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.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Recess Rules


How many rules do students really need at recess?

Let's leave the classroom aside for this post. In the classroom I feel students need no more than four rules- Be Respectful, Be Safe, Be Responsible, Make Good Choices (provided the kids build that list themselves), and that those four rules can all be boiled down to the simple, easy to remember catch-all- Be Cool. That's The Rule in my room. Do the students know I came up with the idea not because of Fonzie but because of Jules, Honey Bunny, and Ringo? No, and they don't need to until they finally get to that movie and wonder, just for a moment, why "Be cool" sounds so familiar.

I can only speak for my current school and the ones I've worked at in the past when I say often there are way too many rules at recess. And, as so often happens when you have too many rules, they conflict and don't hold up to scrutiny or questions.

Here's the most egregious example, and it's from my current school. I have no problem admitting it's from my school because I didn't make it up, my students know I think it's ridiculous (I'll get to that), and I've brought it up a few times.

At recess, the students at my school are not allowed to play Tag. HOWEVER, they are allowed to play two-hand touch football. 

Imma leave that right there for just a second. I'll let you pick your jaw up from your keyboard or the bathroom floor (ew, come on) or wherever you're sitting and reading this. I'll wait as you go back and read it again. I'll look you dead in the eye and shake my head when you silently ask me if there's a punchline coming. Nope, dear reader. There is not. This, as much as it sounds like a joke, is not one.

The kids at my school cannot play Tag at recess. This is a school rule. It's been there longer than I have. They can play two-hand touch football. "What's the difference!?!" I hear you ask. Friends, I have seen students ask that very same question. They've asked it honestly, with no trace of Gotcha or disrespect. They've asked it because their teacher, me included but not only, encourages them to question rules that are confusing. This is part of being a good citizen.

The reason? The reason that I heard today makes as little sense as the rule. "Because there's a ball." That's basically it. The recess person in question went on to try and justify it with "There's lots of things out here that we're worried students could run into." No, this does not make it better nor does it justify No Tag But Yes Football.

How many rules are there like this out there? How many don't make any sense at all?

Now, before I start really hammering on those who run recess duty I will make acknowledgements- There's a lot of freaking kids out there at any one time and not very many of them. That can be overwhelming, I'm sure. And they honestly don't want kids to get hurt. Be honest though, this is an excuse that gets used to make their jobs easier. I get it. More rules make your job easier. And we've all heard the story about the one time one kid was playing on the monkey bars unsafely and slipped and fell and broke both arms. We know that happened. But one event does not an unsafe play area make. You can't use one story that happened forever ago as justification for rules that don't actually make sense or keep anyone safer. I mean, this is recess, not the airport. (This is where I rant at you for a solid five minutes about how unbelievably stupid and insulting it is that we still or ever had to take our shoes off at airport security.)

But it's recess. We're literally preventing running at recess unless the kids are playing one specific game? I'll be honest, I've always been annoyed by this but right now, this moment, as I type this, it's really setting in and getting under my skin. I've not spent an extended period of time rationalizing it, I've just always heard it, been annoyed, and then moved on to more important things. But holy crap the more I think about this one rule the madder I get. They have to play two-hand touch football to play a Tag-like game? Road apples! I'm going in to my administrator tomorrow morning and having another word about it. And I think it'll go better than the last time because my current admin is a sub, my former one having just, sadly, been promoted.

Back to the wider topic at hand- Does recess need specific rules or can the general school rules be applied to recess as well and leave it at that? You probably need some game/equipment-specific rules. Tetherball lasts x rounds and then the next person comes in. You can swing on the swings y times if there's a line of kids waiting. Something something handball something.

I'm inclined to proclaim loudly and overly-broadly that students should be trusted more and given less rules during their free time. They get ten minutes and then another ten or twenty after lunch. Let 'em run. Let 'em get hurt. Let 'em do the learning on their own. Let 'em build their own rules for recess. It works wonders in the classroom. I know it'll be harder with the whole school. Maybe students could elect a safety committee. Kids choose a group of kids who come up with reasonable recess rules as a group, vote on them,, run then by the adults, make adjustments as needed, and Robert is your mom's brother. I like this idea too and I'm running it by a partner in crime tomorrow morning first thing. This is part of the reason I blog about topics like this- I need to think out loud and being in the car isn't really helping me think right now.

What rules do you have at recess at your school?