Monday, November 12, 2018

Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson!- A Weird Teacher Mailbag Post


I've wanted to do a Mailbag-type post for forever, but part of doing that is assuming that people have questions they want to send to you. In short, it depends even more on how important you think your opinions are than a normal blog post. But they're also a lot of fun if the questions are good and the answers are either funny or sharp. It was with trepidation that I posted the above tweet, hoping it wouldn't go unresponded to for three hours. Great for the ol' ego, that. But I should have trusted the community. It looks like I got a couple of pretty serious questions, so there's probably not going to be much tomfoolery. We'll see what happens.
 Absolutely! Especially because I don't see it as embracing my weirdness. To quote Frank Zappa, "I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird." I honestly still don't see it as being weird when I'm looking from the inside out, I only see it as weird when I'm trying to see it from the eyes of others. I'm just being me. Now, I want to be super duper clear here that I'm not drawing a straight line from "I'm kinda weird to other people" to "that prevents the bullying of gay students", nor am I calling being LGBTQ "weird" in any way. It's just the place I start when I think of things like this because it's where I get placed by others, and it's something I embraced. But it's pretty easy for me to embrace. Straight white guy, so yeah, call me weird, oh no, I'm so persecuted. You got me right in the privileges.

All of that said as kind of a preamble, I hope it does. I hope that in being comfortable in my own skin, and in talking about that with me kids, I am modelling a mindset that my students can take as their own. And part of that weirdness is decentering things that are "normal". Specifically, openly. Letting the kids say what they think and then talking about it. It starts as simply as when my boys come into the class and someone calls them my daughters, another kid will correct him and he'll say, "Well they've got long hair!" Then the whole room looks at me, then back at the kid, and he corrects himself. If there's time we chase that conversation a little longer. And hopefully that changed an attitude.

I think what really helps set the class tone of acceptance and tolerance is that I say, on the first day, and on the regular after that, that everyone is welcome in our class, everyone is cool, and anyone cutting someone down for being "different" will not be tolerated. It's the quickest way to have a Very Serious Talk In The Hall™. And then I back that up by being as who I am as I can be and encouraging the kids to do the same. Fourth and fifth grades are wonderful for that, they are learning who they really are.

I'm in a unique position with this question, which I think is a very important question that all teachers should think about. Because once you're settled in to a place it's hard to leave. And I don't mean that in a dismissive "You're too lazy to try to move" way, but in a "moving across on that pay scale is hard to give up because pay ain't great as it is" way.

I've taught in three states, four districts, five schools. I learned a ton from my time in Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Oregon, and Northern Oregon. I wouldn't trade any of it for anything, even the two truly awful years, one in Hawaii and one in Southern Oregon. Neither of those, it should be said, were because of the students. Hawaii was because of the team I was on (read more about it in He's the Weird Teacher), and Southern Oregon was because of the worst vice principal you've ever seen.

This much moving has given me an incredible view of the grass on the other side, and it's not any greener. Every school has issues, every district has issues. Some are worse than others, and they all have their own special weirdnesses that are more or less tolerable. But, after all that moving, I feel justified rolling my eyes when someone complains that the district is doing "the worst thing ever" because they've got no idea how good they have it. Seeing the world of teaching helps you see all the ways kids and teachers are the same yet different, how communities work with schools, and gives you, I think, a much deeper pool to fish from. Moving makes you more flexible. It forces creativity. It's also super hard. I've been the new kid five times.

And it's really cool to have kids excited to be in your class, to watch them move through the grades, to see them grow up. I'll never see the students I had my first year again, probably. Which sucks, because I really want to know how they ended up. I've got students in Hawaii graduating high school, going to college, and I don't get to be there when they come back and visit Kaleipouu and marvel at how small everything is now. I worked with a guy in Hawaii who purposefully changed schools every three to five years. Great teacher. But I also worked with people who'd been in their grade level, in their class, for fifteen years. As long as you're still growing and adapting, whether you move or not is up to you. I love moving around. But I'm also now a homeowner for the first time, my kids are entering school, and I absolutely love the school I'm at right now. I have no urge to move. Now, if my principal ever leaves that might change.

So my short answer to that question is- New teachers should move a bunch if they can. Teachers who feel themselves getting stale should move a bunch if they can. But I get why that isn't feasible.

Oh man, I'm getting easy questions, aren't I? Whew, this is a question I think all of us struggle with all the time. I have had this exact conversation with the brand new teacher on my team this year, because he's having a rough time with it to.

Here's my take- I think 90%+ of teachers are breaking their asses for their students. I think a lot of professional professional developers make it sound like a lot of teachers aren't working as hard as they can because it helps them justify what they do or how they talk down to us. I think some people are working harder, not smarter, but most teachers want what is best for every kid in their class. I hope. To tie this into the last question, I've worked with a LOT of teachers now and I have known very few who did got give half a care and were counting days. When most of us see the kid being asked about, we exhaust every avenue we can think of. Maybe it comes down to how many barrels you're willing to reach the bottom of? But they've all got a bottom.

I think teaching and learning is a two-way street. We, being the trained adults, are in the driver's seat. Most of the responsibility rests on us, but the kids gotta wanna. We have ways to help them wanna, to motivate, but, to quote Robert Heinlein, "You can lead a child to knowledge but you cannot make him think." When I have a student that I just can not reach I will not stop trying, but I will also try to accept in my head that I have done and am doing everything I know how. It's like being in a bad relationship. Before you've broken up with That Person, you run through what you have done, and if you decide that you have done everything in your power to help the relationship work and it still doesn't, it's time to break up. Like all metaphors, this falls apart on closer inspection because I wouldn't break up with a student, but I would try to know that it's not my fault. It's a reflection process. Have I done everything in my power to help this kid? Will I continue to? If those answers are yes, then it isn't your fault.

That's why I started this answer by talking about how hard I believe most teachers work- I don't think there are many of us that would just give up and cut kids loose. I know I've got rose-colored glasses on when it comes to that, but I'd rather not think all of us are like that goddamn school where the teachers dressed up like The Wall, because you know they're cutting kids loose mentally left and right, and they were an outlier who should be fired and stripped of their licenses. I'm much more willing to declare an adult a lost cause than a child and cut them loose with no compunction.

Short answer- You know yourself, and I know it's not an easy conversation. Trust yourself, don't ever stop trying to help the kid, don't give up hope, but know sometimes other other person has to choose to open their hand.

I have a hard time with this, I'll be honest. I try to be intentional. The fact with my blog is that it's a one man show. Over 200+ chats, maybe ten or fifteen have been written/moderated by someone other than me, and all of those times have been because I invited the person or they volunteered. I take full responsibility for the chat topic, the questions, and how they run.

The audience I write chat for can be summed up as "people who think most chats are staid echo-chambers". They come, I assume, because they like what I've got to say and want to participate in the conversation. I don't shy away from hard topics. The ninth chat talked about guns and school safety. The nineteenth was about Ferguson. By not tying the chat to a grade level, a subject, or my books, I have the freedom to pivot to whatever I feel is important. When it's a topic I don't know if I should cover as a white man I'll reach out to a friend for their voice instead, not to be a Good White Man Helping Others, but because they know better than I do and I want to learn and listen. Sometimes that involves the other person writing a post and I write a post about the same thing and posting them together. And sometimes, like with the Kavanaugh post from a few weeks ago, I was intending to ask a woman to write about it and then realized they were doing all the talking and really it should be a conversation from a dude to dudes about the behavior of dudes. I need to be constantly intentional about what we're talking about.

I know my regular chat consists of white people, but that means I can have these conversations knowing they're here for it. They've stayed for "What If Narwhals Were Students In Your Class", they've played along to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", but they don't run when "Ferguson", "Stick To Teaching", "#MeToo", and "Charleston" come up. I think, and I'm not positive about this, it works because the fun ones help create a community of safety and trust, so that when things get heavy everyone knows everyone else. The chat has never been a quiz, and when someone tries to give an answer that would be acceptable in some other chats, I and others push them on it. We don't get to be safe be quoting other people and calling it good. I think it works like that in a classroom too. I can get things out of my students that are harder because they like being in the class. Part of the fun stuff built a foundation we can put harder things on top of securely. I will also listen to feedback about the chat without taking it personally. It's mine, and it's a community that has built up around it that I'm proud of, but I in no way think it's perfect. Valid criticism is valid. Disagreement isn't the opposite of positivity.

As far as ensuring people show up to the chat, I've got no idea how to do that. I just write about what's interesting and hope, after 200+ chats, others do too. And I'm proud of who comes, I think it speaks to what we're building. I won't tweet out specific invites because literally no one likes that except for people who are so self-important they think they should be invited to a chat, and no one needs that attitude mixing in.

Mostly, I pay attention to what I'm writing about and who is coming to talk about it, and try to push myself which often leads to pushing others. And if it has pushed some away because that's not their kind of chat, I will wave if I notice they've gone. Because there's a lot of chats out there that avoid anything that could damage The Brand and screw that to the moon.

One more, I think.
 Shut that nonsense down right away. This is a great question, because people will hide behind, "It was a joke man, lighten up". So it's all about point of view and the butt of the joke. It's actually a pretty good writing lesson if you spin it right, and an even better empathy lesson. "Why do you think this is funny? What was the purpose of the joke? Why do you think he didn't think it was funny? Now listen to his reason, and don't argue with him about it." It's amazing how many people will hear someone say "That joke was hurtful" and respond with "No it wasn't." This ain't a Python sketch.

My class humor has to boil down to Laughing With vs Laughing At. Which are we doing? How intentional is it? This is important, because a lot of my fourth graders just want to be funny, but funny is hard and they don't know how the machine works and a lot of people end up getting sprayed.  Kids have to be taught what's funny and when. We can't expect them to just know. That doesn't mean I'm the final arbiter of funny, nor does it mean the ways different cultures deal with humor has no value, but there are lines, and that first sentence in this paragraph draws them pretty plainly- Are we Laughing At or Laughing With and does everyone agree on your answer?

I've got to be aware of it myself because I am not above cracking a joke at someone's expense. It's probably gonna be someone who is so far up their own self-serious bottom end that a fart will clear their sinuses, or a Nazi. But I can't do that in front of my kids. A lot of my jokes in class are self-depreciating, or self-aggrandizing. Either way, I'm the punchline, and no one gets hurt. Until the kids think it's ok to mock Mr Robertson because he does it, and then we talk about tone and purpose and respect.

Like a few of the other questions here, this one really comes down to explicit conversations about respect and empathy. Humor in the classroom works only if everyone understands that we're all cool here, and being cool means not trying to hurt anyone else. We're all in this together. We can have a few laughs, get some learning done, get the serious work done, and mix it all up into a complicated classroom stew that probably smells a little funny, but what else do you expect when you cram 33 fourth graders into a room after PE?


Well that was fun. A low question count meant I could take time and go into them with some detail. And these were some heavy duty questions. If you, dear reader, have a response that differs from mine please throw it in the comments section and let's continue the conversation. Also, if you think this Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson! concept has some legs and you have a question you want answered in a blog post email it to me at theweirdteacher@gmail.com with Oh Oh Mr Robertson in the subject line.

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Watch Me Work

https://mythoblogy.com/argus-panoptes/
Why would the vampire make a terrible teacher?

Because he has no reflection.

*pause for laugh*

I recently was given the opportunity to observe a second grade class and a kindergarten class, and those two teachers observed my fourth grade class. The three of us are a core group of teachers trying to implement a program at my school, one that is being implemented all through the district, who's aim is to help teachers improve not through evaluations but through observations and reflections which are driven by and asked for by the teachers themselves. It's completely voluntary and teacher-guided. There are no evaluative aspects to it aside from those the teacher chooses to put on themselves. Nothing goes to admin. It's purely a way for teachers to work with other teachers to improve practice. I think it's a great idea, which is why I'm a part of it. 

There are two possible ways to go about this. The first is the teacher videos themselves teaching a lesson, and then that teacher and one of the three of us take some time and we watch the video. The teacher sets out what their goals for the lesson were, how they think it went, and so on. Our purpose is non-evaluative. We ask guiding questions only, helping the teacher reflect. 

The second is observations. And this can be split into three types- either the teacher is observed with the purpose of reflecting with the group after the observation and in that way learning about their practice. Or the teacher is observed by other teachers who want to learn from that teacher, after which a reflection still occurs but with a slightly different goal. Or the teacher observes others with the goal of stealing ideas to better improve their own practice. OR some combination of those three, which is predetermined by the teacher with the help of us, who are guiding the observations.

Now, personally, I prefer the first way. I feel that the best way for me to get better at teaching is to actually see myself teach. This, I think, best allows me to strip away any ego or artifice and see what I'm doing while having to explain to myself and someone else why and how it worked. With all the evidence right there in front of me. But that's me, and I know myself well enough to know that it's unsurprising that the one that speaks to me is the one where I get to watch myself. Read into that whatever you please. I know who I am. 

That is in no way to say I don't see the value of observations, be they to learn, to demonstrate, to reflect, or to steal. This can be just as powerful a tool. But the observation I did with the second grade and kindergarten teacher had me wondering something based on the conversation we had afterwards. The conversation, by the way, is equally as important as the observation, if not more so. How often has someone come into your room for some reason, watched, left, and all you got was a nice note, "Thanks for letting us come in! It was great!" Yeah, that's not helpful at all. You were there, give me feedback. Feed me, Seymour! 

In our conversation both the second and kindergarten teacher mentioned that, while they enjoyed being in my room and observing me teach, and the conversation helped me, they felt there wasn't as much they could take from my room to apply to their own. At least not directly. And that makes sense, especially for the kindergarten teacher, I think. There is a multiverse of difference between how a kindergarten classroom has to be run vs the myriad ways a fourth grade classroom could be run. My room is very loosey-goosey, especially compared to many other rooms. I'm working hard to instill a sense of independence in my kids and, as such, there's a lot of freedom practice that simply isn't developmentally appropriate for kinders. Yes, I can see you in the back waving your hand to tell me that kinders can be independent and I know that. I live with one. But a room of 30 of them needs a level of structure that is not as necessary in fourth grade. I don't think this is that contentious a position to take. So while she liked what I was doing, they specific things she was looking for during that observation, like routines, did not jump out as brightly to her as things she could adapt to her own room. Certainly not like things we saw in the second grade room. 

And the second grade teacher also had a harder time seeing routines in my room she felt she could adapt to her own room. But, and I want to be clear there is zero judgement in this statement and I have the utmost respect for how this teacher does her thing, she and I are very different teachers. Her room is super organized and clean and there are expectations in her room that are not important to me in mine. Doesn't make me better, doesn't mean that I'm suggesting she's not a good teacher. We're different. 

I, however, saw things in both the kinder and second grade rooms that I thought I could adapt to my own. They both had incredible transitions. The kids were on top of it. Not that mine aren't. Mine are just...louder about it. After fourteen years of teaching I've accepted that is a Me thing, not a My Students thing. The kinder teacher, thirty seconds after we got into her room, told a student who was trying to tattle/tell another kid what to do, "I boss myself, I help my friends." As soon as she said that I, out loud, said, "Ohhhh, I'm using that tomorrow!" Then I got shushed by a five year old. The second grade teacher's room had a station rotation that I've always wanted to do, but never felt organized enough to truly put into practice deeply. I saw how she did it and it started the old mind a bubbling about how I could break it and rebuild it in mine own image. 

The second grade teacher and kinder teacher, however, said they saw a lot in each other's rooms they could use. 

This is my question. Or series of questions and subquestions. And I'm not sure there are correct answers.
  • Is it better to observe up or down in grade level? For example, if you teach 4th grade is it better to observe 5th or 3rd? 
    • At what point, if any, does the gap become too large to be useful? Could a high school teacher mine things from a kinder teacher, and visa versa? If the answer to that is no, then at what point working backwards would the gap be effective?
  • Even with the ability to see your bias, call it out, and know it, are there some rooms or teaching types that you simply would not get much out of? For example, if you are a hyper-organized fourth grade teacher and you come into my room, and you're a mature adult who is able to see the value in things done differently than your way, would that be more or less effective for you than coming into a room taught by a teacher who aligns closer to your own style? 
    • (My initial response to this one is it's better to see something very different to get as wide a view as possible so you know as much as possible, but is that actually better for my practice? Wouldn't it be easier, and therefore easier to implement in my classroom, if I watched someone who was closer to my own style?)
  • Is it better to observe or be observed in order to improve your practice, assuming the conversation afterwards is open, honest, goal-driven, and reflective.
I think teachers talking to teachers about teaching is the best way to get better at teaching. It's better than any expert or professional development could possibly be, with the caveat (which I may have disagreed with as recently as last year) that first the teachers have at least some training in how to have those reflective conversations. Yes, I know how to talk to teachers about teaching, I know how to help student teachers become better, but reflective conversations with peers, conversations with specific purposes and goals, those are harder than they sound. 

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

NOW That's What I Call High Quality Math Engagement


As a reflective educator who is constantly trying to prevent his ego from overwhelming his sense of skill, it's important that I recognize that the biggest flaw in my I'm A Creative Teacher shtick is my math instruction. I'm not a bad math teacher, but I'm also not coming up with all kinds of fancy ways to teach it that are crazy engaging and nifty like I am for the more language arts-based subjects. My math instruction is effective, but more workmanlike. As such, my goal for improvement the last few years has been math instruction. When I go to a conference I always choose at least one math-centric session in the hopes that I'll grab up something good. The last time that happened was at iPDX when I saw one half of the Classroom Chef team, Matt Vaudrey, run a wonderful session on discourse.

It's happening again.

At the end of the school year last year my principal sent an email to the 4th and 5th teams asking us if we'd like to participate in a summer math training. I agreed and spent three days in a library at a nearby elementary school getting some strong math discourse knowledge dropped on me. Also a lot of binders that should be Google Drive folders. Which...whatever. That's my hang up. Then I went away and set up my classroom, trying to remember all the stuff I learned and find ways to implement it.

But that was not all. Oh no, that was not all.

What's you biggest complaint after a professional development, dear reader? Clarification- After a good professional development. If you're anything like me (and if you are, congratulations on being so attractive, smart, and modest) the thing you think most at the end of a big PD is, "That was great, but one shot isn't really enough. Regular refreshers and supplemental trainings would really help this be usable." Friends, be careful what you wish for.

I'm not complaining. Not really. But that summer math training came in a package that included regular trainings/math studio days during the school year. I didn't realize this. It might have been in the initial email I skimmed. Either way, I'm having to take one or two sub days a quarter to go to a school, meet with the trainer and my group from the summer, get trained up, and watch some sample lessons in a math studio class. Yes, I can see you in the back with your hand up- A math studio is a specific class in our district that has been earmarked as the one where the teacher will specifically be using these strategies and when we have a training we will also observe her class being taught. So it's both classroom and practical. Really, it's everything you'd want out of a training, save for the sub day thing. But if it makes me a better math teacher it's worth the time this year.

And it's paying off.

I tell you all that as a preface because it's important to me that we see the value in trainings like this, and it's important to me that cool ideas that aren't my ideas are not passed off as such. We're all stealing. Trust me, I try to let you know when something works that I've thought of whole cloth. Or I will as soon as that happens. I 100% stole this project from the math studio class and modified it to suit where my fourth graders were at.

There should be number block representations in that last column, dunno what the computer did with them.
We were working on addition and subtraction, along with place value and representing numbers. This was a few weeks ago, for those of you overlaying your math pacing guide with the time of year. I'm not that far behind. I created the above four by five grid of math problems represented in the traditional way, as word problems, in expanded form, as place value charts, and in number blocks (not pictured because of some weird computer glitch). Also, for those of you looking closely, there are one or two mistakes in there. Total accident, but they actually played into what happened next so I'm ok with my mistakes.

I printed sixteen copies of this sheet, one on each color of paper I could dig up in the copy room. So 16 copies because a) that creates groups of two students, mostly, and b) I was shocked I could find 16 different colors of paper in the copy room so I went with it. Then I cut the little squares out, paper clipped each color together in no particular order, and put the paper clipped squares into envelopes. This took longer than I'd prefer, but sometimes you gotta suffer for your art and all that inspiring meme-fodder. Then it got fun.

I love presenting projects to my students like this- I had them partner up. Then I held an envelope up without speaking for long enough that they were salivating at the thought of what might be in there. It works, it's all in the presentation. And I proclaimed, "Within these envelopes are small squares! These squares are related in some way! Your job is to organize them! This i all the direction I will give you! Tallest person from each group, come to be and receive your envelope!" I love giving non-specific directions. 

Students immediately started pulling all the cards out and doing that thing students do- Not being thoughtful or organized at all in their initial look at the cards. Just flipping them over at random. Pushing them around. Going much too fast. Slowly most pairs reached the same conclusion and hands waved, "We're done!" What do you think they had done, dear reader? Did they grid it out? Of course not. They made five piles. A pile for each different kind of problem. When three groups did the same, which I'm totally going to pretend to have expected, I stopped the whole class. "I see lots of you organizing the cards into similar piles. Yes, that's organizing them. No, that's not what I want. Keep trying."

SO MUCH math discourse, my friends. It started naturally. They had to have it. They had to start talking to each other about what they were seeing. "Oh wait, this one equals 1,349! I saw a thousands block...look! These are the same. No, see, because blah blah blah." Some groups got it faster than others, of course. Some floundered. To those I suggested maybe a short walk around the classroom would be in order. Not to steal ideas, of course. Just to see. 

Soon a group was done. Almost. "Mr Robertson, we've still got all these blank ones." 

"Hmmm," I say. "Interesting. Blank ones you say? Do you think those are in there on accident?"

"...no?" the students reply. They know me by now. They know the class mantra this year is, "Everything Has A Reason."

"Hmmmm," I say again, nodding and pulling at my chin. "I wonder why they're there. Good luck." Then I walk away, mentally rubbing my hands together like a Bond villain right after the world's greatest super spy stumbled into my trap again. And I listen with my Teacher Ears for the, "Ohhh! Look look look! This row is missing that kind of problem! And this row...OH! OH! Mr Robertson! We figured it out!"

Bwahahaha. I love teaching without saying anything. 

Once enough groups had figured it out Phase Two went into effect. The groups had to pair up with another finished group. Then switch sides. Group A looks at Group B's card grid, and Group B looks at Group A's. Then Group B has to explain to Group A what they see Group A did. Group A has to listen without interrupting, then they are allowed to ask clarifying questions. Then it reverses. In the parlance of the internet- Much discourse. So math. Very disequilibrium. Such thinkings. 

To be clear, this whole process took the entire math block, just over an hour. And some partnerships didn't finish. But they still got to talk to another group and see what was done. 

The kids loved it so much, and I was so blown away by how well it worked, that I determined I would do it again. So last week I built one for multiplication. You can see that below.

Again, no idea why the graphic representation isn't loading, but trust me, it's cool.
This one was greeted by cheers from my kids. Yes, I said it. They were so pumped. I wish I could be all chest poundy about this, but all I'm doing is finding something that worked once and hoping it'll work again. The only credit I take it seeing that it was a good idea, modifying it, and then chasing the dragon a second time. 

This time, just because I like playing with fire, I invited my principal in. She wanted to see what I was learning from the training, and she never gets invited into classrooms. She's always got to schedule something for an observation or whatever. But she's got the soul of a classroom teacher still, so it's fun to ask her to come in. 

It went even better the second time! They knew the trick going in this time, so everything went much quicker as far as grouping the cards, even with it being multiplication and my making some of the relationships between cards a little more unclear. Instead of making them group up, though, I used what seems to be every teacher on social media's tool de jure, The Grid of Flipping. (I swear, if you even think Fl!pGr!d on twitter their social media team will smell it and send you a dozen Stepford-like helpful tweets. I'm good, back off.) I set up a grid, set the video time limit at five minutes, and had the kids explain their thinking to the camera on their Chromebooks. Then they needed to watch at least two other explanations and reply to those with sentences like, "I like that you", "It's interesting that you", "When you did x I was y." 

At the end of all that we talked about the habits of mind and the habits of math discourse that we used during the game (I called it a game, a rose by any other name can still trick students into thinking it's a game), which was also valuable. Kids talking about when they used reasoning, when they used mistakes and perseverance, when they used modeling, and so forth. I am not too modest to say that my principal was blown away. She praised my kids for their work and their thought, she gave me some nice pats on the head, and my kids were jazzed.

So much so that at the end one girl raised her hand and asked if we were going to do it again when we finished division. I told her I was thinking about it but that I was also thinking, now that they seem to be experts at it, what if I gave them twenty blank squares and they had to set the whole thing up? Friends, remember, this is a math lesson. It's a heavy lift math lesson. There's a lot of cognitive load happening. It's not easy. And what I'm proposing is even more difficult than I think they expect. But they were so high on math at that moment they cheered the idea. I'm not making that up, I wouldn't lie to you. I would tell you if a collective groan went up, but it didn't. 

I laughed at/with them and told them, "I'm so excited that you are so excited about this. I'm also so excited that you all decided to react like that while the principal was in the room, so that's for that."

I love getting deeper into mathematical discourse and finding creative ways to increase the cognitive load my kids are carrying, while also making them more independent and helping them see themselves as mathematicians. 

If you have any questions about the projects I wrote about here, math studio, ideas to make my math instruction better, or anything else, please leave a comment, shoot me an email at theweirdteacher@gmail, or send me a tweet at @TheWeirdTeacher.

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

Sketchnoters of the Lost Ark

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdnA-ESWcPs
This is a story about how I finally internalized what it means to accept my students and what they need rather than holding my ground and making sure they always did what I thought they needed. But, because it's me, there's a trip to get there. It's a good trip, there's a whip and a hat and an idol. Come with.

Innovation can be planned. Brilliance can come from meticulous attention to detail and not letting the smallest detail go unnoticed. See every Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron film for examples of this. See the teacher down the hall who really knows the curriculum front to back and builds lessons like you've never seen, down to the minute, and then manages to pull them off more often than not.

People like me love saying that accidents are where real learning occurs. That it's the unplanned moments where flashes of brilliance are allowed to come through. That boundaries and constrictions, self-imposed or otherwise, can lead to real creativity.

I'm also reflective enough to constantly wonder if I'm justifying my own peccadilloes by saying all that. That being the case, I'm pretty invested in this particular line of bovine excrement. I do believe in the beauty of limitations and the value of forced creativity. For myself and my process, the end of my rope is where I find a lot of my best ideas. Accidentally. Or not. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity, so sayith Roman philosopher Seneca, quoting American philosopher Oprah.

My go-to example when I talk about this is always JAWS. One, because it's one of my favorite movies, and two because it's literally the perfect example of this. If the shark had worked, if Robert Shaw hadn't been a drunk, if Steven Spielberg hadn't gotten screenwriter Carl Gottlieb to be on set and live with him during filming, if Richard Dreyfuss hadn't panicked about his career and decided to play Hooper, and again, if the shark, THE TITLE CHARACTER, had worked, JAWS wouldn't be the classic it is. It had to go wrong in order to force Steven Spielberg to think around every corner and create a truly terrifying adventure in which you don't see the title character at all until over halfway through the movie, but you don't need to.

In this case I would rather use a different example. Still, oddly enough, a Steven Spielberg film though. This time I want to talk about RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the first (and best, followed by Last Crusade then Temple of Doom and that's the only three, fight me) Indiana Jones movie.

This is a story that everyone who is a fan of the movie knows, it's been told over and over, but to be sure everyone is on the same page, I'll recount it one more time. First, watch the scene in question.




HE SHOOTS THE GUY! Perfect. Except not what was planned. They storyboarded a huge sword fight between Dr Jones and Giant Sword Guy. Giant Sword Guy, this is true, trained for three months for this fight sequence. And there should be a big fight. That's what happens in these movies. The good guy, being the good guy, has a fair fight. But Indy instead has a perfect character-defining moment and, with patented Harrison Ford annoyance, pulls out a gun and shoots Giant Sword Guy dead. No fight. Why was there no fight? Because Ford was incredibly ill with food poisoning. He couldn't do it. So they improvised and instead of a marketplace-spanning sword fight that, in hindsight would had hurt the fight with the Giant Nazi At The Plane later in the movie because of the repetition, we get a five second reaction that no one who saw the movie will ever forget.

Totally unplanned. Complete on-the-day rewrite to fit the situation. Nothing to do but what you can and hope it works out.

A few years ago I had a student who would not stop drawing in class. Constantly doodling. Every time I turned around her paper, journal, whatever, was covered with art. We had All The Talks, my friends. All The Talks about time and place and I promise I'll give you a chance to draw and grrrr please do what I'm asking and go to recess so I can pull my hair out trying to find yet another way to convince you to stop drawing all the freaking time and focus. Until finally I gave up. I ran out of ideas. My barrel, it was empty and I had no more barrels to go to. I had her stay in for a second from recess, not as a punishment but for another chat, and I said, "Ok, draw. I don't think I can stop you without having to be some ridiculous version of a teacher that I don't want to be. So draw. But please, draw what we're talking about. I'm fine with you drawing, but if we're talking about the story, draw the story. If we're doing math, draw the math problems. Deal?"

She looked so relieved and agreed. I sent her away, not sure if I was doing the right thing, worried I was giving a student permission to space out with no consequences, but also thinking about who she seemed to be and trying to trust both her and my end-of-the-line instincts.

And it totally worked! She was on task. She did know what was going on. She drew and stayed with us. Her mom came to me near the end of the year an told me that no teacher had ever tried that with her before and it was the first time she really felt connected to school. I take no credit for this, it was a last ditch accident. Sketchnoting might have been a Thing at this point, but I didn't know it existed until five years later at ISTE. When I saw it I had that gratifying moment of, "Hey! I do this too. I didn't know I could have named it though!"

A last ditch accident tied to one other thought. She was a really good artist. Practice makes perfect and all that, right? And in my head I could see her getting famous. A gallery opens and she is interviewed by a major outlet. She's asked if she had a teacher who helped her. Here time timelines diverge.

In the darkest timeline where the interviewer has a goatee, my former student sighs and says, with steel in her voice, "I had a teacher who refused to let me draw. He put his foot down. I draw like this to show him how wrong he was."

In the light timeline she smiles and says, "I had a hard time with drawing too much in school. Until I had this one teacher, my favorite teacher, probably the best teacher I ever had, or anyone ever had (this is my imagination, remember). He helped me use my talent for my education. It helped me continue to draw."

Obviously I'm self-aggrandizing for humorous effect (as far as you know), but those scenarios did play into my decision. I'm glad they did. I think about her all the time, every time I see a student who isn't fitting in to the learning the way I'm expecting. She allows me to trust myself and every student after her that they will find their way to the learning, I just need to make sure the barriers are removed and the bridges are in place.

Total accident gave us one of the most iconic Indiana Jones moments ever. Total accident helped me define who I am as a teacher. 

Accidents are good. Take that Cameron.

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

One For The New Kids


This one goes out to all the new teachers. And those of us who still feel like new teachers no matter how long we've been at it.

This isn't an easy job, but it's the only one I've ever wanted. They say that if you love what you're doing you'll never work a day in your life. That's not true, not with teaching. You'll love what you do and you'll work hard every day. You'll grind and struggle and it'll be worth it because this job is more magical than any other when it all comes together.

This is not the same as advice that says you should sacrifice yourself on the pyre of Being A Great Teacher. That's a lie too. Don't burn the candle at both ends, don't be the candle that burns itself out to light others. You need to burn and burn brightly for a long long time, and sometime that means finding the fuel just for yourself. Anyone who tells you different is selling something or trying to get something out of you for free. The most valuable tool in a teacher's belt isn't technology or connections or curriculum. It's rest. And we all remember that first year. The idea of being fully rested sounds like the punchline to a bad joke. I know that too. You can't help yourself, you go home and think about your kids. You stress about your class. You wonder if you're doing right by them.

We still do that too. But those of us who have managed to find the healthy balance are able to put that aside and have faith that what we're doing actually is the best we can do. That's the goal. Not to be content with what you're teaching, or how, but to accept that you are doing it to the best of your current abilities. That's how we sleep at night, and how we come to school fired up the next day. The day might not be perfect, but at the end we're pretty sure that what we did was done as well as it could have been done. They can't all be home runs, and that's ok.

You're probably got at least one kid you're never going to forget. And not in the good way. A kid that, more than any other, has you banging your head against the wall (metaphorically and otherwise). We've all got that kid in the first year. Mine was a little third grade boy who had had a rougher nine years than I've ever had. The anger and defensiveness he shrouded himself with was overwhelming for first year, oh-so-young Mr Robertson. I did what I could and man did I do it badly. He called me a motherfucker almost every day. I wasn't special though, he called the principal and special ed teacher that too. Kicked at us, struggled everyday. Would make progress, then backslide. His world was spinning and I was not trained to help him like I would have liked to have been. But how do you teach that? We all did our best for him. This story has no happy ending, he was finally expelled near the end of the year because we found a pair of scissors in his desk that had been flattened out so that the blades pointed horizontally, and he'd wrapped tape around the center as a grip. You can do a lot to keep a kid in your class, to try and help, but when that is found in a desk it's no longer up to you. I have no idea what happened to him. I hope he's ok. I wish I'd known more, been better, done more. But I have to believe I did what I could.

I also look back on that year and remember being irritated I had 23 students, because contract said I should have 21. Young fool, I can't remember the last time I had thirty kids. And I complained about low twenties?

When the year is hard and you're feeling overwhelmed, remember that you're probably focusing on the one or two or four kids that you're having the hardest time reaching. Natural. But that means there's thirty who are having their own quieter struggles and successes. Don't tunnel on the ones that are easy to see, and don't focus on what you perceive as negative. It's so easy to see. It's like when you're in a group and you tell a joke and everyone laughs. Everyone except that one guy right there. What the hell is his problem? Notice that everyone else got the joke. Notice the learning everyone is doing. And remember that the person who isn't getting it probably has a good reason and you can work to find that too.

Don't save your kids. You're not a superhero. You're not a magician or an entertainer or a mechanic. We don't fix kids because kids aren't broken. Don't buy into the hype that makes us heroes, the narrative about "some kids don't have anything to go home to" that centers a cultural normality that isn't actually normal. Someone loves the kids in your class. That doesn't mean that the kids aren't having hard times, going through hard things. These two statuses are not mutually exclusive. Don't negatively judge your kids or, through your assumptions, judge their parents or guardians. Start at accepting and giving the benefit of the doubt. Just because the parent or guardian wants the best for the kid in a way that's different than you do doesn't mean they don't want the best for the kid.

No one is really good at this job for at least three years. Probably four. That doesn't mean don't try, it means know the learning curve is steep but worth it. It also means that as you get more confident you won't rest on your laurels. Getting more confident just means you can try harder things and fail bigger. But it won't really feel like failing bigger because your expectations will have grown with your skills.

Watch more experienced teachers, notice things, but don't try to emulate just yet. Take small things, but don't go whole hog. You need to learn all the basic tricks before you can start in on the fancy stuff. Judge yourself against yourself using what your kids are learning and how you feel teaching it. Don't watch the person across the hall and judge yourself against them. Be you. Teach like yourself, and that means taking the time to find who you are. Take what works, break what doesn't so that it will. It's better to break and repurpose than throw away.

Reflect with others, talk it out, but watch for poison. That doesn't mean don't complain. Complaining can get things done. It doesn't mean be relentlessly positive, hiding your head in the clouds is exactly the same as hiding it in the sand. But find that balance where you notice if you're being more negative about your kids than you are being positive. Always lean to positive. Use negative to solve problems. Be confrontational (in a professional way) with people if they aren't giving you the help you need. Fight for you, fight for your kids. What some will label as negative and critical and mean others will see as open and honest and willing to have mature conversations.

Teaching is a great job. It's the best. Kids are hilarious and fun and sharp and so much more entertaining and interesting than most adults. Discovery happens all the time. We get to attack and destroy ignorance of all types. Keep that front and center in your mind. Be who you is, enjoy the job, and come to us for help. No one expects you to know it all. Find mentors who you can trust in your building. They are there. You'll probably cry some days, that's ok. Teaching is hard. Honestly reflect why you felt that way and know it's ok.

Oh, and don't put your work email on your personal device. The district didn't buy it for you, they shouldn't expect you to work from it. Draw the line and hold it.

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

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Technological Singularity as a Lesson in World Studies Class by Dr Punita Rice



When I taught 7th grade World Studies, I looked forward to teaching a lesson about the technological singularity at the end of each school year. If you're not familiar, the technological singularity is the term for the idea that technological advances will start coming so fast that we'll reach this moment where everything will start changing so fast we can't even keep up. That moment is usually identified as the moment when “the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization” (More via Wikipedia here. Btw, some folks think this moment -- the singularity -- is really, really near).

Anyway, I used the concept of the singularity -- whether it is near, or only theoretical -- as a frame for having students apply the concepts we had been studying all year: political systems, culture, geography, economics. Throughout the year, we had used those concepts as lenses through which to study specific key events and time periods in history. (If you've ever taught a social studies or language arts class, all of what I'm describing sounds very familiar). And then, at the end of every year, I’d do this lesson based around the theoretical concept of the technological singularity (if you'd like, you can see the lesson here).

And through that lesson, I always found that my students had really, really, learned a lot about the things they were supposed to have learned all year. They were able to take the ideas we had examined all year long (how political systems work, for example), and then apply that knowledge. They were able, even, to come up with ideas for how the singularity might impact, for example, political systems: 

  • They understood that in some political systems, leaders are chosen through voting, and so, some students suggested that the singularity might mean people could vote from home, or vote instantaneously.
  • They knew that a political system's leadership should, ideally, reflect the needs of its people; so, some students imagined that technological advances could enable governments to have greater insights into what people want, which might influence how policy is made. 
  • ...and they came up with many more ideas for how the singularity might impact political systems, and cultures, and geography/settlement patterns, and economics. (By the way, you can read more of the crazy ideas my students came up with for how the singularity might impact the world here. And I’ve thought about some ways the “singularity” might change the role of a teacher -- you can read some of those musings here.)

The point is, by building a lesson around the singularity -- this seemingly unrelated to our course content, and admittedly weird topic -- I was able to give my students a cool learning opportunity. They not only got to demonstrate their creative thinking skills, but they also got to apply knowledge they'd been absorbing all year.

As Doug, the original Weird Teacher writes in this post, "you just gotta find your weird and run with it as hard as you can." Teaching this lesson was one of the ways in which I ran with my weird.

This was a guest post by Dr. Punita Rice. If you liked this post and you’d like to read more content from Punita, you can find some of her recent writing at PunitaRice.com/writing, or recent blog posts at PunitaRice.com/blog. She's also writing a book, about South Asian American students’ experiences in K-12 settings - you can learn more about it here. She's on Twitter @PunitaRice.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Would You Kill Baby Hitler? OR Dear All Men


What are we going to do to stop predatory white men from getting away with rape and the dehumanization of women?

Correction- What are we going to do to stop it from happening?

Men, I'm talking to us. This is our job. Dr. Ford and the other women who have been coming forward with their experiences, knowing full well the GOP will bring to bear all manner of smear tactics, they're doing what they can. They're doing the hard work. I'll admit, this is the first place that I was conflicted about writing this. I initially thought, "This is a women's issue. I want to support the voice of women here and share their stories." But see, I did that here already. (Holy cow, that was a year ago.) And while it's vitally important that we hear AND BELIEVE women, they're already having those conversations. They know, and believe each other. Except for the big percentage of white women who still insist on supporting Trump because...economic anxiety makes you a Nazi? At this point I don't know how to reach them. The people they're supporting have already come for them, and they still didn't stand up.

But they aren't the ones committing the crimes. They aren't the ones normalizing this behavior with "locker room talk" and "I LIKE BEER!" That would be those humans like us, the self-defined men. This is learned behavior. It comes from somewhere.

Consent is a constant hidden lesson, and it's our job to make it visible. Here's a simple, at-home, personal example. I've got two young boys. They're rough and tumble. Tickle fights happen. If you've got a small child, you know it's fun to make them squeal with tickle laughter until they can barely breathe. But they're laughing, we're all having a good time. I'm also not stopping. I'm bigger, so they can't get away. I could keep tickling until it's not a game anymore.

I don't. But I could. And I could even hide behind, "We're playing! They're laughing!"

What a message.

I have to be very aware that when I'm wrestling with my boys, and often they start it because Daddy is tired when he gets home from work and wrestling is not on the To Do list, the fun stops the second they lose the power to stop the game, the second it doesn’t stop when they want. Sure, they squeal with laughter when we play Get Away From The Monster. It's all in good fun. As long as I'm clearly communicating to them the whole time that when they say stop, we stop. There's two of them, so double-teams happen. They get carried away, so even if one says stop and I stop, the other is full-on going for it. He's having a good time. I need to be clear- The fun is over and everyone stops the second one person decides the fun is over and it's time to stop. They can learn this.

This is a teaching blog, so let's put it in the classroom- asking kids to come up and give answers and work at the board, and accepting kids who want to pass. That's not enough, though. We have to have the conversation. We have to be explicit about consent. We, in my class, talk a lot about listening to each other and respecting one another. Fourth graders still need reminders about how to play nice on the playground. We do group work, and they need to be taught how to work together. How to deal with conflict disputes. The lessons here become all kinds of interpersonal relationship skills, and one of those is the idea of personal responsibility. How are you responsible to your fellow humans? See each other as fellow humans. Equals. Peers. No one is less than. Every lesson, every moment, every read aloud choice, can emphasize that. It’s my job to make those lessons crystal clear.

Our other big task, my people of the male persuasion, is upending the social order that benefits us the most. Too many things in this country are broken and unequal, and when there's a problem in the store you find the manager. We're the manager, and we have been literally the entire time. It's time to see that as a problem. To explicitly point out gender and racial issues in the textbooks we use and the read alouds we choose.From kindergarten on up. Kinders can handle it. Kinder teachers are smart, they can make anything comprehensible to five year olds. Kindergarten is where you learned to see all these weird little marks and translate them into language that you can think in. Anyone who can teach that can teach anything. It’s all in the delivery. And if it starts there, the rest of us can continue the work. Overt and subtle, but always with clarity. See, for example, Tricia Ebarvia and the #DisruptTexts movement and chat.

There are some who would argue, “It’s not our job to teach politics.” At this point in the world, if you’re not willing to bring it up, then you’re openly ok with it and teaching politics by omission. If “Be a decent human to everyone, and stop when someone asks you to stop” is “teaching politics” then we should scrap this whole thing and start over. Being an ally isn’t enough. Call it out. Go on the attack. Educationally. As a teacher. Unless it’s not a student. If it’s a grown-up then layeth the smacketh down. Verbally. Unless they’re a Nazi. Punch Nazis.

Teaching is a long game and, as I keep telling my first-year-of-teaching grade level teammate, nothing happens quickly. We need to keep pushing, keep climbing. Keep teaching. I don’t know how to fix people like Brett Kavanaugh and those who would defend and support him. I don’t know if you can. But I’ve got access to the next group coming through, and I can help them see humanity as a whole worthy of respect. I can make choices that help that.

I’ve seen boys use girls or femininity as a punchline. I’ve heard the comments. At their age my kids don’t think they’re being “mean” yet. “Just joking!” So we talk, either me and the boy if it was a small incident, or we stop and have a whole class conversation if the situation calls for it, about why that was funny and how it actually wasn’t. I let them find their way to realizing it was disrespectful, guiding and prodding. The class knows respect is a whole group responsibility and, while I’m not advocating being cops, I am stressing that we’re all in this together and we can help point out, respectfully, when someone is out of line. It starts here, in elementary school. My boys can learn how to talk about women when they’re around women and when they aren’t (Spoiler- The same way). Then holding the boys responsible for their words and actions, something that obviously hasn't been done in the past, instead of excusing it with "boys will be boys" or some other rape culture encouragement. The laughter Dr Ford heard, the humiliation she spoke to, these can be prevented in the future.

Play the long game. Take that time travel question of “Would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler?” What if instead you could go back in time and give the kid the kind of education and world-awareness that would prevent him from becoming that monster in the first place?



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 the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

Monday, September 24, 2018

A Masterpiece Isn't the Goal


There is no such thing as a masterpiece school year. And it shouldn't be the goal.

I've been getting deeply into Frank Zappa recently. Zappa was an American musician and composer famous first for the Mothers of Invention and then his solo work who released a gigaton of material during his life. He was an incredibly interesting, problematic, brilliant, and complex man. If I were telling this to my students the next part of this brief biography would go like this- "Yes, he's dead. It doesn't matter how. Of cancer. Yes, that's sad, you're right. Pancreatic cancer. In 1993. What? Yes, he's dead. Yes. No. No, he's alive and living on a farm in Colorado with other musicians. Moving on..."

Zappa released over 60 albums during his life, and no two are exactly alike. They range from experimental instrumentals to doo-wop to orchestral to parody to "Jazz From Hell". The only thing they all have in common (on the surface) is a hyperbolic level of complexity and being exceedingly weird (for example, on the album of guitar solos called "Shut Up and Play Your Guitar" there's a track called "Gee, I Like Your Pants" named such for no reason except that it made Frank laugh. And this is the PG example.)

EXCEPT, that's not true. Not at all. Frank believed in something he called "conceptual continuity". Certain concepts and ideas would transfer from one album to another in subtle ways. He created a character named Suzie Creamcheese who was around for years. Poodles popped up all over. Weird sounds would be repeated ("snorks" and such). Even hooks and riffs could reappear on albums years later. Not as acts of self-plagiarism but as purposeful calls backs and reflections to previous work. Frank remembered what he had done and wanted to express, honor, and evolve those things in on-going ways.

I know what you're thinking. "Doug, this is all very interesting and all, but what's it got to do with teaching?" Thank you for indulging, my dear reader. You know I love laying the groundwork clearly, and now we're getting to the (Uncle) meat of the matter. Plus, many of you are probably ahead of me.

From Zappa: A Biography by Barry Miles- "This way of working became Zappa's 'project/object' concept: the idea that each project is part of a larger object, and overall body of work in which every individual part is changed , if only slightly, by the addition of a new part...He reinforced this 'conceptual continuity' by the re-use of identifiable themes from one album to the next..."

When I read that I had to stop and put the book down. The "Project/Object" concept is teaching. It's the unit I'm teaching. It's the semester. It's the school year. It will be my entire career. But that's not when clarity struck the hardest, dear reader. No, that came two paragraphs later.

"Is is the abandonment of the idea of a masterpiece in favor of a series: Monet's endless haystacks or waterlillies, each one a different aspect of the same work, rather than one final statement. It is the idea of process...rather than fixed composition."

Another thing Zappa was known for was taking the musicians in his bands to their extreme. To paraquote (he said basically this, but not word-for-word) guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, "Frank would find where your talent was, and then find ways to push that talent to its furthest extreme. He used everyone in his band as efficiently as possible."

We should abandon the idea of a perfect school year. That isn't the point. It's impossible. Instead we should do the best with what we have each year, using pieces from the previous years in different ways to reinforce our own conceptual continuity. This means that evolution is built in, it's assumed. Things have to change, even if the basic building blocks remain in place in some form. Everything informs everything else, nothing should be tossed aside, only reinvented, recycled, rethought. And we should abandon the idea of the perfect classroom set up, perfect tools, the ideal situation. That's not possible, and it never will be. (Please note- I'm not saying we can't improve things and inequality isn't something to be battled and corrected. Frank constantly fought for rights and freedoms and to improve his world. He brutally and intelligently spoke against the PMRC and anyone who might be considered "brain police") So we take what we're given- textbooks, computers, whatever- and use them as creatively as we can, pushing them to do what we want rather than what they were designed for. Frank called this giving the song "eyebrows". That is, "Ok, it's good, but it's not interesting. Gotta give it some eyebrows." Give the school year eyebrows.

I can't imagine that I'll think of my final year of teaching, however far into the future that will be, as a final statement. It will be another piece of the wider whole. I've heard the metaphor of the mosaic that, as you lay each tile you can't see, but once you're done and step back you can see what you've created. Every book I write, every blog post, every lesson I teach, every session I present, these add up and create my Project/Object, my conceptual continuity. And they become a part of my students. A part of yours. Linking us together.

Let go of the idea of the "best teacher", the "best school year", and even the "best lesson", and embrace the whole, the process, and the series being more important than one great thing. And do it with eyebrows.



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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

WeirdEd But Like Pirates Would Do It by Sam Bates

Post by Sam Bates

Ahoy there, landlubbers! ‘Tis I, Salty Sam. When I discovered Dread Pirate Doug would be leaving #WeirdEd unattended for a month, I set my eyes upon borrowing it for yon evening.

But when I discovered the captain’s quarters would be empty on Ye Olde International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I knew I needed to be at the helm for one (more) night (if’n ye be confused, it’s because you haven’t gone back and read all of Doug’s blogs, in which case, ye should be ashamed of yourself. His blogs are a goldmine. Yar, I mean, full of booty.)

Pirates be amazing role models for teachers. If your familiarity with pirates comes from Disney, VeggieTales, Rogers and Hammerstein, a catchy jingle about rum, or professional athletics, ye be vastly uneducated about pirates, as were I up until about a fortnight ago.

Are ye familiar with the Pirate’s Code? T’was a contract, better’n what the actual navies of the day could provide. It spelled out precisely how loot were to be divided, the rules of the ship, conflict resolution, and a termination clause - and I don’t mean death. It be specifyin’ when a pirate’s contract were up.

Speakin’ of death, pirates weren’t the blood-thirsty ragamuffins ye may think. T’was better to have a reputation of mercy, for if a crew knew for certain they were takin’ their last breaths, they fought harder. Nah, when overtaking an enemy, best to give them some options. Some pirate ships gained crewmembers this way; today corporations call this “onboarding.”

Today we celebrate these businessmen of yesteryear by adopting their slang and a highly butchered version of some European accent. Yar!

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Kin in the Game


"What was your favorite part of your first day of school?" I excitedly ask my oldest child.

He enthusiastically thrusts two fingers into the air. "We got to go outside TWO times! And at lunch! THREE outside times!"

And that's when I truly realized that just because I'm a teacher, he's not going to be any different of a student. Of course his favorite times are the outside times. I've met him. I knew this. What was I expecting?

I'm a public school teacher. I've fought for public schools, marched for a better contract, prepared to vote to strike (narrowly avoided at the last minute), made videos and wrote articles arguing for the rights of public schools and its teachers, and supported the schools I've worked at however I could. There was never any doubt my kids were going to go into the public school system. It's not perfect, but it's damn good.

It's strange being on this side of the teacher desk. It's not my first time over here, but it's the first time I'm handing a kid over for an entire day for the entire year to another adult. It's different. I fully acknowledge the privilege I have as a teacher in the district my son is going to. I know the principal of his school. In fact, I taught her son a few years ago. The shoe is now on the other foot, it seems. I know his teacher, we've been in trainings together. There are three kindergarten teachers at his school and, to be honest, I would have been happy with any of the three. It's a great team. But that's because I trust public school teachers to do their best. I don't think any of the kinder team needs to be motivated by asking them if they are going to decide to be mediocre today. They all want to kick ass at their jobs. I trust that.

I probably could have gotten him placed at my school instead of the one closer to our house. It's in district, like I said. There's strings to pull if I wanted, I'm sure of it. But I didn't. I want the Weirdlings to have their own school experience, separate from me. I don't want "You're Mr Robertson's son" to follow them through the halls. I didn't want to even accidentally steal authority or power from his teachers. I don't think any teacher/parent would do those things on purpose, but sometimes things happen on accident. He's five, it might be confusing to have Dad and Teacher in the same room. He's smart and would adjust too. Still... I also wanted him to be able to get into trouble without me finding out. There's Handled In School trouble and there's Called Your Parents trouble and I know it would be hard for Handles In School to stay there if I worked there. I want to also make clear that this is my choice, not The Right Choice. I know plenty of teachers teach where their kids go, and that works just fine for them. I dig that too.

Right now he is SO excited about school. He couldn't stop talking about going to kindergarten. I started work a week before he started school, meetings and set-up and whatnot, and every day he wanted to know how many more days until he got to go to school. Got to. He counted down every night. "Dad, tonight there's four more days until I get to go to school Then tomorrow it'll be three days. Then the day after tomorrow I get to start kindergarten in two days. After that it will be one day. Then I'll get to go on the bus to kindergarten!" Going to bed Sunday night, he clenched his eyes shut, willing himself to go to sleep like a kid who has been told Santa isn't coming until all the little children are asleep.

My principal, being a cool and understanding human, allowed me to come in later than contract time so that I could walk him to the bus on his first day with my wife and the younger child. He was dancing waiting for the bus. So jazzed. When he saw it coming he was like a sprinter on the line. We had to call him back. "Come give us hugs!" He would have thrown a half wave behind him as he climbed into the bus otherwise. "Hey! You're supposed to be nervous and kind of reluctant and not so damn eager to leave us!" He did sit at a window right at the front and wave until he was out of sight.

Which bring us to my biggest fear- He is SO excited about going to school right now. He gets to go to school. It's awesome. Even the stuff that's not recess is awesome.

How long does that last? What if something happens and that goes away?

Like I said, I trust his teacher, I trust his school. I do not in any way think they are going to somehow knock the love of school out of him. But something might. And I don't want that to happen. It probably will? I don't know, I was one of those kids that always liked school. I didn't always like the kids I went to school with, but I liked school. But at some point kids kinda fall out of love with school. Sometimes it is a teacher, though not as often as the popular narrative would make it seem. Sometimes its a wall. Sometimes it's the other kids. I've always been a teacher that appreciates the idea that I want my kids to question The Man while also being The Man. Challenge, push back. But be cool about it. Can he walk that line? I hope so.

He's got long dirty blonde hair, and often when we're out and about strangers will compliment our "adorable girls." He doesn't care. Couldn't bother him less. He doesn't even really try to correct people. His favorite show right now is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (a really good, well-written show that deserves all the love it gets from all the fans except the super creepo ones). His Grammy bought him a Rainbow Dash backpack and he is all about it. I kinda hinted around asking him, "What if someone says something about you liking Ponies?" He looked at me, "It's my favorite show. So?" I think we've raised him to be confident in himself and like what he likes, but he's never really been around peer pressure before. I'm fully being a parent when I say, "What if someone is mean to him?" But I also trust the school to handle it and, more importantly, I trust him to stand up for what he likes. Still though...

He's four days in and already reminds me of my own students. I ask him specific questions about what he did in school and either get really detailed recess reports or shrugs. Exactly like I picture my students going to to their parents, no matter what cool stuff we did that day. "What did you learn today?" "Stuff. Math." He's so tired right now but trying to hold it together, getting grumpy faster than usual. "Dad, I don't wanna talk about it any more right now." Ok, buddy. But I really want to know. I wish I could be in the room with you, seeing what's going on. I've never really watched a kindergarten room go before. It seems like madness to me. But he also seems so much bigger than the kindergartners I see walked my halls. He can't be though.

We talk about the value of positive notes and phone calls home, and I know, intellectually, that that's a great thing to do. But his teacher emailed me early in the week and it freaking made my day to read how excited she sounded about him. I knew, but good to know.

I've always been deeply invested in my school and my district (except one previous district that shall remain nameless but BOY what a dumpsterfire of leadership feces). I buy in when I move in. We're all in this together and we need to support one another. Not with unquestioning positivity, that's ridiculous, but with strength and unity. When I work in a school it's my school. My district. But now, on the other side of the desk, it's new. It's his district too. Now I've got kin in the game.

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