Tuesday, March 29, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 100- This Is Our Chat

Week 100.

Holy cow.

How did we get all the way to week 100? That's nuts. And awesome.

I actually know how we got here- you are all the coolest people to ever pick up an edchat. Yes, I try hard and I write good stuff most weeks, but without the incredible #WeirdEd family I'm just some guy talking to myself. Which, honestly, I expected the chat to be. The twitters are flooded with edchats, what's one more? Especially one more about nothing?

That's one of our keys though, innit it? That we're about nothing specific. #WeirdEd can be a chat about whatever I want. Some weeks are serious, some weeks are about narwhals. We cover whatever, which makes us more relevant than any EdChat that simply chats about being relevant. Speed and flexibility. You know, like a teacher ought to be.

This week is about you, the people who make the chat possible. And I handed the question-writing over to you too. Your question can be about anything, any edchat question you want to ask, write it. During the chat I'll randomly through them out and we'll bat them around. You made the chat awesome, you get to make 100. Make 'em good. No pressure.

I've been on this just about every week too. Every once in a while I'll have a gues mod or I'll be on an airplane, but I think we've only officially skipping one or two weeks. Which is pretty damn good since every chat is closely moderated and carefully written. Which is why after 100 I'm taking a month off. Saving my spot and time, #WeirdEd will be back, but I've earn a few weeks off. Maybe I'll spend it doing other writing...

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 99- Harry Potter

How could we have never done a Harry Potter chat before now? It's custom built for #WeirdEd. It's deeply nerdy, based on both books and movies, incredibly well-crafted, good for kids and adults, joyful as all get out, AND the main characters are either students or teachers.

Every time I rewatch the Potter movies (I haven't re-read them in a long time, I should) the thing that stands out to me more than anything else is how much I want to talk to JK Rowling about education. She had to build an entire school in order for these stories to work. The school didn't have to be perfect and if you want to be The Person there's a lot to pick apart about Hogwarts and the Magical Education System. I think we're going to get more of that with Magical Creatures and Where to Find Them when that comes out, and Rowling just published some backstory on the American magical society on Pottermore that I haven't read but have heard mixed reviews on. Gotta be careful when wading into Native American magic, Jo.

Rowling's school is the perfect example of project-based learning. She believes the only way for young witches and wizards to learn magic is to be doing magic, and do it they do (what an awkward sentence). Almost immediately students are blowing themselves up, waving wands to and fro, and mispronouncing spells. "Leviosa, not levisosah." My favorite example of this is not Shamus blowing up a feather but during flying lessons. If taken straight, the students are lined up outside castle grounds with brooms, given what amounts to a three sentence lecture on flying, and then told to levitate a broom, mount it, and hover. What is the muggle equivalent of this? Driving lessons, I imagine. There's only so much you can say about driving before you have to get behind the wheel.

Rowling's stance on project-based learning becomes starkly clear when she introduces Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and pink sweater enthusiast Dolores Umbridge (I love than the phonetic umbrage means to take offence, annoyance, or displeasure). What is Prof. Umbridge's defining trait as a teacher? "No wands!" She gets out text books and the students copy lines. How angry does Hermione get? How much do we love her for her rebellion? Umbridge is soon headmistress of Hogwarts, instituting all manner of laws and decrees about education. I'll be honest, I don't know anything about the British educational system, but I can imagine they feel much the same way about this sort of thing that we do over in the colonies. What's striking is that Rowling chooses to show how evil this woman is first by having her destroy Hogwarts by destroying the students' love of learning. Sure, later we find out she's a Death Eater and actually on the side of evil, but before we know that we hate her because she's in the pocket of the government, there for them rather than for the kids. I assume non-teachers (of whom I know none, I'm a teacher and I have no life) also hate Umbridge for similar reasons, but I bet they don't feel it as deeply as we do.

Hogwarts thrives of student failure. Hogwarts also seemingly thrives on a split of lecture and student-directed (but not passion-based) learning. Not in early years. By the end, much like high schools, kids seem to be choosing their course loads based on future goals and interests. Hogwarts ALSO reward/punishment in the form of House Points. Oh, we're not thrilled with the carrot and stick of that, are some of us? Think of the poor Hufflepuffs who never win the House Cup. Poor badgers. Five pity points to Hufflepuff. And Hogwarts is all about the homework. NO, another thing many of us are turning around on. But seriously, wouldn't you practice magic in your spare time? Maybe it's different because the kids are practicing skills they really will be using in real life. We don't see people levitating things all over the place or mixing potions or picking the proper herbs, but we also don't see much magical life outside the Weasley household. (Sidebar: The Weasely parents love their children more than almost any other fictional family I can thing of. [Sidebar sidebar: At the start of Deathly Hallows Hermione erases herself from her parents' memories and never mentions it once. Never brings it up. She's the toughest of the three. Always.]) They also take standardized tests, both NEWTS and OWLS, which I think have muggle equivalents.

There are wonderful professors like McGonagal and Lupin, good ones like Snape (he's got to be a good teacher, even if he's not a nice one) and Flitwick, not so good ones like Hagrid (oh, argue with me) and Trelawney, and downright awful ones like Lockhart and Umbridge. What about Slughorn? He had obvious favorites. How do we feel about him as a teacher?

The Harry Potter series is a modern miracle. The books because it's damn near impossible to write one good book let alone seven that range from excellent to pretty good. And that goes double for movies based on books. Can you even begin to imagine how lucky they got? Every main kid stayed sane, got cuter, became a better actor, and still loves and respects the series. They managed to not fumble the ending, and when the actor playing Dumbledore died they, no offense to the original, upgraded. The whole thing is a miracle. Not to mention JK Rowling basically wrote the next generation's Narnia series. I'm biased, but Potter > Narnia.

Tonight let's visit Hogwarts and figure out our Houses, our favorite classes and professors, what we can learn from the magical education system, if we'd like to teach in the castle, and which student would be the hardest to teach.

Accio, #WeirdEd!

(I promise not to mention Dobby, Fred, Tonks, or Sirius if you don't. *sniffle*)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 98- Doctor Who

Right up front let's get this out of the way- Doctor Who can seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. There's 50 years of canon to sift through, though you really only need to have started watching in the last ten, and it's built for you to jump on every few years with a new Doctor (I'll get to that in a second). If you're not a Who fan then the whole thing probably seems quiet silly.

And it kind of is. Which is kind of the point.

I want to be clear that, much like every other chat on some specific fandom or thing I love but I acknowledge much of my audience might not, I'm going to do my best to a) explain the basics of what you need to know here and b) write questions that are accessible even if you don't know what a Dalek, Cyberman, TARDIS, or Adipos is. You have to trust me, tonight I'm the Doctor.

A brief overview- The Doctor is a Timelord, an ancient race of aliens who live what might as well be forever through regeneration. When the body of a Timelord dies she or he regenerates into a new body. To put it in TV terms, when an actor wants to leave the show the writers can kill him and replace him without killing the character. No matter what face The Doctor wears, he's always The Doctor. Different actors put different spins on him, but he is the same character the whole time. We are on our 13th Doctor (nerds will note that I'm counting the War Doctor because of course I am).

The Doctor travels through space and time in a ship that looks like a blue police call box called the TARDIS. It looks like a blue police call box in the show because the chameleon circuits are broken and in practical terms because the BBC gave the show zero budget and a blue box is an easy prop. The TARDIS is "bigger on the inside" because science and otherwise our heroes are trapped in a tiny box and that's no fun at all.

The Doctor is almost always accompanied by a Companion. The companion is a human (or humans) who he travels with and shows off for and rescues and cares for. In practical terms, the companion begins as the audience surrogate, our window into this insane world, and eventually, when written right, we care for and love the companion like he does. The companion will make you cry.

The Doctor travels time and space saving people, solving mysteries, defeating aliens, and bringing peace. He doesn't use weapons aside from his mind and a sonic screwdriver, which is a magic wand that does  whatever science the show needs (except it doesn't work on wood). He's manic and joyful and brooding and the loneliest person in the galaxy because he's the last of his kind (sort of). He talks fast, runs down corridors, and scares the bejesus out of most other aliens. The Doctor fights with only his mind and his will, this is important. He faces down metaphors for communism and Nazis regularly, but he doesn't shoot them. He will outwit, outrun, out-think them, and sometimes just straight up bluff.

The Doctor isn't always the best teacher because he's the smartest person in any room he's in and he knows it and in fact he relishes it. The Doctor often finds himself in a bind with no possible way to get out of it but he does, and why? Because he knows he will. He is endlessly curious. He has to be, he can see all of space and time. Puzzles with no answer are the most interesting (yes, he's got a Sherlock thing a little- written by the same guy at the moment- but there's one major different between the to. The Doctor loves people. Sherlock couldn't care less about them.). The Doctor is not cool and most of the time he doesn't try to be. Depending on which Doctor you're talking about he is handsome or craggely, young or old, excited or dour. But he's always wise and always trying to be better. He has things in his past he can't forget and forever regrets and instead of dwelling on this he uses that fire to make the universe a better place.

There's a lot in Doctor Who for us to learn.

Everyone has a favorite Doctor and a favorite companion. I'm stealing my answer for my favorite from someone else, I can't remember who- My favorite Doctor is the one I'm with at the moment. Right now my favorite is Peter Capaldi, the current Doctor. He's old and grumpy and fantastic. But I loved the previous Doctor, Matt Smith, who was a young, excited puppy. Before him David Tenant, the handsome and charming, was the best. And before him, where I jumped on to the show when they brought it back, was Chris Eccelston, angry and wounded. I love The Doctor.

As for my favorite companion, it's easy- I love Amy Pond. She was the best. Then Rose Tyler.

Doctor Who's most recent seasons were, unfortunately, just pulled from Netflix but if you're a science fiction person or like fast-paced, joyful storytelling, I can't tell you how much you'll love the show. It's not always great, sometimes it's pretty bad (looking at you Sleep No More), but when it's on it's the best hour of TV you'll see. Don't be afraid to jump in wherever, it's accessible if you're patient. I'd go back to the restart with Chris, but that's where I started so I'm biased.

Tonight we talk Doctor Who and education. It's time to be madmen in a blue box.

**Note- there will be no #WeirdEd next week (3/16) as I will be flying to Palm Springs for the CUE 2016 National Conference. Normally I'd let someone else run it but it's week 99 and I want to do it so it's postponed. No #WeirdEd on 3/16.

Friday, March 4, 2016

This Election Is Good For Anti-Bullying Curriculum

After the most recent Republican debate (is that still the word we're using?) thinkpieces began springing up all over Twitter's Education Country. The gist is simple- "This Election Hurts Anti-Bullying Curriculum."

First, let's be clear. We're not talking about the entire election. We're not talking about a select group who's support of one candidate has gotten a little, let's say, aggressive against the stated wishes of the candidate they're being aggressive for. When articles lead with, "the presidential campaign" they are being disingenuous. We're all talking about His Orangeness and the Two Stooges. The Democratic debates have gotten heated at times, but have almost entirely been centered around policy and even when the moderator tried to make it personal the candidates refused to engage. The last Republican debate had editors scrambling for a way to put, "Trump made reference to the size of his tower," in a headline that would get past work firewalls. I work in an elementary school and I wasn't impressed with the comebacks from Sanctimonious Second Place and Thirsty Third Place either.

Nonetheless, this display from the Grand Old Penis-reference has educators in a tizzy about What To Tell The Children. How can we teach bullying tactics when the tactics we try to prevent are so prominently on display in the contest to be the most powerful person in the free world? Why, why must these men be the model our students see? Look how much harder our job is now.

At first glance this stance bothered me from an admittedly flip perspective. I teach 5th grade and none of my kids are watching the debates closely. I'd like them to, we've mentioned them, but it's not appointment viewing for them. Are they in the room if their parents watch? Probably, and I'd hope their parents are talking about what they are seeing with them. I have no control over that, however.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to disagree with the stance that the Republican Insult Comedy Hour(s) is bad for schools. Not to be contrarian, but I think it's great for schools. It's an amazing chance for us to have real-world examples of actual bullies in the wild. And in contention for a position of power. This is a boon for anti-bullying lesson-planning and for a wider conversation about what it means to be a leader, what it means to debate, and how bullying can have real, long-term, damaging effects.

Here's the trick though- you have to be blatantly honest and open about what is happening. We can't dance around it. Go head-on, not from a political bent, but from a behavior one. Ask kids if they know anything about Trump's attempted erect- I mean- election. Let them bring the conversation to you. Show parts of the debacle. Pick it apart. "What do you see? What did you hear? What do you think?" Explicitly state that your purpose is to talk about how humans should treat each other and that's all.

It's not just each other they're bullying either. It's bullying writ large. Trump and his followers are openly racist, hateful, and sexist (Cruz is too, you just need to dig for thirty seconds). They're bullying wide swaths of Americans. Gay Americans. Americans of color. Muslim Americans. Women. Take a breath and use that if you're concerned about it impacting your kids, and we should be concerned. Too often we hide our heads from real education issues in favor of taking a stand on something safe, like homework. Watch how Trump and Trump supporters deal with silent protests. Ask your kids not if they agree with what the person is protesting (unless you think that's a conversation you can have), but if their protest deserves the reaction it got. Ask if any protest deserves that reaction. "How do we handle people we disagree with, children?" I bet you the answer won't be, "Take their coats and push, shove, and verbally abuse them into the streets." And it really won't be "sucker punch them." This is when the anti-bullying rubber hits the road.

We walk a dangerous line. How political can we get as teachers and get away with it? Want to be fair and balanced? Show clips from the Democratic debates too. Do a Tone Check. Count the shouting matches. Compare them 1:1 still with the focus of bullying and behavior. Don't tell your kids how to vote or who you're voting for. But if we're legitimately concerned with how students are reading and internalizing the behaviors they see on TV from the those who would be king then it is our responsibility as educators to educate. To open the floor to conversation. Not preaching from on high, but watching and discussing.

We talk about preparing students for the "real world" so we implement STEAM and ditch textbooks. But we're scared to say, "Watch these men interact and tell me what you think. If you did this to another student, what would happen? Tell me if this is appropriate behavior." Use the Farce, Luke.

The Repugnant campaign is full of horrible role models for our students. So shine a light. In this way we might prevent an election from getting this far again.

And don't forget to vote. All the thinkpieces in the world don't matter if the bullies win.

I want to note I've always taught in, if not progressive, at the least middle-of-the-road, areas. I've no idea how this advice rings to some of my friends in the redder parts of the country and I admit that your mileage may vary. I'd love to hear if you think you can use the campaign's negative energy in a positive way without harsh kickback.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

#WeirdEd Week 97- Dr Seuss Part 2

We have only doubled up a few chat topics here on #WeirdEd, but if there's one that deserves to be covered on an annual basis it's the good Doctor himself, Ted Geisel. Way back in Week 46 we chatted about him and since it's his birthday today we should do it again. After all, he is the greatest author of all time.
Yes, the greatest.
I will fight you.
He managed to work deep meaning and heavy messages into children's books on the regular. Even his less deep books, To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street for example, still carry the weight of inspiration and message.
I always assumed everyone was a giant Seussiphile. I understand that I get nerdy on stuff (just you wait for the next two weeks I've got planned) but Seuss seemed like someone everyone should just know. Doesn't everyone read his books for fun and seek out the lesser-known titles because they are still gems? The stuff you don't know as well as you know The Sneetches or The Lorax like The Butter Battle Book or Yertle the Turtle are heavy with darkness and meaning.
Let's take The Butter Battle Book as an example, since I read it to my class yesterday and it's fresh in my mind-
TBBB takes place in a land of Yooks and Zooks. Yooks eat their bread butter-side up and the Zooks, with "kinks in their souls" eat bread with the butter-side down. He's completely open about how angry this difference makes the Yooks and already your adult brain is making connections. The Yooks are so insulted by the Zooks, in fact, that they've got a Wall built separating their two countries. Oh, a wall? Hmm, now this came out in 1980 so that's not the wall we're all thinking about in 2016, but it echoes just the same. Our main character, a Yook soldier, is sent to the wall to take out Van Itch, his Zook counterpart. Each time he returns to the wall with a bigger, more dangerous weapon and each time he's met by Van Itch with either an even bigger weapon or the same weapon and a promise that if you hit us I'll hit you. The capabilities of the weapons become less and less defined until even the Yooks in charge admit they don't know what they'll do. And it ends with our hero and Van Itch perched on the Wall, each holding a Big Boy Boom-a-roo, waiting for the other to give an excuse to drop it.
That's where it ends. A children's book. Ends without an ending. Right in the heart of the cold war, poised on the edge of mutually assured destruction. It's his darkest book and I love it.
There's a lot to unpack here. There's escalation, which you can keep on a global scale or shrink all the way down to a classroom interaction one. There's propaganda. There's patriotism and xenophobia and blind hate and fighting instead of talking (there are no reasonable voices in the story) and cause-and-effect. And there's more.
Here's the fun thing about this book- I only had to unpack the Cold War metaphor for my kids, they got the rest of that on their own. And once the Cold War stuff is clear the book takes on an entirely new meaning. If my class were just a little bit older I'd have used it as a metaphor for the election. As it was we explicitly talked about hating people for ridiculous differences like color, religion, sexual preference. Were those author intent? I don't care. I can use them.
Tonight let's take Dr Seuss into our classrooms in a better way than a fun rhyming read-aloud, though if you're gonna do that do Fox In Socks because it's the best read-aloud ever.