Tuesday, January 31, 2017


*Note about #WeirdEd Week 136- There's a lot of serious we could be chatting about right now. Devos, the ban, the wall, the pure insane fascism, punching Nazis, and more. And we will get to a lot of those and how they impact us, our schools, and our kids. But not every week. Not all the time. It's not healthy for me or for you. This is also a place for weirdness and joy and some good crazy. Sometimes the only way to deal with the darkness is to laugh at it. 
They're everywhere. On our TV screens. In our movies. Our books. They are even enjoying our carbonated beverages. Stephen Colbert tried to warn us about them for years. Did we care?

It's time I leave the cave and face the grizzly truth- Bears are out there. I'm embarrassed I haven't written about them before now. But recently I've been thinking I should. It's like a phone rang in my brain and when I answered it the koala shouted, "BEARS!" If it happened to you it would be ursine.

It makes me blue that we, as a profession, have ignored how bears impact us and our students. The topic has been unbearable to many of us for too long. It's our responsibility to roar from the mountains to the mauls what bears bring to teaching and learning.

By baring my soul like this hopefully we can come together. I feel naked. (Could be worse, I could feel like I'm wearing a teddy in front of you.) I can be willy-nilly and silly no longer. If anything, I should have mentioned them back in October after the Cubbies won the World Series. At least then the conversation could have Ben gentle. But now we might need to gryll each other.

Talking about something this serious requires quite a lot of calm. Frankly, a yogi would be better suited to it than me. I'm kinda the polar opposite. I hope that's not too much of a bother. If we're careful and don't make a boo-boo I think we'll be able to come through with some learning. It won't be a picnic. Conversations like this get easier with practice, like kung-fu.

Honestly, I think you're all smart people. You've probably already had these conversations and they were great. You see the necessity. I'm not trying to panda to you, I really believe that. These issues may seem black and white, but they aren't. Before I wrote this I had to go outside. I had to waka lot before I broke the the bearrier.

I think I should wrap this post up before you think I'm filling it with Paddington. Soon a satellite dish will pop out of my head. I'll leave you with this- the whole country needs to recognize the jam we in. I take a page from the Bill of Rights and extend my hand, my whole arm. I welcome into my classroom my brother bear.

*I couldn't get a stupid gummy bear joke to work so it's the header image instead.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

We Need Unstructured Play: A Global School Play Day Post

this post is written by Eric Saibel for #WeirdEd Week 135 and to support the Global School Play Day Initiative.

As a father and 20-year educator, I observe the inexorable role of play in the daily life of children. Play is a child’s default setting, interrupted only by some natural cycles (like sleep) and other quotidian obligations. At my school I see students running and playing every spare moment they can. The need for play - as both creative outlet and survival tool - is a tectonic force deep within us. So why does the idea of play seem so contrary to the idea of school?

At some point, society began to see play as separate from serious learning and work - the opposite of productive endeavor. The traditional model of school reserves play as something to be done at set times and places, or as a reward for good behavior. Articles in major publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times have highlighted overwhelming amounts of stress for teens in highest-performing schools, which can contribute to a higher susceptibility for depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. Now more than ever is an ideal time to reconsider the critical importance of free play in school and life.

Research strongly supports this; play is a catalyst for connecting synapses, developing empathy, nurturing creativity and bolstering happiness. So how can we tap into that magic potion in our decades-long struggle to improve education?

In early 2015, a group of educators saw a TEDx talk from Dr. Peter Gray about the decline of play in our society and decided to create a day - just one out of 180 in the school calendar - dedicated to unstructured play for kids. A month later, with shoestring promotion through social media, the first ever Global School Play Day took place on February 4, 2015. Over 65,000 children from six continents participated; last year, the number rose to nearly 180,000 children.

Play isn’t just for the youngest kids; why shouldn’t high school (or college) seniors feel just as joyful about their learning as kindergartners? Education needs to rethink its age-old mindset that fun is frivolous and that free choice is somehow contrary to rigorous learning. We must also remember another important fact: adults thrive and learn through play as well.

Play is a design laboratory, an exercise in problem-solving and collaboration. Play builds physical muscle and emotional resilience. Play is our first - and best - learning methodology. Help your local school reinvest in the power and potential of play by encouraging them to sign up for this global event on February 1. This year we hope to see more schools and districts embrace play as an essential element of learning. Instead of 180,000 students, why not 180 million? Each and every one of them needs play as much as the other.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Vote With Your Wallet On 1/20

image by Sarah Windisch

Inauguration day is not going to be a happy day. I mean, sure it'll be fun to laugh at how Komrade Trump couldn't even get a cover band to play and how he had to pay seat fillers. But at some point during the day he will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States and just typing that makes me want to throw up.

It's terrible. Just that it's happening sets every single civil rights battle we've ever fought back. It's a slap in the face of millions. Sure, some people voted for him, and those people are ok with racism, sexism, bigotry, hate, fear, and a complete and utter dedication to ignorance. "Doug, you're painting with a broad brush." Well, when you're on the same side as the KKK, Nazis, and Putin you're on the wrong side. Face it.

What can we do? What can I do?

I have three books. They're independently published, which means I control everything about them. Maybe there's something I can do.

I decided to make Jan 20th, 2017 as good a day as I can. I have a stack of He's the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You're Welcome), and The Unforgiving Road sitting in my office. I get them from my printer at a pretty good price and I keep them around to sell autographed copies and take to conferences and whatnot. On Friday the 20th, the profit from every book I sell from my stash* will go to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I'm going to split the profits right down the middle and donate half to one, half to the other.

So if you don't have one of my books, or you want to give one as a gift, send me an email to theweirdteacher@gmail.com with your order on 1/20/17. I'll figure in shipping and send you a total price. You send that payment to a PayPal account I give you in the email. I send you books, and send your money (minus the cost of the book to me) to PP or the ACLU.

I can't do much. But I can do something. So can you. Don't stand by and watch the worst of us pretend they're what America and humanity is about.

*This only extends to books ordered directly from me. It does not include books purchased through amazon or iTunes or other online retailers.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When I'm Not A Teacher I Become A Better Teacher

this is also the #WeirdEd week 133 post
I promise a picture of myself as the header
 image is relevant and not just an ego trip.
I like to ride my motorcycle. I do it every chance I get. It's my main mode of transportation unless the weather is awful or I need to get supplies to or from school. Riding a motorcycle makes me more aware of my surroundings. Not only the unique way I experience the world, the vivid smells and views, but also because a motorcyclist always has to keep their head on a swivel. You people in your cars can be scary and in a contest between the two of us you'll always win. Perched on two wheels, I see more, smell more, experience more, and am constantly aware of those around me. I think this heightened awareness and appreciation comes into my classroom. It's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

I write for fun. If you come over to my house after my children have gone to bed, odds are good I'm upstairs writing. Writing for the CUE blog I edit. Writing for this space. Writing another book, be it education-focused or fiction. Writing is a constant process of creation and revision. It's working when you don't feel it and it's reflecting on what you've done in order to do it better. Writing is failing and struggling. All the writing I do helps me appreciate the process I'm asking my students to undertake when I send them away with suggestions to "try it again, but with this." It means when they say they don't have any ideas I have experience with that feeling and how to get around it. I don't write in class, I don't write for my kids. I write for me. But it's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

I'm obsessed with music. I can't get enough. I've got my preferred genres, like anyone. Given the choice I'll pick Ozzy's Boneyard on XM and air guitar and headbang my way to my destination. I know those songs backwards and forward and I like thinking about them, dissecting them. I like picking apart Master of Puppets as much as I like delving deep into the texts we read in class, and it's the same muscle so doing one makes me better at the other. In the same vein, I like finding new music, things that challenge me. That band or album that makes me think, "I have no idea if I like this. But it's so interesting, I must hear it again." Using music to push myself and challenge myself and open myself to greater understanding or different forms of creativity. Like when I ask kids to take a risk on a new skill. Like when I decide to take a leap on a different form of teaching. I've trained myself to experience something new, not get it, and keep at it until I figure it out. I don't play Frank Zappa or Sun Ra or Run the Jewels for my kids. But what I learned learning to listen to them comes into my teaching and my classroom. It's part of who I am when I'm teaching because it's part of who I am when I'm not.

This list could go on. The books I choose to read. The ways I'm learning to parent. The movies and tv shows I watch. The vacations I go on, theater I see, people I choose to hang out with, tattoos I have, my politics. None of those things have anything directly to do with the students who come into my classroom every day and the way they learn, but all of them are a part of me, so they are a part of my classroom. Not long ago I wrote about writing my first novel and how I brought that to my kids to talk about what I learned by writing it. That was a great conversation that wasn't in the curriculum, except it is. Sometimes we bring who we are openly into the classroom. But not everything. The building blocks of personality that are so much a part of us that we might not even know they're in our classrooms.

When I reflect on teaching and learning, I try to see those blocks. Because I know that I'm not a Teacher. I know that teaching is what I do, it's what I'm called to do, and what I love doing. But it's a part of me, not Who I Am. How I'm not a Teacher makes me a better teacher.

How are you not a Teacher? How has that made you better at teaching?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Quick Build: Wind-Powered Cars

"Teachers need to give specific instructions," I say to my student teachers. "Model model model. Be clear in your expectations. Tell them what you're going to do, tell them/have them tell you what you're doing, tell them/have them tell you what you did. This is a good rule to follow."

I look at my students. "We're going into the MakerSpace. Using only the materials you can find in that room, each partnership is going to build a wind-powered car. This is all the description I'm giving you. You have an hour. Go."

Teaching is all about bending rules. They'll learn that too.

My class has been struggling with responsibility as a whole this school year. We tend to not make the best choices. Due to that, we haven't spent as much time in the MakerSpace as I'd like. There are 35 of them and one of me (unless Veronica or Jill is with me). That didn't feel like enough eyes considering the choices that enough of them would make in our own classroom.

But this is a new year. We started 2017 by picking our own desks and having (yet another) conversation about expectations and responsibility. We talked about why we hadn't been in the MakerSpace. And we all agreed that we could be better.

Can't have a conversation like that and then not put your money where your mouth is. I booked an hour fifteen in the MakerSpace the next day and went looking for an easy project to do in there. I didn't want a free-for-all, but I also didn't want to start the Big Project I have planned. I needed something to get us back into the groove. A few Google and Pintrest links later and I found some lessons about building wind-powered cars. As is my whim, I took the part of that plan I liked (the final product) and tossed what didn't work for me (everything else).

What I wrote above is exactly what I said to my kids before we went in. Veronica and Jill had created groups of two and three, students got into their groups, and in we went.

I like contracted time frames for projects. Jon Corippo describes lessons as being like a gas- they expand to fill the space they're given. Give students three days to build wind-powered cars and most groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Give them an hour and the same groups will finish with five minutes to spare. Plus it's fun to watch them plan, design, build, test, and revise as quickly as possible. Teaches efficiency and creativity.

It was interesting to see what students went for. A bunch started cutting Styrofoam into circles for wheels. Others found the Lego sets and pilfered wheels from there. Some found cardboard or wooden circles. This is where most ran into their first, and biggest, problem. Almost to a group they fixed their wheels to an axle and then fixed the axle to their car body. But they did it with tape, or by putting a hole in the body. And when they tried to make their car roll nothing happened. NOW the learning really starts. What's the problem? The axle isn't letting the wheels spin.  How do we troubleshoot this? Bigger hole? Rubber bands? There were all kinds of solutions. Only one or two groups used the straws they found as the fixed axle which attached to the car body, and put toothpicks they'd glued together inside the straw, connected to each wheel, allowing the wheel to spin freely. Most groups just made the holes bigger or figured out a way to get the wheels on the axle loosely enough that they'd spin but not come off. Hey, they solved their problem. I didn't say the car had to be elegant. You're not getting elegant in an hour. You're getting working.

The next major problem was the wind power. Once the wheels where on I caught a bunch of groups laying on the ground blowing as hard as they could on the back of their car, trying to make it go. In a moment right out of MEN IN BLACK one group finally noticed the fan sitting unused, plugged it in, and stopped hyperventilating. The others came over quickly, "Can we get in on that?" But they still just turned the fan on the backs of their cars. I did a little prodding, "Why do you think it's not working? Can you think of something else that is wind powered? What's that have that yours doesn't?" "A SAIL!" one group exclaims. Soon the idea to mount a sail spread across the room, as good ideas often do.

But that wasn't the end of it. Testing continued and, "Our sail isn't working, Mr Robertson." "Hmm, turn the fan on it again. What are you seeing it do?" Some sails became flags, others were too tightly straight. One-by-one groups realized their sails weren't catching any wind and they started testing ways to keep the sail from being a flag and ways to catch more wind. Curved sails began to appear. But none looked like another. Rectangles, triangles, big, small, paper, fabric, tin foil. Every car was different.

At the end of the hour, and I want to stress again that all of the above design, building, testing, revision was done in under 60 minutes, we sat and watched each group go, marveling at the breadth of the creativity in the room. Two groups were unsuccessful in their builds, but they knew why and were on the right track. With a little more time they also would have had working builds. Some cars only rolled a few feet. One tipped onto its nose immediately and fell over, but the group noted that the Lego man they put in the front was throwing the weight off, removed him, and had a successful second run. And two or three rolled impressively far.
"Why does your car have a spoiler?" "Spoilers are cool."

"We call it the Egg Roll."

Afterward, back in class, we wrote reflections, talking about the process, struggles, successes, and reasoning behind the choices made.

This is a project that I could go back to if I wanted to. We kept the cars, I'm going to display them in a case at the front of the school reserved for projects. We could continue to revise. But I like having proof of what's possible in a short amount of time. I can use that lesson in class for other things. And I was shown that my kids were ready for bigger projects in the MakerSpace.

All in all, a very successful hour. I think more Quick Builds might be in our future. I wonder what they can do in thirty minutes...

Here's the video of the final products rolling along.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Jim Henson Theory Of Education

I sent that tweet out Christmas night. I had no idea how true it was.

I thought I knew about Jim Henson before I started reading his biography. He's the Muppet guy. He did LABYRINTH. He made a ton of puppets. He died too young. Check.

I was right. But I was also WAY wrong. There's so much more to Jim Henson than those benchmarks. They are all things he did. But it's not really who he was. If he knew I thought of him as "The Muppet Guy" and that's all he would have stroked his beard, hmmmmed, and softly said something about the other work he did. He wouldn't have pushed his resume in my face, but he also wouldn't have been thrilled.

Jim Henson was an artist in the best sense of the word. He followed his heart and his passions, while also being aware of commercial interests. He wasn't guided by trends or what he thought people wanted. But he was aware that he had something people would want. He trusted his creative instincts and, rather that give the people what they want, gave them what he had to offer. To the best of his abilities. Every time.

Here's a perfect example of that (and then I'll tie him to education, I promise)- The Muppet Show was the most popular show on television. It was HUGE. Everyone who was anyone wanted to be on the show. It got massive ratings. And it lasted for five seasons. Why? Did quality start to drop in the fifth season? Were viewers tired of the lovable anarchy Kermit and his merry band brought to their televisions every week?

Nope. Jim Henson was done making The Muppet Show. He knew it was great. He knew it could keep going. But he was done. Better to stop on a high note than to watch the quality of your product diminish, taking your audience along for the slide. And besides, he had a bunch of other irons in the fire. Fraggle Rock had been percolating in his head for a long time and that was coming together. The movies were working. And he wanted to get away from the Muppets (who he never intended to be his Only Thing) and stretch himself artistically. We would say that Jim wanted to take risks, but I don't think he'd say that. I think he'd say he had other ideas, so he pursued them.

THAT'S the key. Right there. Jim Henson knew there were things The Muppet Show and Henson Associates (as they were known at the time, and note the acronym that name makes) needed to to do make money. He agreed to merchandising with the caveat that he had final say on product because he knew jumping through those hoops, doing those business things, would allow him the freedom to make the art he wanted. He played the game, but he made up his own rules as well.

That's what I look for when I'm teaching. There are constraints we operate inside. We work within a system, and the system restricts certain things and makes certain things Needs rather than Wants or Options. Similar to making a big budget movie with someone else's money or a network TV show. But there is art to be made in these boxes. Passions to follow. And freedoms to explore.

What about how he would move on from projects before they outlived their popularity? This is taking that project that I've been assigning for the past three or four years, a project that I love, that works really well, looking closely at it, and getting rid of it. Or rebuilding it. Not for the sake of doing it, but because I'm three years better at teaching and I can make a better thing now. You can even connect it to changing grade levels. We're talking about taking risks, that's a huge risk. That forces us to think differently about teaching. It's easy for me to say that teaching different grade levels is good for teaching though, I'll admit. I've moved a lot in my career, and in the last eleven years I've taught 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades in three different states in four different schools. At the beginning those changes weren't a choice, but they made me a better teacher. More recently I've moved to find a place that fits me better. I'd never advocate that a teacher leave their job, but I would say that finding a place you're happy, to me, would be as important as all the tenure I've built up. (Full disclosure- Oregon doesn't have tenure.)

Henson let ideas evolve naturally. Kermit was blue. He wasn't the ring leader. The Fraggles changed a dozen times before they got their own TV show. Ideas he had got folded into other ideas, bent and changed and molded until they became what they wanted to be. He never really threw an idea away, he just put it away until he could use it. I don't know about you, but I have an app called ColorNote on my phone and there's lists of ideas on there. Snippets, thoughts, bad ideas, half cooked ideas, ideas that don't fit what I teach. But I keep them. Two reasons- I'll forget if I don't. And ideas are a muscle and if you shut that muscle down it gets weak. Eventually those things will find their way into my classroom. Or they won't. That's ok too.

And ideas failed! Not often, but they did. The Dark Crystal is a movie that came out of his head, featuring only puppets, and no one got it. It didn't do well. But it's pure Henson. And I think that's just as important. He had Sesame Street and the Muppet Show. He could make his weird movie. I want (and currently have) an admin that sees I'm checking the boxes that come from the district and the state, and let's me be who I am. As long as the job is being done, I can try things. I've never really had that before, and I'm clinging tightly to it. Henson let them sell Kermit lunch boxes because that money meant he could make The Dark Crystal. I give DIBLES because that means I can build a MakerSpace and a cardboard arcade. I'll make that trade.

The Henson team was a magical group. I made this point in the thread, but I think it's important to revisit- Frank Oz never would have invented the Muppets. But the Muppets never would have existed without Frank Oz. He gave Fozzie life when Jim couldn't find it. He made Miss Piggy the second most popular Muppet of all time. He was (quite literally) Jim's right hand. Henson constantly hired people he thought understood his style and let them work. Not just puppeteers either. He'd pull people out of the workshop and put a puppet in their hand they'd create magic. Because Jim believed in them. He wasn't the best business man, but he was the kind of artist that created artists. That's some kind of special. Wouldn't you love to be a teacher who created teachers? A learner who created learners? And wouldn't it be cool to have a Frank Oz? A team member who complimented you so perfectly that you could create almost without speaking? What could you do?
And on top of all this, on top of all the innovation and creativity and the creation, Henson was constantly right on top of evolving technology. He would have an idea for a puppet or a shot, and then have to invent a way to make that happen. And then, while everyone else was like, "Holy cow! That's amazing, let's learn how to do that!" he'd be having a new idea and inventing a new technique. He knew television had untapped potential. He knew there were things that could be done with computers that no one else was doing. He would have thrived on the internet because he had YouTube-worthy ideas on the regular. He had ideas that couldn't be done in his lifetime. BUT- he knew that technology only mattered if the character was served. Just like in our classrooms and schools all the apps and tablets and Chromebooks don't matter one bit if the learning and the kid isn't served. It's worth noting that later in his career he did get carried away by the tech and that's when his work suffered the most.

I want to end this with his stated goal for Fraggle Rock.
Tell me that's not, in the end, the Big Goal of education.