Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Story of A Class

A classroom is a living thing; breathing, changing, and growing. It's a singular being made up of the multiple personalities within it. A classroom has an energy, an attitude, an internal ecosystem, and all of those things stem from that which make the thing go- the teachers and students, the learning. Just as the personality of the teacher rubs off on the students, and visa-versa, so does that collective psychic energy rub off on the walls of a classroom. If these walls could talk indeed. Except anyone
who's ever walked into a classroom knows the walls can talk. You can feel what a classroom is like, even without students in it. It's not as effective a read, of course. Trying to determine a classroom's life while there are no students inside it is as effective as trying to determine a person's personality based only on their autopsy. There is a story there, but it's incomplete and lacks context.

Teachers know the story of our classrooms like we know the backs of our hands. Our classrooms often are just as much a part of us as the backs of our hands are. This isn't romanticizing. I'd be hurt if you cut off my finger, but I'd be just as hurt if pipes burst and flooded my room. It's where I live, and it's where my kids live. Learning does not have to take place in a classroom, of course. The world is a classroom, and we should use it as such. But we can't ignore that while the world might be a classroom, my students gather in room 17 and that's where most of the learning physically takes place. It's hippy-dippy to say, but there's a power to that, an energy. It gets into the walls. You can feel it. Most experienced teachers, I'd wager, could walk into a classroom that isn't theirs and at least make a decent guess at the kind of teacher and students who live there. Not a judgement- a scoff and a dismissal (though some would do that too, but they'd do it anyway)- but a psychic reading of the place. Or, if that's too go-hug-a-tree-here's-a-crystal for you, a Sherlock-like deconstruction of the place. The desks are here, the chairs are like that, look at that poster, pile over there, student work here and here, clean, mess, so much cardboard, I wish I had a projector that hung from the ceiling, must be nice.

But there's a problem with that too- It doesn't tell the story of the room. And the story of a room is what makes it come to life. Why are the desks like that? Why are these desks even here? What's happening in this corner? Rows? Groups? Madness? A look at classroom at rest is a snapshot. The teacher and the students are the ones who tell the story of the classroom.

We should be the ones telling our stories. Our rooms should have figurative glass walls (literal glass walls would make it even harder to get my introverts up and talking).We should be sharing how our rooms start, how they change, and why. It's all part of the reflection process, and the growth process. I have an idea that next year there should be a group that reflects on the changes that take place in our classrooms. When we move desks. When we add or remove elements, physical and figurative. And we explain why. We tell the story of our classrooms.

I'm thinking about this now because my classroom currently looks like it hasn't in a long long time. If someone who didn't know me walked into my classroom today they'd get a very different impression of who I am as a teacher than someone who walked into my classroom a month ago. A month ago desks were grouped, sitting at their lowest and highest levels. Normal chairs were nowhere to be seen, only bean bag chairs, wobble stools, and the like. But today my desks are uniform, and in rows. Normal chairs sit behind each desk. It's as traditional as I could make it. Why the change? These snapshots don't line up without the story.

My room is based on freedom, on options. That means that one of the central tenets of my classroom is maturity and responsibility. I need my class to be on board with what we're doing, and I need them to play along and buy in, or it doesn't work. And for years its worked. But this year is different. I've given my kids too much rope, not enough structure. I've found a group that can't handle the looseness with which I teach. I had to adapt for them in ways I don't like. The rows, the chairs, I hate all of it. It's not my class. But we needed a hard reset. We needed everything in the room to become as structured as I could make it so we had a real baseline from which to build. I changed my lessons and our class rules, and I'm looking into feedback/reward systems like gamification that will serve this group best. But without the story of my classroom, I've got graveyard seating and stodgy structure. There's chapters and arcs missing from the story. It's hard to tell that this is the second act.*

But thinking about it like a story is helping me keep it all together. A story means there's a continuum. A forward motion to the room. It's not set in amber. What it is today is not what it will be in April or May. I'm not helpless to the pull of an unseen author either- I am the co-author of the classroom along with my student teacher and our students. No wonder the room has been struggling, it's not easy writing with one other person, let alone thirty-seven. Sometimes a story spins itself, it flows naturally from the storyteller. Sometimes the storyteller has to push it, step in as deus ex machina and change it to keep it within conventions or a format.Some years flow smoother than others, and some require revision and edits.

The story of a classroom isn't an easy one to tell, and it's not a simple one. But it is as much a part of the school year and the learning as anything else. Tell it.

*writing advice I read somewhere- In the first act, get your main character stuck in a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at your main character. In the third act, get your main character out of the tree.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 142- Super Secret Group

On Monday I sent out a tweet saying that the first five #WeirdEd regulars to DM me were going to be part of a special something. Once I had five I put them in a DM group together and said "WELCOME! FATE HAS DRAWN YOU FIVE TOGETHER FROM ALL CORNERS OF THE GLOBE!
And then I left them alone to figure it out. One person had to bow out because we're all crazy busy, which was, of course, totally cool. I don't think I need to spell out the point to you, you're smart people.
This is what they came up with.


When Hollywood presents collaboration, we get buddy movies, road trips, and super teams. They have, or are given, an objective and they’re off. After a few setbacks, the heroes find, capture, evade or achieve their goal. In the real world, it isn’t always this easy. Students won’t band together to defeat Voldemort, and reaching a conclusion takes more resources than a box of Scooby snacks. What does it take to assemble a good team and to make it operate like a well-oiled machine that produces the desired outcome?

INTRO!: #WeirdEd Introduce yourself and tell the group who is your favorite book or movie ‘group’. Extra points for visuals!

Lord of the Rings:
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Fellowship was formed literally to make the world a better place, full of hope for the future. Like the Fellowship, many teacher collaborations start strong, full of life and energy. Each teacher brings their own vision, their passion, their hopes (“and my axe!”).

However, as time passed the Fellowship broke apart. In any team dynamic, forces work to pull a group apart. Assignments need grading, work piles up, orcs are at the gates. All of which sap the energy of the team.

Sometimes it’s internal problems that push the group to the brink. Competing visions, different methods, ill-defined roles and responsibilities, squabbles about who should carry the One Ring, etc. Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork? What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

  1. #WeirdEd q1  Is collaboration always the best form of group/teamwork? Are there better options for teamwork?

  1. #WeirdEd q1 part 2: What differences of good intentions can break up the best of fellowships?

Monty Python and The Holy Grail & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see a parody of a classic epic, in which a group of knights band together, undertake a glorious quest, and choose the classic ‘divide and conquer’ to complete the project. Actually, our group did that, so there’s something to be said for that method, after all.

Of course, we didn’t choose our group, as it was chosen for us. (*cough cough* Doug) When students choose their groups, the reasons behind the choices are less ‘work-based’ and more ‘fun-based’, and the seed of the threat to the ‘point of the project’ is planted.  When teacher choose groups, there are many more skills being taught (hopefully), but invariably there ends up being the four classic group work students in each group, as we see in Monty Python.

  • The Leader: (A.K.A. the bossy know-it-all, the A student, the “I’ll do it since nobody else will step up and do their part”, King Arthur)
    • King Arthur was obviously the ideal person for this job, being king and all, even if he wasn’t voted for by the general public and was instead chosen when some watery tart lobbed a scimitar at him. He spoke for the group when God arrived to give the mission, without checking with the others. The Leader is usually a type A personality, and though their intentions are often good, their companions may either resent the behavior, or not learn as much as they would otherwise.
  • The Minion: (A.K.A. Sir Bedevere)
    • Sir Bedevere was the first knight to come to the aide of King Arthur in the movie, and for that alone, he was allowed to stay with him for the duration, even surviving to the end of the movie. (Yes, it was probably in the script that way.) The Minion will be the student who convinced the teacher to be in the group with the Leader ‘because they work so well together’, and generally is the first to go along with the Leader’s ideas, since they will be around that person the most and will have to deal with short term disagreements in the long term if they don’t help.
  • The Sloth: (A.K.A. including quiet, shy, unpopular or just generally different and not-as-vocal-about-it students, Sir Robin)
    • Sir Robin wasn’t exactly lazy, but he was a scaredy-cat. He wasn’t particularly vocal about getting or staying out of trouble, or about better choices if those even existed. This one is tough. In a three-person group, this is the person who just is along for the ride, no matter how they handle it. They may simply not input, or they may go so far as to not do the part they are assigned by the Leader. They are the one that will resent that they were GIVEN work by a fellow classmate, but may not have the confidence to speak up, or perhaps they are the student who simply does not care enough to fight about it, though they would have much rather collaborated.
  • The M.I.A.- (Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film)
    • In a group of four or more, there is almost always a student who wasn’t there the day it was assigned or the day it was due, and the group has to catch them up, or cover for them, either way. This puts stress on students, as it did in the movie, as Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film got the accolades for being part of a successful project, but all he did was show up the day they did headshots for the movie poster! (Citation: my own theory)  
This is not, of course, such a complete list that we can always tell who is who, and depending on the projects, the positions may change. A student who is experienced in artsy things may take the lead on the diorama group project, while a student who already read the book might lead the plan when it comes to the making of a theatrical scene on the most recent reading.

We as teachers must simply do our best to create guidelines for jobs so that the students can play to strengths while still requiring all to participate, no matter their type, especially when we choose the groups.

We also must have a plan for when groups cannot stick to the guidelines due to personality conflicts. In Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ‘group’ wasn’t exactly chosen, but Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian were piloting the Heart of Gold with its Improbability Drive, and we saw an example of when one person thinks they are the Leader, acts like the Leader, and makes decisions like a Leader, but is an idiot. Trillian even reflected on the fact that Zaphod would seem to sometimes feign stupidity rather than risk being wrong about something, and though she thought that was even more stupid, she would have to guide him through to logical choices, which he would then throw out for something much more ridiculous.

In relation to group work, this means that sometimes the person leading the group is not always the best choice, leading us back to the concept that a teacher may need to provide very careful guidelines in regards to the best ways as a group to split up the work and hold themselves accountable. If you as a teacher have any Zaphod Beeblebroxes in your class, you are aware of this necessity.

Questions based on this section:
  1. #WeirdEd q2 How do you as a teacher help facilitate group work? Split jobs? Assign roles?

  1. #WeirdEd q2 part 2 How do you help the students when it doesn’t go as planned?

Sister Act:
It’s great when your team has an even distribution of exactly the skills and personalities you need to get things done.  But life has a way of throwing you into ...unexpected collaborations.

In Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg plays Dolores, a lounge singer whose witness protection placement is as choir mistress in a convent.  Like Dolores living among the nuns, you may find yourself having to take on new identities in your teamwork in order to get the job done.  And sometimes the new habits chafe.

How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

In the end, Dolores saves the day- and the choir- by helping everyone in the choir find a way to bring their own identity to their singing.  When the singers embrace their own voices, their music draws crowds!

Although my students are under intense pressure to narrow their studies, I encourage them not to limit their curiosity.  I came late to my college major and even later to teaching, but there’s very little I have learned that I haven’t put to use somehow, even if it lay dormant for ten years.  You never know which of the ideas, skills, memories, experiences, passions, and trivia you have tucked away will come in handy.


#WeirdEd #q3 How has collaboration made you stretch yourself?

#WeirdEd #q4 What’s an unexpected contribution you’ve been able to make to a collaboration because of your own skills or experience?

D2: The Mighty Ducks
When Gordon Bombay is approached to coach Team USA in the Junior Goodwill Hockey Games, he sees an opportunity to collaborate with his former team, the Ducks. Led by team captain Charlie Conway, the Ducks are fresh off a Minnesota State Peewee Hockey Championship and looking to capitalize on their fame and skills. Faced with new teammates, a brighter stage, and tough international competition, will they be able to collaborate and win gold for Team USA? Can they play with new teammates from different cultural backgrounds and different styles of play? Or will they fail to come together as a team and reach their potential against the hard hitting Iceland team?
D2: The Mighty Ducks is a modern day classic (if you were a child of the 90’s) that demonstrates the power of collaboration. In the movie, Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) is faced with the dilemma of being overconfident in his abilities. While struggling to manage new or challenging situations, he also resists the help of others. How many times do we as educators find ourselves in a situation where we could use the assistance of others but are unwilling to even ask for help because we feel we should be able to remedy the situation ourselves? It’s not until Bombay sees his team quit and the dream of winning gold slip away that he realizes he needs to ask for help.
The assistance that Bombay seeks come from his mentor, his girlfriend (team tutor), and the very players he coaches. These archetypes also show up in most educational settings, however we often don’t think of them as potential collaborators. Mentors or experienced colleagues can be a source of great knowledge and information for new or even experienced teachers. Rather than work in isolation, teachers can gain valuable experience from the expertise of older teachers, staff, or administrators. While collaboration is often a forced concept, voluntary collaboration opens up a world of learning opportunities. While many educators often look to their spouses for reprieve from their day jobs, a spouse or significant family member can be an excellent collaborator in order to get an outsider perspective on what’s going on in the classroom. Often teachers get too caught up in the classroom to see the bigger picture and those without the lense of education often. And lastly, the very students we teach are perhaps our greatest contributors. When was the last time you asked your own students for help or seek their guidance regarding your teaching? Perhaps the ones we are responsible for teaching are the very ones who end up teaching us the most.

  1. #WeirdEd #q5 How can you best collaborate with others that are not in your content area or profession?
  2. #WeirdED #q6 How can you collaborate with students to improve your teaching?

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Raising Money, Doing Good

ad by Sarah Windisch

The Russian election of the Orange Menace hit a lot of us in different ways, but one of the resounding reactions was, "I must put something good into the world." We felt helpless, angry, and in need of something, anything, to affirm that yes there are good people in the world and no Americans aren't all like Komrade Racist Misogynist Nazi-pants.

I wanted to donate to two of the groups we figured would be right in the firing line of the new administration- Planned Parenthood (because they help women and that cannot stand) and the ACLU (who know they've got a lot of fight on their hands). But I don't have much. I know, every little bit helps, but maybe there's a way to do a little bit more.

One of the benefits of being an independently published author is I control everything about my books. I set the price, it's easy to resupply, I don't have a publisher to check with or go through or even give a cut to. I am the process (once y42k.com has done its process). And that means I can give my books away, jack up the prices (which I'd never do, but still), or take all the profits and do whatever I want. Normally that means buying records.*

So I decided to have a fundraiser.

For one 24-hour period the profits of every single Doug Robertson book sold by me personally, not through amazon, createspace, or smashwords would be split evenly between Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. I chose Jan 20th because that was a depressing day and I needed something positive to focus on.

I had no idea how well the fundraiser would work. Selling books is a tricky thing. Maybe no one would buy. Maybe a few would. I had a pretty decent stash at my house for conferences and the occasional online autographed book sale, and my secret hope was I'd run out of books and have to resupply. Which would slow delivery but would mean we raised some decent cash.

The 20th came and my inbox didn't explode, but it did expand rapidly. Orders came in all day. It was a work day, and it was gratifying to look at my phone at breaks and see email notification piling up. That night I designed a Sheet to track all the orders, then shared it with my wife, who is the organized one, and she redesigned it and did that spreadsheet magic thing where it adds and totals automatically.

The process wasn't swift, because we had to wait for the Weirdlings to go down, and I had to email people the totals with shipping for their orders, and they can to pay, and some had to email me addresses and yadda yadda it took longer than expected all together. But eventually, after many emails and nights, shipments started going out.

first batch

We'd reached my secret goal and I also had to order more of every book so some shipments got delayed while I waited for CreateSpace to send me more.
second batch

Due to the magic of spreadsheets, it's was easy to figure out the actual profits. He's the Weird Teacher and The Unforgiving Road are $13 each. THE Teaching Text (You're Welcome) is $6. Shipping was built into the totals I emailed to people (side note- shipping to Canada from the US is reeeediculous). I subtracted the cost of each book to me and the cost of them getting to me, and got the total donation for each order.
 Those two Bonus Donations at the bottom are from two people who gave $10 and $14 more than their order. The total profit from one special day of sales was $464.87. I divided that in half...
...and arrived at how much we'd be donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood- $232.43 each (I know, there's half a penny left over). After that it was easy, since both organizations accept payments from PayPal.

I'm not writing this to be all Check Me Out, I Did a Good Thing. One- because that's not cool and it kinda defeats the purpose of doing a cool thing, and Two- Because I didn't do it. I set up an avenue for people to do a cool thing, and a lot of people took it. This didn't work because of me. If it had been me, I'd have sent each group ten bucks. But working together, we managed to send a decent chunk of change to two groups fighting for our rights in a time where those rights are under attack.

And we can continue to help-

Donate to the ACLU**
Donate to Planned Parenthood**

I wrote this because I want everyone who ordered a book on Jan 20th to know their money went where they wanted it to go. We're in this together. The work goes beyond the classroom, and there's ways for all of us to make a difference, monetarily and otherwise.

Thank you for reading, and for donating.

*partially true- that actually means putting a dent in car payments and whatnot on good months
** No PayPal on these pages, but you can through their mobile sites

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 141- A Special Ed Tour with Anne Lafferty

This week's #WeirdEd post and questions are written by Anne Lafferty.

This is a post about special education. Wait! Don’t run away! It’ll be fun! Hey, don’t worry, I’ll drop all the abbreviations here at the door and leave them right there for the remainder of the post: FAPE, LRE, IDEA, IEP, PLOP, BIP. ITP. Also, no paperwork today. We’re going on a tour and I’m your guide.

“I couldn’t do what you do.” The last time I heard this phrase it made me think - I haven’t had many visitors to my class outside of parents and specialists. I'm a teacher of kindergarteners and first graders with moderate-severe disabilities. Most people don’t really know what goes on inside my classroom, so I’m going to take you on a tour of my space. Bear with me - it’s my first year in this setting so it’s a bit of a work in progress.

Here is my student seating. Some of the chairs at the table are specialized to provide physical support for students with low muscle tone. One chair has a bumpy, squishy cushion to help a student to sit. They love it - and my own kids love sitting on that chair when they visit. At the circle all students sit in cube chairs, which also provide some postural support.
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Some of my kids are learning how to control a pen, pencil, or crayon. Others are working on remembering and writing their home address and phone number. I have one student learning how to type using Keyboarding Without Tears. We needed to adjust the mouse to make it “sticky” so she could drag and drop. You can see the progress one of my kids made in drawing his self portrait, too, since the beginning of the year.

This is our visual schedule. By now all of my students recognize each item on the agenda. Everyone in my room - myself, paraeducators, specialists - love the visual schedule. The symbols really make a difference in quickly identifying what comes up next.Some students have their own personal schedule. They put each item on the left side in the morning and right before lunch. As we go through our day, the students move the current activity to the right. This helps decrease anxiety that a lot of my students feel when they transition from one activity to the rest. Velcro is the best invention ever and makes an excellent birthday gift for the special education teacher in your life. Ahem.
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For language arts and math we have a modified curriculum with lots of visual and auditory supports. Some of my kids can follow along near grade level, others are working on goals to participate by gesturing or otherwise indicating a choice. Some students are working on things like addition and subtraction, others are working on counting meaningfully to 10 or 20. Every student has their own unique goals that my curriculum can help address. For some of my students language arts and math are opportunities to work on fine motor and language skills.

Most of my kids need some help navigating campus. We have to watch a little more carefully for steps, ice, corners, and uneven ground. Imagine walking around on this playground using a walker or crutches.
If it’s bright out, sunglasses or a baseball cap can help. In classrooms with fluorescent lights some of my students may need a hat to help deal with that kind of light. In noisy places like the cafeteria, assemblies, or bathroom some of my students use noise-canceling headphones to cut down on the distracting and annoying noises around them.

We have weekly visits from the speech therapist, occupational therapist, adaptive P.E. teacher, and the physical therapist. Here, students work on things like cutting with adaptive scissors (aren’t these cool? Before I worked in this class I didn’t know there were so many kinds of scissors), writing, catching a ball, swinging a bat, balance and walking. Some of my students are working on building vocabulary or using three or more words in a sentence. Here are some of our occupational therapy toys…
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I hope you enjoyed this tour of my room and what we do. My kids are capable of quite a lot and while their progress doesn’t always show up on measurements from state standards or common core, they learn a lot every day. I think it’s valuable to explore settings that are really different to what we are used to, whether different subjects, grade levels, or settings. It’s good to know the range of what is out there, outside of the cocoons of our little worlds. I think there are valuable things to find for our students in all sorts of settings.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

#WeirdEd Week 140- Calvinball

We've had a few weeks of good but less-that-weird #WeirdEds. This week I want to make up for it by going for it full-on. And there's nothing more full-on strange that a good game of Calvinball. So grab your Calvinball masks and get ready, because it's time to brush up on the rules of Calvinball.

Rule #1- The only permanent rule of Calvinball is that you can't play it the same way twice.

Got it? Good.

Teaching is wonderfully strange and wild and stressful. There's so many pressures on us so sometimes we need to run to the tree and sing the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song.

I don't waaannna grade
No I don't
I don't waaaannaa grade
But I can't won't
Because I goooootttaaa grade
Yes I gotta gotta grade
(Gotta gotta grade)
Yes oh yes oh no oh yes
I gotta grade
(Don't wanna)
I gotta grade
(Don't wanna)
I don't wanna I don't wanna

Of course the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song can boomerang back to you if you're in the Assessment Vortex and you end up grading the same assignment two or three times looking for growth.

Then take the ball and bounce bounce bounce to Differentiation Station, where every single player has to do something they aren't good at in front of every other play, and every other player gets to suggest how each other can improve the thing they are doing.

Then you must spin clockwise three times on one foot. This represents Emailing The Tech Dept. Spin thirteen more times and punch yourself in the forehead if you are the Tech Dept.

Integrate movement into your Calvinball game by finding Kinesthetic Country. Did you find it? Ohhhh, it's in Backwards Land, time to sit down for fifteen minutes and count grass blades.

Your score is now Progressing to B+. If you counted an even number of grass blades round your score up from Progressing to New Mystery Grade No One Explained To The Staff Yet. If you found an odd number of grass blades quick find one more there now you have an even number, well done.

Your principal is coming, so quick run back to your desk and continue grading, humming the "I Don't Wanna Grade" song under your breath. Or over your breath. You know what, hum it right in line with your breath, no one expects that.

Now, as for what we're going to chat about tonight- oh look at the time. I call Ending, I win.