room. I will bring those things back over and over through the course of the year. Everything sends a message.

How in the green hell am I supposed to do this through Google Meets?

I don't know.

So here's my plan, and here's why I'm going to immediately not follow the prescribed schedule and shhh, don't tell my boss. 

I have been telling my parents in calls and emails that there will be six Google Meets over Monday and Tuesday, three each day. I've told them the times. And I've told them their student must come to one of the six. But only one is required. They can come to as many as they want. I'd love it if they came to all six, because then they will for sure meet everyone in their class this year. I'm calling it the Trickle In Start until I can come up with a better name that I can slap an acronym on and write a book about. This way coming to class basically starts as a choice. Who will decide to come more than once? Will the kids who come more than once encourage their peers to come more than once? Which parents will force their kids to come every time? What tech issues are hiding that I can fix with ten kids instead of 30? 

I want to know. Because I don't know how this is going to work.

What will we do during this time? Probably some variation of the Name Game, but it won't be as fun because the kids will have their names displayed. It will probably changed over the six Meets, which might provide motivation to keep coming. 

I'll introduce myself and display a Google Tourbuilder I have that talks about my journey from my hometown of Palmdale, CA to here in Gresham, OR. We will talk about how their summer's were. I'll bite my tongue in half as students talk about visiting with friends and traveling and how some of their parents were for sure not being the kind of safe and responsible we all hope everyone is being. I might let other kids ask about that though. Respectfully. We're not going to get into rules too deeply, I hate starting with rules. Welcome to class, here's how you need to be controlled. Bleh. Bad messaging. We'll probably play a Kahoot.

On the first day everyone is supposed to be in a Meet, the we'll build the rules. Maybe with a Padlet. My normal rule procedure is I make the kids list every single tiny little rule they can think of and I write them all down. I fill over writing space with their rules. Then I tell them we all have to memorize everything that has been written so we know. They don't like that. So we start searching for overlaps and possible combinations. We look for positive statements instead of negative ones. It all boils down to Be Responsible, Be Respectful, Be Safe, Make Good Choices. And then, because it amuses me to quote Pulp Fiction in my class, I tell them that there is one overarching rule to remember, that even if they can't remember those four rules they can certainly remember one- Be Cool.**

I think I'm going to do this online by ignoring the district-created curriculum around setting online learning procedures. They did this last year for four months. They know. Let's make a Padlet of all the procedures and rules a class needs to be effective in distance learning. Now let's simplify simplify simplify until it's clearly understood and easy to remember and, most importantly, created by the class, not by me and not by some person in the district office that didn't think to call me when she was making these rules up in the first place. 

So that's my plan for starting the school year from home during a pandemic while wild fires smolder in our backyards. 

Oh! Real quick, because I promised. You can totally teach procedures, social emotional learning, and content at the same time. That's literally the message of STEAM. If you can take silos away from Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math you can take them away from "This is how we log into our online classroom" and "This is what we're going to be learning about" and "How are you feeling?" I promise you can. I do that every year too. Messages are stickier when they are wrapped in useful context.

I want to also state that all of these plans for online learning might burn down, fall over, and sink into the swamp. Always a possibility. In which case I'll build another castle. 

How is your year starting? 

*If you're reading this and you got to that part and rolled your eyes with a "Ugh, Doug. Must you make this political?" Yes. I must. Call it what it is, confront it, and fix it. Education destroys ignorance. And if you think white supremacy doesn't exist I'd really appreciate it if you never support anything I do or create ever. Kthxbye.

** Yes, I know that's Pulp Fiction quoting Happy Days, but in my head I see Jules telling Ringo to tell Honey Bunny to be cool.

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, September 7, 2020

I Never Metacognition I Didn't Like


It's pretty On Brand™ for me to quote underrated musical genius "Weird Al" Yankovic, but I'm going to do it anyway. This is not an exact quote but more along the lines of what he said. I heard it on one podcast or another and it struck me as true and useful so I saved it in my little mental file cabinet is Useful Quotes To Remember. And, because it's me, of course it's not just a pithy saying but an entire short anecdote so that the pithy saying at the end has context and is actually sticky and useful. Here's the story he told, as best as I can remember it-

Being a creative person can be hard sometimes especially when you have kids. I was sitting on the couch one day while I was working on this album and my child came up to me and asked me to come play with her. And I said I couldn't because I was working, and she gave me the strangest look. I realized it was because all I was doing was staring into space. But that's a lot of what creative work looks like It looks like spacing out.

If I were to insult your intelligence by summarizing what you just read for you into an easily shareable, hopefully viral meme format, it would be "Sometimes creating looks like spacing out." But I won't do that because both Al and I have more faith in your than that. 

This is on hundred percent my process. Or at least part of my process. I either sit and stare at nothing while talking to myself or I move all over while scribbling useless and illegible notes on scraps of paper while talking to myself. And sometimes my process for creativity is sitting down at my computer with no ideas and forcing myself to type until something worth exploring comes out. I call all of these "mining for ideas." One of my favorite metaphors for creating is thinking, and I know this isn't technically true but that's why it's a metaphor and not a fact, that no one delivers the block of marble to the sculptor. You, as the creator, have go to the quarry and mine the marble for yourself, you have to drag it back to your shop, and you have to beat it into a giant rectangular prism. And that's all before you can start actually working on turning it into whatever it's going to be. Now all the mining and hauling can be the homework you have to do, or the brainstorming, or the prep work. It's the gathering of mental materials. Then you can actually start going at the block of marble with your chisel. And even then that's just the rough draft. Once you release the Thing from the marble it's still not done. You go at the marble with finer and finer chisels and files and rags until you have removed the last piece of excess marble. Then you're done. 

Often the going to the quarry to mine looks like sitting on the couch (or chair or whatever) staring into space. The mental gathering of energies.

From there the next thing I think about is teaching. I do a lot of spacing out after school. That's how I lesson plan. That's how projects come to me. If you work with me (and the world isn't ending like it currently is) and you come into my classroom after the kids are gone chances are high you'll be met with me scowling at nothing while something that sounds like death metal to you* blasts out of my computer. That's what working looks like.

Unless I'm actively teaching. Then it happens very quickly because you can't space out for too long in front of 30 fourth graders. Trust me on that. I have learned to trust my instincts and listen when the little cricket that lives in my pocket goes, "WAITAMINUTE! Wait...One...Second..." My students learn it quickly. I stop talking, freeze, point up at nothing, look into the middle distance, smile slightly, and then 'Ok, no...wait...ok...put away your books- NO DON'T you'll need them. Push your books to the side. Ok!" Then we do a thing. That's spacing out at warp speed.

Which brings us all the way around to the most important part of teaching- The money and drugs Students!  

If I know that creating for me looks like spacing out for who knows how long, and I'm constantly asking my kids to think creatively and push their boundaries, how can I expect thinking to look any different? So often we, and I include myself in this of course, know what "think time" means but we forget that time moves at different speeds in different places in the classroom. 

It is so tricky to know when a kid is spacing out (ie "I wonder what I'll do on Minecraft after school...") versus thinking (ie "So if this math problem works like this, then this next one..."). They look the same on the outside, but they look different on every person.  Like I said, my Resting Think Face is a scowl, probably because I'm annoyed at stupid brain come on get it together let's go. But it could just as easily be a more slack-jawed, wide-eyed look. Or have a half-lidded sleepy vibe. Or it could look like Work. Like if you asked an amateur actor to play Thinking, the face they would make. Kinda constipated, but not to a panicked level yet. Constipated but making progress.** Those kids you see and think "Ah, she's working." But she might be in Minecraft too! We don't know.

A theme of this school year is going to be Patience and Grace, but think time should always be filled with Patience and Grace and that's hard because we have places to go and things to cover. We all know 30 kids don't learn at the same rate but we do our best to make it happen because that's the system we work in and it's not perfect but it's the best we've come up with so far. What does your thinking face look like? What does your spaced out face look like? How can someone around you tell if you're mentally solving complex equations or thinking, "You know, I don't care what anyone says- I really like vanilla ice cream." 

I have to remind myself of this all the time. Not just when I'm blasting "Weird Al". Because I forget. But I have gotten pretty good at it. Unless it's early in the year and I don't know the kids yet. Then I have no idea what thinking looks like to them. This, by the way, is a conversation I have with my students (minus the constipation thing, but I make the face and they get it anyway because some humor is universal). I tell them I am trying to figure out what their work style is.

BUT I'M IN CLASS WITH THEM FOR THAT! What am I going to do this year? What does thinking look like online? How do I teach cognition skills from my office when they're in their homes? How can I learn to look at a kid on Meets and know what or if they're thinking. Or did their screen freeze? Or is that really their thinking face and it looks like a frozen screen?

Patience and Grace as teachers relearn instincts we've honed over years of work. Patience and Grace with ourselves because we are going to miss so many cues we would have caught in class. It's going to be so much harder to find the kids that had a tough morning or a bad lunch or have something really exciting to share but they're too polite to chime in with it and besides they don't know how much to trust me because humans aren't really built to make close connections through a screen. 

What does your thinking look like? Maybe we could ask our students if they know what their thinking looks like? I do that during my conversation and the kids all strike funny poses. Then we do it again and I ask them to try and be a little more serious the second time and they do because they got to play once. 

I'll have to think on it...

*It probably won't be death metal, I don't like much straight death metal. It might be melodic death metal, or maybe black metal, or maybe blackened trash, or perhaps experimental jazz black metal, or maybe Taylor Swift or "Weird Al". 

** no idea why I'm not paid to write for bigger education publications

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 TeacherTHE 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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Mental Health Math


Welcome to the hardest year of every teacher's career. I think we can all agree on that. The most fun thing about that statement is, for many of us, the year hasn't even started yet. For the rest of us it's still as fresh as a Prince of Bel Aire. And yet, if you asked 100 random teachers what the hardest year of their teaching career was, 98% of them would say the 2020-2021 school year. Two percent would kick you in the shin and walk away in a huff.

I, of course, can only speak for myself. I have found, through this blog and through my books, that my experiences are often more universal that I give them credit for. So while I don't pretend to know for certain how everyone is feeling and coping, I can tell you how I'm feeling and coping (read: pretending to cope) in hopes that you find some common ground and at least feel less alone. Teaching is a solitary pursuit, no matter how good your grade level team, your staff, your extended community on social media, we're all in this alone. Just us and the kids. I would bet that's how most of us prefer it most of the time. Sometimes, though...sometimes all that does it make it hard to tell if we've gone right round the bend or not. When there ain't nobody in here but us chickens how do you know when you clucking eggs are scrambled?

So how am I feeling? And, by the commutative property laid out in the previous paragraph, how might you be feeling?

I am of two minds. Two minds that are actually three. Picture, if you will, a circle. Hold that image in your head. It could be a square or a rectangle if you must be that kid. Draw a line down the diameter of the circle, perfectly bisecting it. (You square/rectangle people- just cut it in half.) You now have two halves. Hopefully I'm not leaving anyone behind yet. Now, perpendicular to that line, draw another line, breaking one of the halves in half. You should have one full half, and two quarter sections. 

Let's start with the full half section. I want you to label that section the title of this post. Yes, I see you writing "The Title Of This Post." You're very funny, everyone laughed. You know what I meant. Call it "Free Fallin'" please. And let's shade it in blue. You know, like the sky that we're falling through. 

I feel overwhelmingly like I'm free falling. My district has a strong leader at the top, and many strong links in the chain of command from the top all the way down to the school level. Nearly every link is strong, competent, and capable. That is not enough for this year. This year, even with a great team at the top, excellent coaches, and principals who are doing their level best, things are not coming together like they should be. I know we are not alone in this. I do not know why every district feels the need to make the same mistakes as their cousin districts. I feel like most of us could be watching the districts that opened first while taking copious notes and asking many questions in detailed emails, then taking that information back home and not falling into some of those same pits. I also do not know why some districts have not involved teachers in the planning process from the beginning. I want to be clear again here that I like my district very much and I respect much of our leadership and I know this is an impossible position they have been put in by Cheeto Hitler and Dolores Umbridge (Hey, what's the difference between Betsy DeVos and Dolores Umbridge? At least Umbridge wasn't scared to walk into a school. And Umbridge was written to be an awful human, Betsy comes by it on her own.)

But because there hasn't been much teacher feedback and input into the process a lot of the information we're now getting feels incomplete or unfeasible. Much of it doesn't seem like it will survive that first week with students. Now, I am not a person who expects something new to work the first time. Or even the first few times. But I am the guy who will be standing in the front, along with my fellow teachers, when the fecal matter strikes the ventilator. And I'm not looking forward to clean up on aisle 14 for however long that takes. 

I think things could have been done better. What things is a different post and requires a much deeper level of specificity than I'm willing to get into right now. I also acknowledge that "I could help do things better" is an amazingly egotistical thing to say and I do not in any way know what would make things easier for middle or high school. Those worlds are mysteries to me. But I would bet that there are teachers at those levels who feel like I do and with our powers combined we could create Captain FigureItOut. 

Without all of that I'm in freefall. Freefall without a chute that I packed myself. Someone packed it. I saw bits and pieces of how it was packed. It's not how I would have packed it. Now I'm falling and starting to think about grasping for that ripcord and I don't know what's going to happen when I pull it.

Which leads me to the first of the two quarter sections of our circle. Let's keep getting negative so we can end on a positive note. Color this section red, please. Name it "WTF Am I Gonna Do?"

This part of my brain is overwhelmed with What Am I Gonna Do? I keep stumbling over my pre-planning because everything I do, my entire classroom environment, is built on being in the room with the kids. Giving them access to the materials and time they need to learn how I believe they will learn best. Allowing myself to drift free on the winds of whim and inspiration. Surfing atop piles of cardboard as we take the boring story in the Journey's book and turn it into a week-long build that allows for deeper learning than we would have gotten otherwise. Starting the year with spaghetti and marshmallow towers that immediately sets the tone for how groups will work collaboratively and how every activity will be tied to deeper and more complex educational ideas than they can even glimpse on that first day, but I know what's coming and how the project will echo all year. 

I can't do that from home. Some well meaning person on twitter suggested I make regular packets of materials to send home to kids so I'm not burdening the parents to buy things or have things and that's great. Completely unrealistic, but great. Because yes, if they were in my room I'd be buying these supplies. I'd be supplying them (see what I did there?). But I'm not paying bi-weekly postage for thirty-something kids. I can't. Cheeto Hitler has stolen all the mailboxes anyway. 

So what am I gonna do, man? How on Earth can I pivot my class to completely online and do anything like what I normally do? Be anything like the teacher I am? Build relationships, establish bonds and trust, read the body language that kids speak fluently (but each one speaks differently, and it takes time to learn to translate). How, man? I'm panicked. I'm freaking out about a lot right now. And let's not even bring up that my parent brain is also freaking out about my second grader and my kindergartner going through the same thing downstairs with my wife while I'm upstairs doing it with my class. Let's pretend that that hooey about "leave your personal life at the door" is a real thing people can do. Even though for distance learning the door is my house. So the metaphor falls apart immediately. 

Let's look at that last quarter of the circle. Yes, or square or rectangle, I didn't forget about you I was just ignoring you. What do we label this possible saving section? The only part of my teaching brain that is keeping me from full blown DEFCON One hiding under my desk and rocking back and forth. Let's call it "I Thrive Under Pressure."

I've never encountered a year like this. None of us has. Anyone who says they know what they're doing is lying. *Looks back a few paragraphs when I say I could help solve this* I said "help solve", not "I know exactly what to do." Anyone telling you they know how to teach and build relationships and weather this distance learning storm, anyone who says that with full confidence while looking you in the eye, is a liar and should never be trusted to petsit a goldfish. They don't know.

What I do know, though, is that I'm a good dancer. 

In my head that's how I think of what we do when we encounter a bunch of unknown problems. When the classroom is going to hell and nothing is working. We dance. I dance. I search for any beat, any flow, and I try to follow it. I stay light on my feet, I listen for the changes and watch my (thirty-something) partners for clues to when they want to lead. This year I'm gonna have to be Ginger Rogers. Yes, Ginger. Look up what Fred Astaire said about what she was doing when they danced together. This is a quote you should know. 

I can, too. I'm good under pressure. When the room is going bad and the coffee isn't working and the air conditioner is broken and it's the week it rains randomly right before recess every single day and I forgot my lunch at home and the kids have had enough, I know how to teach. I can find a way. That's all I've got right now. 


I've got faith that I know what I'm doing. I know I don't, not this year. But I know I can figure it out because I have to. I know it'll be bad. I know it won't go right all the time. I know I'm gonna be banging my head against my desk and I'm going to be working myself silly to be sure my parents don't hate me and hate what their kids are being asked to do and to be sure my kids don't hate this kind of school. I don't know how yet. I have glimmers. Sparks. Embers. I haven't chased them yet because they're still formless. I'm in freefall too. Nothing on the classroom level can be planning with any detail yet because I'd be best laying plans like a mice or a man. Man plans, unpredictable wifi laughs. 

But I'm pretty sure there are some rabbits in my hat. (There was one of two places I could pull an idea out of and I went with that one. You're welcome.) I don't know where the rabbits are, what they look like, or how fast they'll run off. But every year I doubt my ability to teach and every year I can.

I was telling my therapist that I have anxiety in a lot of situations. I wrote about this too, not long ago. I have helpless anxiety nearly everywhere except in my classroom. I do not get anxious in class. Ever. I'm clinging to that right now, my friends and readers. Holding tightly to it. Because I am anxious. I'm not sleeping. I'm snappy. I'm stressed. I'm way more negative about way more things than I'd like to be. And I know the why for all of that. I bet we're all feeling it. Yours might be manifesting differently than mine, but I bet it's there. 

So I'm going to cling to the rock of Faith in Myself in the middle of these rapids. I'm going to get dunked and half drowned and rolled and bruised. But all I've got right now is that rock. 

I hope you have a rock. If you don't you can borrow mine. We can do this. It's gonna be rough. It's just starting. But we're good teachers. So we can feel our feelings, but inside hold that rock tight. It's only a quarter of my brain, but it's all I've got working for me right now.

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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Monday, February 10, 2020

Hiding Behind Bad Jokes

Let's clear something up right now: Putting "Satire" or "Funny observations" does not absolve you of the responsibility of being coherent and responsible in your education tweets. For every anonymous education account that tweets well there are a dozen that are terrible at it.

That's right, friends and readers- this is a blog about education twitter. Strap in.

There are more anonymous education twitter accounts that I prefer to think about. Most of them hide behind handles like @LOLTeacherProblems or @MindYourMindset or @YourDumbAdmin. They have bios full of weasel words like, "meant to amuse" or "these are jokes" or "satire" or "just observations meant to be inspirational". Things that attempt to distance them from the content of their feeds or brush off tweets as "just jokes" as protection.

Here's the problem with that- "Jokes" are not the same thing as "complaining about your job and/or students with a winky face". It's just not. I get wanting to complain. I get wanting to have a space to do that freely. I don't think that is a bad thing in and of itself. Where my problem lies is when the account, framed as a source of insight or comedy, supplies neither. The funny isn't that hard. Correction- One funny isn't that hard. Three funnies, especially about teaching (an incredibly funny profession), aren't that hard. An entire account dedicated to the funny? That's hard. Before deciding you should create an anonymous account with all your clever education observations try to be sure you have more than a half dozen of them. Because once the well runs dry you'll still have that account sitting there and you and I both know you'll want to use it.

What happens to those accounts? Let's take two recent examples. I'm not going to call either account out by handle because that sucks, and I'm not going to link to the tweets. I won't link to the tweets because both accounts have since deleted the tweets under pressure of push back. Not bullying, push back. Response in a public forum to what they said publicly. One even wrote a (terrible) non-apology, then deleted that, then deleted an even worse poor me apology, then deleted that. Courage of your convictions and whatnot, I guess.

The first account example frames themselves as a funny account. "Check me out, I have clever things to say." Most of the tweets are boring at best and sucrose or cotton candy at worse. Until the account decided to post (I'm paraphrasing) "You know what I hate about my students? When they use slang." The they gave an example of a slang phrase that literally anyone would say (and did), "Wait, are you mocking the way a student of color speaks?" That's a problem, but maybe the account could have added context. That's not what happened. What happened was the tweet went mini-viral and pretty soon (white) teachers all over were adding the annoying things their students say that also sounded like they were singling out students of color. This thread got longer and longer and more and more racist. Like openly, easily racist. And when the account who started it all was called on it they got defensive, they started blocking people (not me, even though I straight out called them racist in an RT to 21.7k people, but accounts run by teachers of color did get blocked). Eventually they deleted the tweet and posted the two non-apologies I mentioned earlier.

There's a lot of problems with this. First off, if the student's quote was taken out of context it's the responsibility of the account posting it to provide the context needed and asked for. Secondly, and this is more important, if the responses to your thread get increasingly more racist it's your job to shut that down or at least try. There should be replies from you to the offenders telling them what's not welcome in no uncertain terms. An artist can absolutely cull their followers. I point to the easiest example- Nirvana post-Nevermind. Nevermind was the biggest album on the planet and Nirvana exploded into places they never wanted to be, and suddenly people who should never have been in their fandom found them and decided to like them. So on the next album, In Utero,  they put this in the liner notes.

"If any of you hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us- leave us alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records."

You can't control who buys your stuff or follows you, but you can be very clear who and what is unwelcome. The second a twitter thread you start becomes toxic it's on you to at least try to stop that. "But I'm just trying to be a funny twitter account." Sorry dude, you started this, now own what you said.

The second type of account I want to talk about isn't sure what they want to be. They want to be funny, sure, but they also know that fauxspiration goes a long way towards those sweet sweet interaction metrics. So they will post what I suppose is supposed to be funny and mix in a nice helping of pablum and platitudes. The best kind of platitude? The kind teachers in February really want to hear? "Exhaustion means you're working hard. Being exhausted means you're a good teacher."

Holy crap, we're still doing this? I'm more of a martyr than you because I'm more tired? I love my kids more because I hate myself more? Pain makes teachers great? This is not a Thing! It has never been a Thing. Stop trying to make exhausted happen, Gretchen, or you can't sit with us anymore.

Again, lots of push back. Lots of tired, concerned teachers feeling the need to raise their hands and go, "Uh, this is a bad narrative and you should stop."

"Jeez, you guys are all so mean. I'm just trying to *mumble mumble argle bargle*." Hiding behind inspiration and, when that fails, hiding behind "it's supposed to be funny." If it's supposed to be funny then it ought to be. Don't be Ricky Gervais. It's possible to be shocking or edgy and funny, not just preachy and obnoxious.

As a bonus type of account, we have the sunshine and rainbows ones that pretend at understanding mindset but only to the depth of a splash pad in mid-winter. I saw, and I swear this is true, an account about mindsets tweet "Feeling overwhelmed? Switch to excitement! Don't think you have to do it, think you get to do it!" Oh, that's all it takes to stop feeling this tired and overwhelmed? It's just a mindset issue? "You're depressed? Have you tried not being depressed?" This reduction of depression, anxiety, anger, frustration, and exhaustion to simple "Well you just aren't trying hard enough to be happy" wouldn't fly on My Little Pony (one of the best cartoons about friendship and relationships and conflict out there today)*.

I want to make note that I'm not going to go after the anonymous part of these accounts, just their content. Honestly, I would rather everyone speak with their own face because that forces you to stand behind what you say, but I also understand the reality of some school districts and how some teachers might not feel safe speaking their truth with their face exposed. So, while I prefer to say everything with my face and voice out there in the open, I understand why some don't and I won't fault them for it.

Keep the focus on content. Education twitter accounts of the world- I cannot tell you how to tweet (the last thousand words to the contrary, I know). What I can tell you is what we see and how it makes us feel. Oversimplification, reduction, and hiding behind "It was just a joke, omg" are weak covers that do nothing to disguise a lack of content. Not to say everything everyone says on education twitter needs to have some deeper meaning. Imma tweet about Star Trek and my kids and my band and music I like as much as I tweet about education. But my bio doesn't pretend that I'm anything other than that.

Satire isn't that hard. Funny isn't that hard. Inspiration can't be that hard. Pretend I went to Target, browsed through the cards for a long time, and mailed you one that said, "Get better." Not because you're sick, but because you'r not very good at this.

*The Mane Six ranking goes 1) Pinkie Pie 2) Rainbow Dash 3) Rarity 4) Twilight Sparkle 5) Fluttershy 6) Applejack. No I will not be taking questions about this except to say Rarity sometimes jumps to number two because she's secretly the funniest pony. and The Great and Powerful Trixie is the best re-occurring pony because the idea of a stage magician in a world with actual magic is freaking hilarious and Trixie calls herself "The Great and Powerful Trixie" in the third person and I want to adopt that.

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 3, 2020

Learning to Fret Less (OR A Post About Bass, Projects, and Risk)

If you are a regular reader of this blog or of my twitter feed then you're probably aware I spend a lot of time talking about Making in the classroom. STEAM is one of my teaching passions and I feel very strongly that there is no learning like hands-on, get it wrong, then reflect on what you learned and generalize it to everything else learning. I do not ignore the textbooks in my classroom, I'm not an extremist who thinks ditching normal tools makes sense, but I do lean hard in the Explore And Do To Learn camp. I love telling my students that they're going to make a cardboard arcade and then stepping aside and letting them figure it out over four days. I love fielding student questions like, "How do I make this arcade game do this thing I want it to do?" with "I dunno, I've never made a game that does that. Draw out what you think, building it, then revise it until it works." It's the same reason I like teaching coding. Coding is all about revision and generalization of rules.

I love watching my students do this. I love the risk I feel I'm taking as a teacher by letting them do these things.

But is it a risk? I mean, I believe in this method. I have actual years of experience doing it with students. I've seen the positive results over and over. I have faith in the process even in the midst of freaking out about the process not working this time. I call it a risk because making often throws a classroom into what looks like chaos, but it's really a messy but controlled working environment. Making in the classroom isn't a real risk for me.

Especially since I'm not the one making anything. I'm supervising.

If you're not a teacher who does a lot of making you might think this is a strange way to do things. "I wouldn't have my students do anything I wouldn't do" and all that. But here's the thing- there's a lot to watch and be aware of when a classroom full of kids are making something. When I'm making something I need to focus. It's kinda the same reason I don't silently read when my kids silently read. I wouldn't be able to stop when the timer went off. I wouldn't be able to stop working on my thing to help a student deal with whatever their thing is. Also, students tend to follow their teacher's lead, even independent students. They are trained to assume that the way you're doing something is the "right" way. So I don't do anything, unless a specific skill needs to be modeled. I don't let them just drown. I'm the teacher, after all.

But here's a secret about me- I'm super confident about making things out of cardboard. Cardboard is easy and cheap. However, I get kinda freaked out making things that are real. I don't like changing my own oil and I'd rather pay someone. If I go to IKEA and buy a flurgenshiglet my wife will be the one to build it because she likes that kind of thing. I'm just now learning to love Lego. My "creating" creativity happens at a keyboard and, more recently, on my electric bass.

Which is why when I got the wild hair to turn my cheap starter bass into a fretless I had significant concerns. What if I screw up my bass? What if I do it wrong? I don't know how to do this, I've never done it before.

You know, excuses I wouldn't tolerate from my kids.

I prefer the direct human touch to YouTube tutorials, so after watching a dozen how-to videos that ranged from a five minute video of "I Used A Kitchen Knife To Make A Fretless Bass" to "Part Seven of Fifteen: Choosing the Proper Sand Paper" I texted a buddy of mine about it and it turned out he'd done it before. Through a longish, patient text conversation he convinced me that it wouldn't be that hard, I could do it, it's pretty cheap, and he'd be a phone call away if I needed it.

That's all it took. I'm hesitant to start projects like this, but I'm also of the personality that when I decide I'm going to do something I jump directly in and go. I decided I was going to do it on Thursday night, and Friday after school I hit the craft store for supplies and, after putting the Weirdlings to bed, got to work.

A little context for those of you who might not know what I'm talking about- guitars and basses are fretted instruments. The frets are those metal bars that go up the neck. They allow the player to know where the notes are and they cause the note to ring out in tune as the string is pressed against them. A fretless instrument has, as I'm sure you've figured out from the clever name, no frets. You can buy a fretless where the neck was built without them or, if you don't have the cash to throw around on a new-to-you instrument, you can convert a fretted instrument into a fretless by, well....pulling the frets out with pliers and filling in the gaps.

See the silver lines? Those are frets.

The first fret removal. It has begun.

It's a pretty straightforward process. You might be able to see where my trepidation would come in though. I own two basses- this one, which was my first bass and cost, along with a tiny practice amp and a junk gig bag, just over $200, and a Geddy Lee Signature Series Jazz bass that cost a lot more. So I only have two, my good one and my old back-up. I'd rather not ruin the back-up. But if I'm going to experiment on something it ain't the nice one. And this is a way of revitalizing an old, kinda junk instrument without getting rid of it or spending a ton of money on it (I think there's an education metaphor here too).

The frets are held in with some glue, so I took our clothes iron, set it on high, and heated up each fret. Then, using needle nose pliers, I gently wiggled the fret free. Repeat 22 times. Next, I bought a sheet of 1/32" basswood, the narrowest sheet available. I still had to sand down both the fret gap and the sheet of basswood, then cut it into small slats which filled the gaps. I added a tiny bit of superglue just to be sure nothing would move, but those things were in there tighter than a [REDACTED].

Once the whole neck was filled in I had to trim the pieces shorter and then go at it with progressively finer sandpaper. I started with heavy grit to cut down the tall slats and as they got closer to the neck switched to finer and finer grit. It still took quite a bit of sanding and I know I took some width off the neck in the process, which is ok because the bass kind of had a baseball bat neck to begin with.

What's nice about this process is once you're here you can't screw it up any more. Like, you can, but it's too late to fix it or take it back, so I could relax and go to it with the sandpaper.

By the time I finished the neck was nearly perfect. It's still not perfectly smooth, which means I will occasionally get some weird buzzing, but the friend who talked me through the process to begin with is sending me a radius block that I can use to finish the sanding. I also need to file down the nut *waits for the giggling to stop* which is the metal post at the head of the neck that keeps the strings in place. When the neck had frets the nut was fine, but I was pressing the strings down onto the frets, not the neck. You wouldn't think that that tiny fraction of an inch would make that much difference, but it does. So when I get the radius block I'll also file the nut to lower the string action and make the bass more comfortable and cleaner to play.

What does all of this have to do with teaching? I constantly challenge my students to take risks. I'm always asking them to do things they don't know how to do and have faith that they'll learn from it. But I rarely do that. Learning to play the bass starting two years ago was a big moment for me in my journey of continuing learning. When do I learn from making? What's STEAM in my life? When did I do something I wasn't sure I knew how to do and used my resources to figure out anyway? Yes, we can be constantly growing our practice by attending conferences and reading new books, but what concrete things are we doing that can reflect in our practice? You cannot expect to put something into the world that you do not first internalize and actualize.

I think this bass will eventually need new electronics, the knobs are rubbish and cheap, and probably new tuners, and then new pick-ups, and maybe a new bridge. Eventually it'll be the Bass of Theseus*. But the thought of dealing with wires and electronics freaks me out. I've never done that before.

Which means I probably should. For myself. And for my kids.

*no, I won't link to it, you Google it if you want to know what I'm talking about

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, January 27, 2020

One of Those Years

You know what's special about teaching that I don't think translates to very many other jobs?

You can say, "It's been one of those years."And no one at work will question what you mean. Every single person gets it. Every single person at your school has had "one of those years."

Like, you don't often realize it right away. Maybe it was just a weird September, some years start weird. And October felt a little funny. November is always strange. And December doesn't count, December is always screwed up. But suddenly it's the end of January and things still haven't settled in? Oh...oh hell. It's one of those years, isn't it?

There can be a lot of reasons for One Of Those Years. Every once in a while you just get that certain mix of students, that specific chemical combination of personalities that makes everything harder than it needs to be. Not that they're bad kids, not that they're trying to make things harder, not that you're worse at teaching, but you just ended up with the least efficient possible combination of humans in one room and no amount of relationship building and class meetings can smooth the jagged edges.

Sometimes it's a new admin. Or a new team member. Or a new program. Or, for the lucky amongst us, a combination of the three. Yay, so much newness all at once, this will be fun to juggle.

I recently realized that this year is probably going to be One Of Those Years. I'm fortunate. I haven't had too many in my fifteen years. Two real bad ones. The first, which I wrote about in my first book, was when I taught sixth grade in Hawaii. My third year of teaching. I had the worst team in the world. The meanest women I've ever met. Impossible to work with. I was in my principal's office in October asking to be moved out of the grade. I stopped eating lunch with them in October and spent the rest of the year eating alone in my room. I sheltered my students from them as much as possible. Example- I was teaching my kids the meaning of "suspense" one day and one girl raised her hand. "Oh, so it's that feeling when we have to go to Mrs. XXX's room. We know that someone is going to get in trouble, but we don't know who and we don't know why." That was One Of Those Years.

The second one was because my school had just hired a brand new vice principal. It was her first year as an admin and we...did not get along. I take responsibility too, I do not handle having my chain yanked well and I know better than to go toe to toe with an administrator. But right away I was shut down by her in a staff meeting in front of everyone in a brutal, rude way, and that set the tone. She decided she didn't like the way my classroom ran and to enforce every inch of the district guidelines, which included expecting weekly lesson plans on her desk every Monday morning. She claimed she was doing it for all "new" teachers. (I wasn't new, it was my ninth year, but my second in the district, but she treated me like it was my second period.) I checked. It was just me. So I did the responsible, respectful thing of testing her, because I didn't trust that she actually cared. I wrote one master weekly lesson plan out, made a bunch of copies, changed the dates, and submitted the same thing to her over and over. She never called me on it. She did end up threatening me with a poor review when she found out I was looking for another job if someone called her. Like I would tell a job to call her. But like I said, I wasn't making it any easier on myself. I made the year harder for myself and it sucked the whole time.

The constant in both of those years was I had great kids. Amazing kids. Well, one scary kid in the sixth grade that eventually got moved out, but other than that it was amazing. I learned a ton with them in those two years.

I narrowly avoided One Of Those Years a few years ago with a student teacher. Rough mix of kids. We had a hard time, but we figured it out right at the end. We had to rework everything but we did it. Student Teacher Ms Miller (now Ms Miller in her own classroom for a few years) helped save that year. I couldn't have asked for a better student teacher. It was One Of Those Three Quarters Of A Year.

This year, I think, is OoTY. Not because of my kids. I have a reasonably size group of nutty, weird, funny, chatty, great kids. I always have a bunch of nutty, chatty, weird, funny kids. Every single year. What are the odds? The kids claim I make them weird, but I doubt that very much.

But here's what has happened since the start of the year-

  • This summer my daughter was born and immediately spent a week in the NICU. She's fine now. But summer break wasn't a real break.
  • I had my first utter failure of a student teacher experience.
  • My favorite principal ever, the best I've ever worked for, was stolen by the district office, throwing our school into a spin we're doing our best to ride out but which won't actually be settled until someone permanent is hired next year.
  • My children spent basically all of winter break sick, including the littlest one, now six months old, spending Christmas and a few days afterward in the hospital with RSV.
  • Yay, anxiety!
  • Right after Christmas break, starting three weeks ago, I woke up Thursday morning knowing I was passing a kidney stone (I've done it a bunch of times over twenty years) so I didn't go in, it didn't pass on Friday so I didn't teach again, I taught through it on Monday, went to the doctor on Tuesday so no school, had surgery on Wednesday, recovered Thursday and Friday, had Monday off as a holiday, taught Tuesday, and on Weds I took the day off because they took the stent out they'd left in during the surgery and the stent was between my kidney and bladder and there's only one way to that particular tube and I got to be awake for it so I decided to take that day off too because I had earned it. Then I taught Thursday and had no students and meetings on Friday. So, to review, in three weeks I taught six days. This month might as well have been shot into the sun. My poor students. 
  • Cheeto Hitler is still president and even though he's been impeached I'm terrified he's going to get away with everything anyway because the GOP are all cowards and traitors and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that's a constant level of stress lurking beneath everything else all the time.
Not to mention all the normal things I'm involved in like I'm on a STEAM leadership team and I'm part of an awesome Community Partnership thing that had my students building benches last year and is dreaming even bigger this year, and I'm heading up the MakerFaire committee. I'm not complaining, I love this stuff and it's important to me. But it's a lot. 

I've noticed that I just feel off this year. I still don't have my feet under me and it's basically February, which probably means I'm not going to get them under me. My class is great, my kids are working hard. We've done cool things and I'm doing my job well (except the last three weeks which were a garbage fire of no one's doing). But it's just not right

I'm lucky too because my grade level team is killer. I couldn't be more lucky with the two people I share fourth grade with, and the fifth grade team is awesome too. I'm close with one of the fifth grade teachers, he's been a partner in crime and kindred spirit since my first year at the school and we make each other better. These people are saving me while I also battle that wonderful teacher insecurity of I Can't Let Them Down. Because it's not enough to put pressure on yourself to not let your kids down, someone of us are lucky enough to work with teachers we feel the same way about. The jerks. Gotta be all helpful and friendly and good at their jobs. (I should note that if they sucked like the sixth grade team a few paragraphs above did I'd still be be putting pressure on myself, but it would be the much less healthy "I'll show you" kind. Because spite and anger are fuels too, kids!)

I'm going to keep trying. You can't give up on a One Of Those Years or it'll sweep you away completely, but it's not healthy to not see it for what it is. Teaching is a hard freaking job. No amount of sunshine and rainbows, be positive and cheerleading keynotes, books, quotes, memes, and pablum will change that or make it better. I'll find my way and laugh doing it because, like Jimmy Buffett says, "if we weren't all crazy we'd all go insane."*

*I've seen Jimmy a few times live, he puts on a great show. Especially when you see him outdoors in Hawaii and you can smell the ocean (and a few other things) during the set. But you have never seeeeeeen so many drunk white people dancing badly. 

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, January 20, 2020

Why is Your Scientist a White Man?

"Ok, you're all doing great work but I need everyone to stop and listen for a second. Hands off your computers, please."

I try not to interrupt my students when they're in the middle of work time. Especially when they're working well. There's no better way to break the spell of a focused class like sticking your One-More-Thing-Teacher-Face in front of it. I try to avoid it at all costs but doing all the explaining and expectations and whatever before the student work part starts. But something always comes us. It's the nature of the work. So then it's a judgement call of "Should I put this fire out fifteen times between all my groups?" or "Let's just stop everyone, get it taken care of right now, and move on with the work." In this case I choose Option Latter.

The project in question was one I like because it manages to fulfill a few boxes of my Flowchart O' Good Projects- It uses technology in a creative way, it allows for student creativity but within narrow boundaries, it assesses what a less creative but more straight forward project could, and it can be expanded upon later and blown up real big.

My students are reading a story called "Invasion From Mars". It's the first few minutes of the "War of the Worlds" radio play by HG Wells in script form. We get to talk about the genre of audio plays, dissect the text for clues about what it happening, describe actions and events, look at cause and effect, all kinds of good stuff. In my class, if students see a script, they're gonna want to perform it. I call this the Give a Mouse a Cookie Principle. But just reading the script out loud is no fun, and it's not very engaging. There's only three real speaking parts in the whole thing. How to get everyone involved?

Technology! Did you know that you can use Google Slides to create a stop motion movie? It's true! Just build a character out of shapes, copy the slide, move the shapes very slightly, copy the slide, and repeat. The more slides you have the finer you can make the movements the smoother your animation will look. Students get very into this and you'll soon have slideshows of 200 slides. Then expand to presentation size and click through very quickly. To add audio download Screencastify (or any other screen capture extension) to Chrome, turn it on, and the kids are now the voice actors, folly artists, as well as the animators. This is not the quickest process in the world, but if your goal is to get your kids to slow down, read the text carefully, see what's happening, and summarize it in some way it's golden. They have to read with fluency and expression because they're acting. They have to pay attention to the text because their animation needs to match the story and so does their folly (sound effects).

It's great fun. Like I said, they'll beg to do this again which means you can release control and move from the students animating a pre-written script to animating one that they've written. They'll beg to write a script.

The three main characters in "Invasion From Mars" are The Reporter, The Farmer, and The Scientist. There's also a cop, another reporter, and a crowd but they don't count. In the text The Reporter is called Phillips, The Farmer is called Mr. Wilmuth, and The Scientist is called Pierson. Students take their time designing these characters. And it was during this that I noticed something interesting and troubling-

All three characters were being animated as white men by every single group in the room. In the illustrations of the book Phillips is a white man and he's referred to once as "Carl". Mr Wilmuth is given a gender in his name and he's illustrated as a white man. And Pierson is illustrated as a white man. So you might think, "Well, that's why the kids are animating the characters like that. They're taking their cues from the text. You know, like you want." Maybe, EXCEPT later in the story the alien climbs out of its smoking space ship and, while that's also illustrated in the story, the description in the text is pretty sparse, and every single animated alien across every group looks different. So why are all of my kids, the groups with more girls, the groups with more boys, the groups with students of color, the groups without, every group is animating the human characters the same?

I had to say something. This is a chance, an organic teaching moment, that you cannot let pass by. It's real and it'll give us a chance to talk about bias and reality and what they're presented with every day and it will, hopefully, change how they interact with the world.

I focused the conversation on Pierson, The Scientist. "Please raise your hand if you're animating Pierson to look like a man." Wait one two three. "Look around. All of you did. Ok, if your hand is in the air find me proof in the text that Pierson is a man." Wait four five six.

Someone calls out (we're allowed to call out in my class in these kinds of situations, it's a conversation), "Uh...I don't think it does."

My turn. "Huh. That's interesting.So why did you make Pierson a man?" Someone will be brave. Someone will say it without thinking about what they're saying until they've already said it, which is perfect and what this needs.

"Because Pierson is a scientist."

Then I wait. I don't need to do anything right now. I need to let that hang in the air for just a moment, watching them, waiting for what's coming. "Heyyy!" one student exclaims. "Waitaminute! Girls can be scientists too!" Let it run through the room for a minute. All it took was the spark, the kids will blow it into a flame. Now I can poke, because her Pierson was a man too. You can't believe how quickly they rush for the keyboard to start making corrections.

"But wait! There's more!" Everyone freezes again. "Raise your hand if you animated Pierson with what could be called white skin."

No matter how comfortable your class is, bringing this up will always get a moment of caught breath, a slight pause. Racial conversations can be hard and the classroom needs to correct environment to have them. Mine does, but that doesn't mean they're willing to jump right in all at once. They're fourth graders. But still, every hand goes up. "Leave your hand up if you can find in the text where it says that Pierson is white." Every hand goes down.

"I want us to all sit with this for a second. We can have a bigger conversation about this if you want, or I can let you think on it and we'll come back to it later, but isn't it interesting that every single person in hear read Scientist and though White Man? That's a problem, isn't it? Sure, Pierson absolutely could be. In fact, based on when this was written in history that's exactly what the author probably imagined when he wrote it. But that was 70 years ago. You are smarter than that. You are more open than that. No one is in trouble, and I'm not going to insist that anyone change what they've animated. But, I am going to insist that you think about why you did what you did. I want you to change your animations to reflect what you think."

We talk at this point in class about what implicit bias is, because that understanding will inform every single thing we do and it's important that that lives in their heads now. Someone will ask about Phillips, The Reporter and Mr Wilmuth, The Farmer. I'll tell them that the story does seem to specify their genders, but I'll ask if it matters. "Sure, at one point Phillips is called Carl, but does that mean you can't slightly alter the text to make it Carol? And the farmer too. What do you want them to look like, not what did the illustrator make them look like?"

This is at once a small thing and a Big Thing. It's a small thing because it's all about getting my students to look at text in a different way. But it's a Big Thing because they need to see the biases they carry with them all the time. This story is perfect for that conversation too because it comes up organically. I'm not forcing something to happen, I'm letting it happen and then calling it out. I believe in Education Circles we call that a Teachable Moment. I'm also not shying away from it, which is so easy to do, especially as a straight white man teacher. "You would like to center me in this story? Awesome, I should be centered in all stories! Straight White Man to the Default!" I can't let that happen. It's not good for my kids who aren't straight white men and it's not good for my kids who are. Decentering takes work. It takes specific calling out. It's these small and big things that will help bring the change we're working towards always. And, just as a CYA (Cover Your Ass) in case a parent gets grumpy for whatever reason ("Why are you having political conversations with my child?"), I'm not having the conversation, I'm pointing out something and guiding things while students come to whatever they'll come to. Also, I'm about to teach the colonization of the continent through the Oregon Trail so the No Political Conversations thing is well out the window anyway.

It's our job to help students see the world and understand it, and that includes the world inside themselves. A lot of teaching, so much of it, is a time release capsule that we put into a kid's head and then step away from, maybe never to see the result of. It's my job, it's our job, to find these chances to make the world a better place and take them. Wherever they appear.

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, January 13, 2020

The Professor

A friend sent this to me and I can't find who drew it to credit them.
If you know please let me know.

Author's Note- Like most of my stuff, this does not immediately come to an educational point, even though this is an education-based blog. Like most of my stuff, I do have a teacher-centric point and you just need to trust me and come on the journey.

Neil Peart is my favorite drummer. He is a lot of people's favorite drummer. Somebody said that Neil Peart is your favorite drummer's favorite drummer. Neil Peart was the best for a million different reasons.

Neil Peart died on Tuesday, January 7th after a three and a half year battle with brain cancer. It sucks. A lot.

First some context for those of you reading this who have not yet been initiated into the world of wonder and rock that is the greatest rock band to have ever existed- Rush. Rush was three men- Geddy Lee on bass and vocals, Alex Lifeson on guitars, and Neil Peart on drums (except the first album, which featured John Rutsy on drums). Rush is a progressive rock band from the Great White North. Even if you don't think you know Rush you've heard Rush. You probably know "Tom Sawyer" or "Limelight" at least. Rush didn't write hits. Rush didn't write for record sales. Rush was, in the words of Geddy Lee, "The most popular cult band in the world." The easy pigeon hole for Rush is that they wrote twenty minute long prog rock odysseys with seventeen time changes, and that's true, but only for a few early albums. Eventually they moved away from that and wrote five minute long prog rock adventures with fourteen time changes.

Prog rock gets a bad wrap, a lot of it is the fault of prog rock bands. People will hear a millions notes a minute and songs so long that the listener and the band need a road map, a snack, and a power nap to get all the way through it, and say, "That must be prog!" And at one point it was. But, much like punk, by defining progressive rock with boundaries you box it and therefore take what is progressive about it away.

Rush was progressive in the most real sense of the word. They were constantly evolving and changing. Every Rush album sounds like Rush. A neophyte to the band could listen to the self-titled debut and to Clockwork Angels, their final full length published forty years later, and say, "Yep. Same band." And not just because, love it or hate it, Geddy Lee's voice is unmistakable and never really changed that much. But while it's still Rush, the band has changed, and if you care to listen with your ears on you can hear that. Most of my favorite bands, like jazz-rock-orchestra shapeshifter Frank Zappa and Canadian prog-extreme-atmospheric-pop-metal genius Devin Townsend (and even Metallica, who always evolved even when we weren't thrilled with the evolution at least they did it), never made the same album twice. But they always always made the album that was true to them in the moment. Rush mined their hearts and passions for songs and expected us, the fans, to come along...or not. Their wider popularity ebbed and flowed but after a certain point they never failed to sell out any EnormoDome in whatever town they were coming to. Because authenticity matters.

Even though he wasn't the literal voice of the band (he was fond of saying, "Singing is the worst job, but drumming is the hardest") it was his words that sprang from Geddy's throat. Neil wrote nearly all the lyrics to every Rush song. I say nearly because he was the lyricist but he'd give the words to Geddy, Geddy would decide what was too much to sing or too complicated or didn't flow right, make changes, give the words back, and Neil would edit from their. In a band of three guys you can't have factions or people ganging up on each other. It wouldn't work. Rush worked together like only three good Canadian boys could.

And what words he would write. Diving into the lyric sheet of any Rush album is a journey that is akin to diving into your favorite piece of literature. Bring a dictionary too because his vocabulary is bigger than yours. He's not showing off, it's just that, much like his giant drum set, if he's got the exact right word he's going to use it. Neil read voraciously and you could hear that in his lyrics. Whether it's a massive science fiction story about government control of art and individual thought and accomplishment, a five minute metaphor about the things that separate and alienate us from each other, or processing the loss of his daughter and wife within a year of each other Neil was clear and quoting his heart.

He also rode bicycles and motorcycles, taking long adventures through the back roads of countries the band was touring in instead of traveling in ease and boredom in the bus the whole time. These treks led to books about his travels. For those of you paying attention, yeah, he was a motorcycle riding author and musician who loved to read. No wonder I feel such a strong connection to him.

"Ok great!" I hear you cry, dear reader. "But what does this have to do with teaching? My recess/bathroom break is almost over and you still haven't gotten to the point."

Neil talks about building drum parts like I think about building lessons and projects. Correction- Like I aspire to thinking about lessons and projects. His drumming is famously complex and layered, with a million things happening at once. But the secret that other prog drummers sometimes miss is everything, every flourish and hit, is in service of The Song first. Like our lessons should be. So how does he write these complex drum parts? By starting simple. Play the beat. Play the beat until the heartbeat of the song is strong. Then add something. Does it work? Can he do it? Ok, now add something else. Change it slightly. Can he play it? Ok, repeat. He builds these massive palaces one beat at a time, checking and revising each time. That's why they call him The Professor. No one thought about playing drums like Neil thought about playing drums. He wasn't a drummer. He was a composer.

Now I think about how I try to build things in my classroom. You always have to start with The Point. What's the point? Ok, now what can I add to flesh it out? How can I add technology or movement or choice or making? Where are the places it can be given to students more freely? How do I grow it bigger, fancier, but always in service of The Lesson. Done right, at the end I've created something big. What makes what I do, what we do, different from what Neil did is that's only the first step. He needs to be able to play that complex behemoth every night on tour with exacting accuracy, and I need to be able to hand it over to ten year old so they can create something with it on their own. He builds something to set in stone and make perfect. I build something to be broken and re-purposed. But the process is the same.

Neil was widely considered the greatest drummer in his genre for a long time. It would be easy for someone who was The Best to be happy being The Best. But that's not who he was. Neil wasn't happy with his drumming and wanted something more. He found a teacher, Freddie Gruber, thirty years into his career and dedicated himself to relearning an instrument he'd mastered a hundred times over. He learned new styles, new techniques for playing, new ways of thinking about beat and rhythm. The best in the world went back to school to be better.

The connection to education and what we do seems pretty obvious, my friends. If he can see places to improve, and be brave enough to deconstruct his practice in order to build it back up stronger, anyone can. And should. He said when he got together with the band again after doing that the other two said he still sounded like him, and for a minute he was disappointed. "But of course it still sounded like me. The difference was the clock at work had changed, and as we played we could all feel that."

Neil gets labeled as a sourpuss sometimes, and if you watch him play you can honestly see why. It does not look like a man having a good time. But Rush songs are hard and no one has higher standards than Neil himself. He compared playing a three hour Rush show to running a marathon while juggling and doing complex equations. You try to smile. He was also deeply shy and never did the fan meet and greets. Leave that to Geddy and Alex, who actually enjoy it. It was never that he was above it, he just didn't like it. He'd say that, "extroverts will never understand introverts." This is a lesson I need to take to heart more often in my own classroom, and something some education speakers should probably have pinned to their shirts before they start talking about what good teaching looks like.

Shy though he was, he was also fun and funny and silly. Those sometimes get put in two different camps as though you can't be both at the same time. Watch either of the wonderful Rush documentaries- "Beyond the Lighted Stage" or "Time Stand Still"- to see that. Or just listen to "Limelight" and hear what he has to say about fame from the man himself.

One last education lesson than I take from Rush and Neil and then I'll let you get back to your life, especially if your life consists of investigating the decades of Rush material I'm jealous you're about to discover for the first time or rediscover or just listen to for the thousandth time.

My favorite Rush album is Hemispheres. It's the one with a naked guy standing on a brain on the cover. It's also their Big Long Complicated Album. It's got a side-long beast called "Cygnus X-1 Book II" (Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage is on the album Farewell to Kings and clocks in at a mere ten minutes) that's just science fiction and virtuoso playing nirvana. That's not the song that's the lesson though. The song that's the lesson closes the album- a nine and a half minute instrumental called "La Villa Strangiato". Here's what I love about that song, and why it inspires me as a teacher, an artist, and a creator- They wrote a song that was too hard for them to play when they wrote it.

They wrote the song, and then were determined to record it live, as a band, in one straight take. Nine and a half minutes of perfect playing. And they couldn't do it. They spent days trying to get it exactly right. Eventually they had to break it up into smaller chunks and record it that way. BUT that doesn't mean they can't play it all the way through. "La Villa Strangiato" was a staple of the live set. You've never been a music nerd until you've sung passionately along to an instrumental song.

How inspiring and empowering is that? That these master musicians could overreach themselves and fail. Would write something beyond their own abilities. If Rush can do that I take plan a project that I don't know will work. I can step beyond my technological knowledge to bring my kids closer to a greater learning goal. I have to be willing to go so big that failure is a true reality, learn from it, and then learn to do it anyway later on.

Neil has a million great quotes, but I want to leave you with him quoting someone else, because it sums up why he means so much to me and so many others and why I just wrote a Rush-length blog post about Neil Peart. He would use this line often. It's from Bob Dylan, taken from a 1978 Rolling Stone interview: "The highest purpose of art is to inspire. What else can you do for anyone but inspire them?"

Thank you, Neil.

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.