Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Lighting Fires With Educational Arson by Sarah Windisch




Language is one of the most powerful tools we have.

Look at the news right now for an example of what happens with it breaks down, when it offends, when it is wielded to harm another - whether purposefully or under the guise of information.

There’s a reason the pen is mightier than the sword.

I am a poet. The imposter syndrome is allowing me to tell you that, Friends of WeirdEd, to make a larger point this week. That point isn’t, “Go buy my book. It’s available at bit.ly/EdArson and everyone should read it because it’s very good.” (That is an extremely valid point, however, and you should.) [Ed. Note- go buy Sarah’s book, it’s real good.] The point is: a poet writes with an economy of words and a precision of language that is meant to create a universal understanding.

That’s the part you should picture meme, by the way: a poet writes with an economy of words and a precision of language that is meant to create a universal understanding.

I know, I know. So many people get turned off by poetry and the analysis foisted upon it that looks more at the construction and rhyme scheme than the beauty of the words. I mean, I’m glad you can tell the difference between a haiku and a cinquain, but in a short form like that, with such strict structures, why are those the most descriptive words that could possibly be chosen?

When Adelaide Crapsey (this one’s for you middle school teachers - I know you want to teach about this poet) says “frost-crisp’d” in November Night, how much better is that than “rattling” or “brown” or “autumn”?

Playing with language to find just the right word forces you to clarify what you think. It’s the compositional equivalent of listening to understand, not to reply. Slowing down. Making ideas clear and sharp. If you want to be understood - and this is the fundamental piece - and create understanding with another, there should be no static in your statements. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have room to learn and change and grow. It means that you say what you actually mean. You can explain it, but because of the precision of your words, you may not need to. And, because your ideas are crystalline, others can look through them to see their own beliefs and how they align or diverge.

Allow me to present an example from a book of poetry mentioned earlier, Educational Arson. (I hear it’s phenomenal and the author is very clever.) The poem that people want to talk to me most about is on page 43, under Blisters and Scars:

How will anyone ever know

You’ve tried if you cover up

Hide

Scratch out

Every bit of evidence

Whether it’s flattering

Or not?

Readers have applied this to their own lives, their lives as teachers, as students, to their students, they’ve read it to their students about trying. About failing. I never, out of all the poems in the book, would have guessed that this would be the one that resonated most. But look at the language. I’m going to blame it on “scratch out.” Scratch out an incorrect answer on the test. Scratch out “whore” in the bathroom because you tried to love the best way you knew how. Scratch out the feelings into your arms and legs because seeing your own blood is the only way you feel anything anymore. Then you cover it up. You hide it. Because it’s not flattering. But no one will ever know. Because you’re not saying anything at all. (Disclaimer: these are not my experiences, nor those of my readers that I know of - they are creations of my fertile, but probably accurate, imagination.)

That’s poetry analysis.

That’s precision of language.

That’s listening to understand.

That’s probably something that could help soothe our aches as humanity.

Struggle and play with language.

Tussle with it. 

Emerge victorious with

Confident vocabulary.

But words cannot be precious

They must be malleable

So that your ideas

Can be honed

Refined

Sharpened

And the pen remains

Mightier

Than the

Sword

__

Sarah Windisch is a music teacher in North Idaho. She blogs at slwindisch.blogspot.com, and enjoys spouting off on Twitter @slwindisch. Her first book of poetry is called Educational Arson is available on Amazon for your reading pleasure.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Practicing Teacher




I'm going to start calling my classroom my practice.

Lawyers get to practice the law. Practicing lawyers. Doctors get to practice medicine. Practicing doctors. Teachers teach. Why don't we get to call it practice? (Just to get it out of the way, "teaching practices" is different and you know it, Pedantic Reader.)

Lawyers barely hide it. Matt Murdock says he practices law. When he's in court trying to put the Kingpin away again, he's practicing. He's still not ready for the final. He's still working on it. His office is called a practice. Even the building doesn't feel prepared.

Doctors barely hide it. They call what they do practicing medicine, but when you're in your underwear on the table suddenly everyone knows exactly what they're doing. If I had looked at his business card it would have said "gastroenterology practice", but the MD wasn't like, "Time to practice sticking a camera up your butt."

I can't be in a parent conference telling some concerned mom that I'm practicing teaching on her kid. That makes me sound like a mad scientist. Even though that exactly what I'm doing. If we embrace the idea of constantly growing then we're constantly practicing teaching. Every day I'm practicing teaching math concepts. I'm going to try a lesson, then I'm going to reflect on it and change things, then I'm going to do it again. Over and over. That's practice. I know, I was an athlete, I've practiced stuff. I assume that's why most schools have coaches.

When do doctors and lawyers practice their practices? Why do they get away with calling what they are actively doing every single day practice? Today's lawyers had teachers teaching them how to practice law. They didn't have teachers practicing teaching them how to practice law. That's Inception-levels of practicing. The universe (or university) would fold in on itself. No, their teachers didn't have the luxury of practicing teaching. They had to straight up teach their bright-eyed law students how to practice.

Yet, school feels so important. Every single day is another chance to reach a kid, help someone learn something, make a connection. Get a win. That's not what happens in practice. That's game time, while being much more serious than any game. Can you practice during a game? If sports movies have taught me anything, you can. Kinda. Hit the cut-off man, Evelyn. But that's not when you really get a chance to get the reps in. You do that during practice. Before and between games. You know, when I'm lesson planning (practicing writing lessons) and grading (practicing giving feedback). So I don't ever have time to practice teaching? In person, with the kids?

I reject that. The language we use to describe what we do matters. I am growing in my teaching. I am constantly experimenting, refining, and tuning how I educate my kids. In short, in my classroom I am practicing. I'm teaching my kids to practice. Together we run our practice.

Room 17 is the Education Practice of Robertson & Partners.

I am a practicing teacher. And I always will be.

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 the just released 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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Song of Joy- Teaching Students to Love What They Love


Last year I had a student who was obsessed with the video game Five Nights At Freddy's. Obsessed like only children and nerds can get obsessed. She had a Five Nights at Freddy's (hereby called FNAF because holy crap what a long title) backpack, a different FNAF shirt for every day, FNAF lunchbox, FNAF folders, a FNAF journal, her ID was on a FNAF lanyard. When she was given the choice to freewrite there was always a character named Freddy or Foxy. When given the chance to draw something and then add personalized details there would be the freaky-looking mechanical bear face. When given the assignment to do a biography about anyone on Earth she choose the dude who created FNAF. If her optometrist had carried FNAF glasses she would have worn those. If she'd been over 18 she would have gotten a poorly advised tattoo of the FNAF logo on her shoulder blade.

Because I am an Old, I was unaware this game existed until she walked into my classroom. Once she was there, I knew all about it. Rarely does a student make it so easy to make a connection, so easy to find an In to talk about. So often you've got to do the flowchart. "Do you enjoy sports? If Yes- Which?/If No- Do you enjoy video games?" and so on. But seeing as this kid was branded like a Wayne's World bit, all I had to do was say, "Five Nights at Freddy's? What's that?"

Know how I immediately knew that she was a true nerdy fan and not just some kid who mentioned the game once so her mom bought her the shirt? She didn't roll her eyes at me like I was an Old. Instead her eyes lit up as if to say, "Ah! An Uninitiated! Come with me on this journey, young padawan. I will show you things you have never imagined." A true nerd will never make you feel bad for not knowing about the thing they love. They're too excited about helping you to See The Light.

My class that year was good. Every year my class is good. But it was also challenging. They weren't rude kids, but, being fifth graders, teasing was becoming a Tool of Communication. A blunt object still, not honed or practiced, and lacking the know-how of When, Where, and Who. So it became easy for the other students who were looking for a cheap laugh to drop little barbs at her. "Again with the Five Nights at Freddy's story? Really?" While she registered these barbs, she never let them decrease her love of the game.

Naturally, I didn't let this go on. But you can't, as a teacher, just step in and say, "Hey! Be nice!" That doesn't work.* Specificity matters. Reasons matter. So instead I chose to talk to my class about joy.

"I hope that you find something that you love as much as she loves this video game. How cool is it that she gets so much joy out of this thing? It's not our place to steal victimless joy from others. We should rejoice in it." I shared my own story about growing up loving everything Star Trek. When the other kids at school were talking about the Sunday football scores I'd be saying, "Yeah yeah, great. But did you see how Data and Geordi had to reconfigure the primary power coupling because the Romulans decloaked out of nowhere and then Captain Picard did that thing where he diplomatically threatened them into submission and they ran away because that's what Romulans always do? What was your favorite part?" Then my students look at me in a way that I've been looked at many times before and will be many times again, and I smile. One kid might venture, "Star Wars is better than Star Trek." That student, by the way, is allowed to be wrong. We celebrate mistakes in our classroom. But it opens the gate to the conversation again. Why would you say that? Just to be funny? But at what expense?

School is about so much more than the lessons. We know that. The lesson are important, the kids need the curriculum as in their heads as it can get, Google or not. But school is also about creating wonderful, productive citizens of a loving world. That starts here, with helping kids be cool with their peers being into things they don't understand. That's a foundation of understanding and empathy we can build on. The new Star Wars movies, among other franchises, have been attacked by misguided people who miss the point of science fiction because they have women and people of color at the lead rather than yet another Chosen White Guy. Changing that poisonous attitude starts in our classrooms, teaching students that acceptance of what others love leads to acceptance of what others are and seeing others as real people. It will help prevent our kids from becoming awful people online or in person (I don't say 'in real life' because we need to stop pretending the internet isn't real life). Acceptance matters, and it's our job to reinforce that at every turn.

I have four rules in my classroom- Be Safe, Be Responsible, Be Respectful, Make Good Choices. That's still too many, so I sum them all up under one Umbrella Rule- Be Cool. I don't get my former student's love for Five Nights at Freddy's. I've looked into the game and it's way not for me. But it doesn't need to be. I'm not going to tease her for it. That wouldn't be cool.

School is a place for joy. Joyful learning, but also learning to be joyful. Joyful in that way that only the most dedicated fan can be. And cool to everyone, whether they love it too or not.

*unless you're a parent with more than one child, then "Hey! Be nice!" becomes part of your regular vocabulary.


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 the just released 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

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Cardboard Arcade- Game Design is No Game


Build Building Excitement

The week before the winter break is a challenge for every teacher. You want to keep the kids learning, you want to keep them focused, you don't want to hear, "Are we gonna have a party on Friday?" every ten minutes. But at the same time you know in your bones that the regular routine just isn't going to cut it. They can smell the break coming. You can smell the break coming. It's time to break out something really cool.

Cue the cardboard.

Much to the frustration of my custodian, I adore cardboard. There's always a stack of it in my classroom. But the Monday of that last full week that stack grows like the Grinch's heart. I don't mention this to my students. I let them come in and take note of Mt Cardboard over against the wall. I let them check the board where the schedule is normally written and take in the many question marks in place of the normal "Vocabulary/Add and Subtract Decimals/Talk About How Wonderful Mr Robertson Is". Then I dodge questions.

"Mr Robertson, why are there question marks all over the schedule?"

"Because I put them there."

"Right, but why?"

"Because that's where they go."

*sigh* "Fine. Why is there a giant pile of cardboard over there."

"Because I put it there."

"Right, but-" and at this point another student or six jump in. "He'll tell us later! He always does!"

The stack of cardboard and the mystery schedule is all leading to one of my favorite projects of the entire year, something I've run for the last four years- The Cardboard Arcade. This idea came from a lot of places, most dominantly from the Caine's Arcade YouTube video, and you can read about the very first year I did it here. Part of the purpose of this post is to compare how I used to run this project with how I run it now. This is an unexpected benefit of blogging about what I do in my classroom. It's a fun way to look back and watch how I've changed. (As an aside to this already long aside, I plan on putting a chapter in the next Weird Teacher book entirely about everything that I talk about in the first Weird Teacher book that has changed or been dropped completely.)  

We start with the video. My kids know that I like to use videos as inspirational jumping-off points for projects (get thee to OKGo's YouTube channel for all the creativity inspiration), so they adjust their seats and settle in for whatever it is I've got lined up.

I challenge you to not tear up a little during that

It's fun to watch them put two and two together as the video goes along. "Mr. Robertson! Are we gonna make an arcade?"

"We are!" And then I raise my hands to part the flood of follow-up questions. I start with the ending, because sometimes that song is wrong about a very good place to start. "On Friday we will open our cardboard arcade for business, and we will invite other classes to come in and play what you're about to build." I dispense with the other normal question quickly- No, I will choose groups randomly for this project using the Cup O Destiny; No, you will design these out of your own brains, without needing to google arcade games; No, I said, your groups will be chosen for you.

Then we got to get down to the good stuff.

Before You Can Make

  • No tickets or prizes. Trust me. Students will spend ages cutting out and writing on millions of tiny tickets that have no actual value or use. This is a poor use of time and resources. As for prizes, no. Just...just no. 
  • Games must be heavily play-tested and revised. Here's where this gets sneaky academic. First drafts are never done, they're never as good as they could be, and they should never be presented to the public. Design the game (more on that in a moment), build the game, and then test the heck out of the game until you've worked out all the bugs. Build, test, revise, fix, test, revise, repeat. This is a mantra of my classroom. And when kids can do it with builds they can do it with writing, with presentations, and with math.
  • Games will have some thoughtful, complicated build elements. Students want to blast through this. Of course they do, it's exciting. They want to get to the part where they play the game. But that skips over all the good stuff. I issue this challenge- Your game must be a complicated build for you, but an easy, fun experience for your players. It's hard to make something complex that is easy to use. This barrier slows most groups right down. Otherwise you get a super-fast ball-in-hole game and bam they're done. Nope, if that ball is being rolled into that hole you better figure out a way to get the ball returned to the player without the player seeing how it works. 
At this point students want to get going. They're eyeballing the perfect chunk of cardboard and making sign-language at their partners. But I'm still not quite ready. I'm going to do almost no whole group talking once they get started, so I need to get it in now. 



  • Design FIRST. On paper. Blueprint with dimensions and measurements, top, bottom, side views and cross-section if needed. My kids have designed builds before today. In fact, part of the reason I'm sure to get in some making before this week is so this week goes smoother. But this build will be more intense that those were. I'm dead serious about these blueprints. There will be no touching of cardboard until I've approved a workable set of blueprints. Students are about to hit a world of frustrations unlike any they've had in class so far. Which is good for them. One group always comes to me in five minutes with a hastily sketched mess.
 "We're ready."


"What is this?" 

"It's our game. See, here is-"

"No no no. I need to be able to read this and know exactly what I'm looking at, that way when you're building you'll be able to do the same. And I can't tell what anything is. Nothing is labeled. How big is this? What is this? Is this a top or a side or a front? Nope, go away, check the directions, then come back."

It takes many drafts to make me happy. I ask questions about pieces students didn't think about. "How far from this hole to the edge? Did you randomly put it there? What's the diameter?"

"Uh, what's a diameter?"

"Good, now you're asking the right questions. Go away, come back when you know."

Sneaky math lessons up and down this part of the project. Observe- 



This is an early blueprint. It's a really good one. But there's a problem. Look at the wedge. They've got two measurements because they didn't take into account the hypotenuse being a different length than the base. They'd never thought about that until I asked them to. But then they didn't know how to figure out the proper measurements. So I got to do some teaching.


I don't get many chances to make math as organic as I (and Jo Boaler) would like. I'm trying. But here it's perfect. It's right there. We had to estimate because I was working with their numbers, and they we squaring off the end, but it was close enough. 

  • Rules. Your game must be thought out and explained. You mostly need to say this because some students will bet a little exuberant with their planning and suddenly the tutorial takes longer than the game does. Again, the watchword (watchphrase?) is "Complicated for you, simple for them."
It takes most of that first day for blueprints to get where I want them. This is good. The kids are struggling and being forced to explain things clearly. They're revising and planning and thinking through the build, making it in their heads before making it for real. "Measure twice, cut once," as every shop teacher since the beginning of time has said.

This is different from my very first time giving this assignment. I really let the kids go the first time. I wanted to see what would happen. It was more organic, but it also ended up taking a lot longer and there was a lot more wasted cardboard. I'm honestly still on the fence about which is better. I value the design process, but I also love "Do this, go." My quick builds have taken that place though. 

Scarcity Mindset

I only give one more bit of direction from here on out aside from, "Test it and revise it again. You can make this cooler."

 I need to talk about efficient use of materials. 
  • Don't use the biggest pieces of cardboard for a bunch of small pieces of game. You need those for walls and bases. 
  • Don't laminate your games with tape to keep them together. Create tab systems, they should hold together on their own, and then the tape strengthens them.
  • Please walk carefully with the scissors. I'll get in trouble if someone gets stabbed again. (Yes, I say 'again' and then walk away and don't explain it. Keep your students on their toes.)
Ready, Go

Once all the blueprints are approved my job gets kind of boring. I play music, wander, suggest as needed, mediate group conflicts that can't be solved on their own, and make sure That Kid is sticking with his group and not finding reasons to "help" the group with his buddies in it. I stress having pride in the work, remind students to be measuring their cuts, and held them problem solve. Groups that finish fast I'll push to make their game even better, stronger, sharper looking, more diverse in the challenge options. And if they've done all that then I'll give them a quick build challenge to build a specific kind of game we're missing. This year that was a ring toss. 

These builds take two days at least. Sometimes more. We're working with big objects that need to be strong. Kids feel a sense of competition with each other to make the best game. There's always at least one voice in the groups trying to find better ways to improve the game play. Someone's gotta think about the FUN. 

As a teacher, this part is strange. I'm not Teaching, but I'm making sure the kids are learning. I'm asking specific questions and reminding them that this is still school and they need to be aware of the things they're learning and skills they're practicing. Reflection is coming, Jon Snow.

Once the games are ready (amazingly Friday afternoon every single year, almost like I know what I'm doing), I grab a few classes who are itchy for something to close the day with and my kids get to strut their stuff. It's so fun to watch the other students be amazed at what my kids have made, and it's gratifying to see how proud my kids are of their work.The visiting teachers are also very complimentary, which is great.

Reflection

Every single year I need to learn this lesson again- Telling students, "Ok, now reflect on your learning," is a fool's assignment. That's so vague. They're done in three minutes. "I learned building stuff is hard. I learned to build better. I worked with friends well." 

The reflection needs to be broken down. Talk about the design part, step-by-step. What worked? What were the challenges? How did you overcome them? Now the build part, same questions. Now the play-testing, same questions. Now when we were actually open for business to other classes, same questions. That makes the kids think. This big chunk stuff is overwhelming.

This Year's Arcade

Here's what my class made this year.




This is a claw machine game called The Dragon's Claw. They put Stackimals in the box and built a hook to catch them with. The biggest design challenge was the track at the top. They went through a lot of designs trying to figure out how to get that opening in the middle for the H-shape. At one point the group went, "Nope, it'll be two tracks, each with a hook." But I vetoed that. I knew they could figure out the supports and they did. Game was hard, but not impossible. They added challenges like taping two Stackimals together or taping the rings up or down. They originally planned a three minute time limit, so I made them set it for three minutes then sit quietly and watch it count down. The final time limit was 90 seconds after that.


I have a student obsessed with the book ad movie IT. Yes, she's a fifth grader. Whatever, she's reading. This group needed to put the backing on their game so the darts would go in the holes then fall down back to where the player could get them. We went through a lot of dart designs and they tried hard to get away with lazy pieces of cardboard with fake fins taped on. I'm not thrilled with the final design, but they evolved from darts into ninja throwing stars, which worked better and were easier to aim.


There's a lot going on with this build, and I was impressed with the thought. Again, there's a ball return but it took some doing to figure out how to get the ball to get into the return from anywhere, no matter how it bounced off the backboard. The hoop moves back and forth on the track. This group needed almost no input or prodding. 


This is pinball. I didn't think it would work. It totally worked. I thought the paddles wouldn't be strong enough and the group worked hard at figuring out the mechanics, angles, and pivot points the paddles would need. They didn't realize they were doing that until I told them, but that's only because knowing the words for what you're doing matters. There's a ramp in the back of the game that actually works if you hit the ball right. And there's a groove behind the paddles for when you miss, and the groove returns the ball to that pink box on the side. They even build a little push paddle halfway back on the left because they noticed the ball had a tendency to get stuck there. Again, very little prodding from me.


Air hockey. A simpler build, so we spent a lot of time measuring and finding the centers of the circles and the box. The paddles were the trickiest part of this design and they went through a few iterations before landing on a design that worked and was easy to make.  


This ski-ball game is the least pretty build, but still a good one. It's pretty big, and the group did all the cutting before putting anything together so it was one of the last finished. One of the struggles was supporting the angled top piece without using a million miles of tape, and they finally landed on wedges underneath it. There's also a secondary slanted piece beneath the holes to act as a ball return, and that too required supports. There's a lot going on under the surface of this game.


Robot soccer. This group was struggling to come up with a good idea. They designed and designed and weren't happy with anything. Then they came to me. "Mr. Robertson, there's this video game called Rocket League. It's like a soccer game, but with cars. Can we use the Spheros from the MakerSpace to make a Rocket League game?" Dude! Yes. The biggest challenge was designing the "car" to go around the Sphero to protect it and act as a shell. We never really nailed it down, and I think with another day of play-testing we'd have gotten it. The shells didn't stay on quite right. Still, great idea and I loved that they were thinking about all the tools possible. (I had told everyone we weren't going to use the stuff from the MakerSpace, but rules like that are made to be broken if needed.)


The last-minute ring toss. I obviously didn't have enough oversight on this one because I'd have never let Donut be painted like that. Alas, it worked and it was made quickly.


City Smash. The plan for this was more ambitious than the final product turned out to be, which is ok. The player uses a spoon to flick an eraser at the buildings and scores points when they're knocked down. Early drafts of the plan had the buildings leaning against the back wall and we had to talk through how a building would fall if it was already up against something. They needed to design a strut on the back that would be stable but would also collapse fairly. There's also something about a car on a string, but that rule never made sense to me. Players seemed to get it though.

That's our arcade. The students loved it, I loved watching them create something so elaborate that we could share with others, and now I've got a ton of arcade games in my room. For a day. because (and they don't know this yet) I'm going to make them take the games apart. We could use that cardboard for something else. Reuse and recycle, right?

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 the just released 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, December 12, 2017

Layers of Instructional Change



Education is a long game. Teachers often don't see the full results of our labors come to fruition, not unless we're lucky enough to have students come back and find us years later. Even then, that's one or two students out of hundreds. And when they come back they act all weird because "Do I still call you Mr Robertson, you're not my teacher any more, how do we have normal conversations, wow you're old, this is awkward, ok I'm gonna go now, but thanks for everything kbye." We accept that change happens slowly, and we accept that sometimes we don't get to see the change we may have created.

Some change happens quicker. Sometimes a student will come to class one day and its like a switch has flipped inside them. A maturity Tetris block has fallen into place and another row is completed. Level up. *chime* This happens, or seems to happen, regularly to those of us lucky enough to run professional developments for other teachers. Those are often aimed at using or modifying tools, so in those cases our students are able to leave and implement what they've learned almost immediately. As you've read on the internet, what we hear we kinda learn, but what we do we learn a whole bunch. Well run PD allows for a trainer to throw a lot of pebbles into the pond and hope for some good ripples. Maybe a surfable wave or three.

For the most part though, education changes in bits and pieces. One person at a time, one reader or inspired session participant, one teacher alone in her room trying to come up with a better way to do something and then trying to decide how to show colleagues (just find someone and tell them, they'll dig it. They have an idea to tell you too). Snowflakes slowly piling atop one another, beginning the slide to something more.

I have more faith in teachers than some I've read, so I think the teachers more veteran than I am are also open to changing their practice, updating their ideas, modifying their existing philosophies to encompass new, shifting paradigms. In other words, I don't think we need to guilt and scare teachers into changing, we just need to show them the way and give them a few minutes of breathing time to think it over without the pressure of everything else going on all year. That's all most of us want- some space to play and think. Pressure creates great work, but some time on the beach, literally or metaphorically, can work wonders.

That's change happening within the profession proper. Those of us in the midst of doing the work. That's not good enough. Change must echo, bouncing back and forth through space and time, to get a real foothold. While changes are happening in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms throughout the country, change should also be happening in university education classes. Students training to be teachers must be getting Newer Better Different ways to teach the subject matter those of us in the classroom are teaching. I want student teachers who know how to make the computer dance in ways I was completely unaware of. I want student teachers up-to-date on the latest everything, which means their professors must be. Maybe education professors need to take some time in the schools. I'm sure some do, and more want to and will as soon as Hermione gives back the time turner. How is the change we're experiencing with our kids getting all the way to those still learning to do what we do?  This accepts, of course, that those of us doing it are still learning it too. If doctors are allowed to call what they do 'practice' then we should too. I'm a practicing teacher.*

The change goes further than that, of course. At the end of everything else I hope my students get from my class, I hope that the few of them that go on to be teachers remember what they liked and didn't like. By trying to teach all of them in different ways I'm reaching into the future and, hopefully, adjusting a classroom not yet built.

Change happens at different rates through all these layers, and can't be rushed. But I believe teaching resists stagnation and teachers fight entropy. To say I'm happy with the speed changes happen would be a lie. I wish more teachers would move it along quicker. In all aspects- equality, edtech, pedagogy. So I do what I can to pushing things along where I can. I write, I speak, I take student teachers, I rant on corners and in the hallways of conferences, and I boost those who preach their own good word.

Education happens so many places on a constant basis. It'll never be fast enough. But if we see the big picture, the long game, and all the layers these waves have to roll through, we might be able to be more intentional with our own change and it might help on those days when it feels like nothing is getting better. There are so many layers, we must always be intentional and strong, pushing in the right directions and riding the momentum to break through. Keeping in mind that as more layers begin to move it'll be easier to move the rest. Sympathetic movement. And all the time knowing that right behind the change we're pushing through there's another set of waves coming.

*I'm gonna leave this here, but it sounds like its own post. No one steal it. Dibs! 


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 the just released 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, December 5, 2017

The Fall With Probably Kill Ya

Actual sign hanging outside my classroom.
Observations have never bothered me. Formal observations, informal observations, walk-ins, whatever. I'm good. They've never been something I stressed about. I think that's probably because I'm pretty secure in how my teaching looks. How it would read to someone for an hour. Let this not be confused with me saying that my teaching is always awesome and my kids learn everything all the time. That's not true, I suffer from acute impostor syndrome just like the rest of us. In the long view.

With a formal observation I take more time in the writing of a lesson. Not to say that care and thought doesn't go into every lesson, after all what the kids think is more important than what my administrator thinks, but what my administrator thinks matters too. So I write the most kick ass lesson I can for when she comes in. I already incorporate technology and movement and discussion and student talk on a regular basis, but for a formal observation I might make extra sure those bases are covered super hard. A formal observation is what you'd see if you came into my class on a random day, but more-so. Because the audience is bigger.

There's only one exemption to this rule, and it falls under the category of Do As I Say, Not As I Do. I had a vice principal I hated one year, and she couldn't stand me either. Our philosophies didn't match up. I thought school should be fun and she thought she needed to be a hard ass to get respect. Anyway, she thought an observation was about watching me teach, so I decided to make it about watching my kids learn. So I the lesson was literally me giving the kids three lines of direction, then mixing with them as they worked on a project. Come watch me teach instead of watching me Teach. Put that in your form.

I'm not always very smart.

Anyway, I've gotten to thinking recently about the kinds of lessons I write when I know I'm going to be formally evaluated. I choose vocabulary or comprehension. I weight the deck completely in my favor. As I should, as is my right. An administrator should never have final say about the kind of lesson they'll observe, let that rest with the teacher. I've have too many bad administrators to say they should be allowed to pick how they sharpen their knife. But my current principal is different. I've written about her before, but she's got my back. She supports me. Her attitude is very, "Your room is different but as long as your kids are learning I'm good with it." I would let her dictate a lesson to be observed, just to see what would happen.

I kind of did that with the formal observation that just happened. I went into her office the day before our pre-observation meeting and asked if there was anything specific she wanted to see. Anything she'd never seen me teach that she wanted to. I was honestly hoping she would say, "Teach math, but use technology." Something like that. Something that would be more of a stretch. But she knows the power dynamic is such that she ought to leave that up to me, so she gave me other things she wants to see, reminded me of the goals we've set up for this year and how I could accomplish those. I taught a vocabulary lesson. I killed it. Knocked it out of the park. Kids were engaged, everything worked as well as you could ask for.

And I'm kind of dissatisfied by it. I know she'll have good feedback for me at our post-conference. But I think I should have challenged myself more.

What would happen if I purposefully reached too far in a formal observation? What would happen if I picked an observation to be the first time I taught a lesson, or a specific project, or used a specific computer program? What would happen if I set myself up for failure in front of my principal?

That's dumb though, right? Who would do that? That's not what observations are for, they're for checking a box and getting good marks and staying safe for another year. Right? (Note- If you have a weak union or a bad admin or both, that's totally what they are and you should feel free to scoff at the next part.)

So what if she knew? What if I planned a lesson that I knew would have a high probability of failure for an observation, but then told my principal that's what I'd done? So that she could see and we could figure out how to make the lesson better together? So that she could see me really improvise mid-lesson when I noticed everything was going to hell and I needed to save it? I'm not saying I'd purposefully plan a bad lesson, but an overreaching one.

Wouldn't that be a better use of the hour for me? Oh, and is it selfish to take an hour of teaching and make it more about making myself a better teacher than to use it to help my students learn? To put my professional growth ahead of theirs for a short while? That's better in the long run though, right? It's not like I'd do it every day, or every week or even every month.

I wonder what would happen if I broke an evaluation on purpose in order to making a better learning tool? I know that my current principal would embrace the idea, because she's cool like that. I know that I'm speaking only for myself here and for no one else, because I'd never ever suggest even for a minute that any other teacher should try to do worse on an evaluation because of some cockamamie idea I have. 

What would I even teach? I'll be honest, I'm kind of excited by this idea. I like the thought of maybe crashing in an environment where I normally thrive. Because my school is safe for me right now. So why not leap a little further? How often in one's career will a situation like this present itself?

As I'm struggling to find a way to end this that doesn't involve me petering off into endless hypothetical questions until I talk myself into trying this at the next possible opportunity (a strong possibility at the moment), I will instead close with a clip from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID that more perfectly sums up my feelings on risks like this or any other.


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 the just released 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, November 28, 2017

Solve The Math Problem In Another Way

From many parts, art

My district just adopted a new math curriculum. Everyone on the selection committee loved it. None of the other choices even came close. If the curriculum choices were the NBA, the one we adopted was the Golden State Warriors. It had a strong focus on process rather than repetition, it had a cool online component, all the pieces worked together well, and it could shoot threes from anywhere.

I've been using it for the last few months. I've had two or three multi-hour training sessions on it led by trainers who are very excited by their product and seems to be among the fully converted.

It's pretty good. The focus on understanding the Why of math rather than repeating steps over and over really turns me on to it. What makes that hard is we're doing a ton of, "Solve this another way" in class now, and they aren't really used to that. The first time you hit kids with this they do the quizzical dog head-tilt. "Why? 12 + 15 = 27. Why do I have to do (10 + 10) + (2 + 5)?" "Because," I explain patiently. "The first way shows you can repeat steps back to me, like parrots. The math works because it works. Because magic. The second way shows you understand what the numbers actually are. It's not really one plus one because that's not a one in 12, it's a ten. Place value matters." At the end of that most of my kids looked at me like Nigel Tuffnel looking at Marty DiBergi when he asks why they can't just make ten louder. It takes time. They're coming along.

Because of things like this the book reads like the team that wrote it had a giant sign that read "RIGOR" hanging in the office where they were working, and every time they got caught up on a lesson they looked to the sign, put their hands over their hearts, closed their eyes, visualized success, and got back to work with renewed vigor. The book is real hard. Excuse me, the text. You see, the book is like a mix of text book and work book, where there's some instruction, but there's also problems (but not a whole ton, just five or ten real dense ones). When we called it a workbook in a session the smiling trainer corrected us, "We call them worktexts." K, whatever you say Susan. I can play the Teacher Euphemism game too, and this session was very static and direct.

The book (text) doesn't work great for most of my team or our students. So we're changing it. We're not ditching it, the district spent a lot of money on this. I'm not tossing a tool away, I'm just going to break it and use the pieces to accomplish my goals. Some of the questions are good. I'll take that and that and this, thank you very much.

The same goes for the direct instruction portion of the curriculum. As a show of good faith, because it's new, and because teachers I respect said that it's good, I've been trying to follow the instructional section, with its slides and not-script as closely as I can while still being responsive to my kids. But it's awfully teacher talky. So I'm breaking that too. The slides, for the most part, are good. It's certainly easier than writing all my own questions. The processes the program wants us to teach are things I agree the kids should know, and I don't mind the broad strokes ways it wants those processes taught. Again, I'm not going to round file a tool. I'm gonna strip it for parts to build my own Greased Lightning. *arm movement*

We're still working on perfecting instruction using the online component. The Machine is making all the decisions about what my students will do next on its own based on its own diagnostic, and I'm not a fan of that. Yes, it's using the data to make informed choices. The kid took the diagnostic, holes were registered in division, so the student will be given division lessons. But I'm not terribly comfortable with an instructional algorithm that seems like the distant cousin of the Amazon one that says, "I see you bought BABY DRIVER, would you like to also buy the soundtrack on vinyl?" (side note- BABY DRIVER is amazing and so is the soundtrack. Still, just because HAL is right doesn't make it not a little creepy.) I'll get under the hood eventually, once I have time *stops to laugh for ten minutes*, and when I do I'll be able to rebuild how it works into our classroom for the better.

That's three different pieces of just one of the many subjects I teach that I'm working on fixing to it is a better whole for my students. The process is slow but steady. We've even been told that we can do it. My district is currently embracing the Curriculum Is a Tool Not a Bible theory of leadership. I admit I'm lucky. There are schools out there, I've worked at them, where the district says Thou Shalt Teach With Fidelity, it's laaaaaame, and you do. Or you do while getting away with as much modification as you can. It sucks, even though becoming part of The Resistance and dancing closer and closer to the line can be a self-destructive kind of fun.

There are always ways to make something that isn't great work for your students. Sometimes you have to turn it over, upside down, inside out, and break it into smaller chunks, but there's a tool there. There's something that will reach someone somehow. One of the joys of teaching is solving problems multiple ways, because if there's one thing our students need, it's lots of ways to do things.

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 the just released 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