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.

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?