Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The First Thousand Songs

"The first thousand songs are the hardest."
- Aaron, my bass teacher

Back in February I decided to fulfill a lifelong wish. I'd always wanted to learn to play an instrument, but for reasons I go into in this post I never did. Since that post I've found a bass teacher and have been taking weekly lessons. Fun story about finding the bass teacher- I used the internet and found a bunch of people local to me, then asked the music teacher at my school if she knew anyone and she pointed me at one person specifically. I picked him, because my school's music teacher is awesome and knows her stuff, and I haven't regretted it for a second. People in my Building 1, Internet - 0.

While I didn't decide to learn the bass to become a better teacher, I did figure that the process would help me teach. I can't help it. I think, like a lot of us, things we do every day leak into the classroom. That I'm literally learning to do something only makes the connection more direct.

One of the big lessons that I'm taking away from learning to play the bass is the current demonization of repetition and possibly boredom-inducing practice. That's seen as a Very Bad Thing. Kids should be constantly engaged and interested and if they are bored that's our fault and should be fixed. It's the main argument against worksheets. Here's where I get to play in the area between extremes, which is where education should lay- I agree that boring our kids is bad. I agree that worksheets and similar repetition lessons aren't always ideal. BUT, I also think they are tools that can be used to great effect.

Some can say "learning to play bass isn't the same as learning to read". And they're wrong. I'm learning to read music. I'm teaching my body the motions that are required to perform. None of that happens on the first try. I'm upstairs every night working through things, playing the same bit over and over and over (and over and over and over) until I get it right. It's hard. I've never done this before so not only am I learning the technique, I'm also getting that technique into my head and hands so the next time something comes up I don't have to think about it. Like learning a new way to do math, or how to read, or write. The skill is new, and thus needs practice to be understood. But once it's understood it also needs practice to be done without thought, so that thought can be spent on something else, something that makes the base (bass) skill better. I am typing this, but I'm not thinking about typing it because I've practiced typing so much, so I can focus on the words. That only comes through repetition. Which can be boring, and is often frustrating. Stupid fingers not doing what I tell them to.

It's ok for my students to feel that way too. That's the productive struggle thing, but once you get through the productive struggle I think there's still more repetition to do. Now, I don't think mindless repetition is the way to go either. To go back to the typing example, I'd rather have my kids writing than on some typing website, but those typing websites have drills that will make them better typists, and will also be kinda boring. It's about balance.

When I'm learning bass out of my book, I'm doing a ton of drills. The book that I own, Electric Bass Method Vol 1, is great. But it's also almost all drill. Which is what I, as a new player, need. I need to see the pieces and parts. Practice them in small chunks.

But now that I'm moving along in my playing, I'm starting to learn songs. I finished Vol 1 of that methods book and before starting Vol 2 Aaron had me pick out three songs to learn (I chose London Calling, by The Clash, Walk This Way by Aerosmith, and Ace of Spades by Motorhead). Because if you learn enough songs you'll start to see how all those pieces come together. For teachers, this makes perfect sense. Learn the skill, practice the skill. Learn another skill. Practice that skill. Put those two skills together and practice. Eventually create a whole and practice that. Repeat. Even the way Aaron talks about learning bass makes sense to me. "There's only so many ways for notes to go. You listen to music, so you know when a song should go up or down or stop. You can predict that. Like watching a movie, 'Oh here's the part where they fight'. Learning songs will teach you to see that more clearly." This is teaching my kids to read, or do math. Sometimes it's boring.

"The first thousand songs are the hardest. After that the patterns get pretty clear." I love this. It's not really meant to be motivational, but it's also just hyperbolic enough to be funny while still making its point. That's a lot of songs. It's a lot of practice. The mountain is tall and every time you reach a summit it reveals yet another climb.

Part of my job in upper elementary is helping my kids make that first summit, while preparing them for the next climb. It’s getting them not through the first thousand songs, but maybe the first hundred or so. They know the notes, can read the music, and have the muscle control to play basically what they want, so now it’s all about finding new and creative ways to combine and use those skills. Which takes a lot of practice. Even Frank Zappa and Geddy Lee had to practice scales.

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, May 21, 2018

Your Journey Home by Brian Costello

Guest Blog by Brian Costello

We are going to look at the Hero’s Journey, yes it’s been done and done some more, but in a way that you’ve probably never looked at it.

For most of us the year is coming to a close. Take a moment, breathe it in. Now exhale a giant sigh of relief (I won’t tell anyone) because despite what you may have been told, you are on the return journey, you are heading home. It is a time to celebrate, to reflect, and most importantly to begin a process of renewal that most of us need in order to be able to do it all over again.

I thought about making this post about any number of epic heroes, movies, cartoons, or nearly anything else, but when it comes down to it, I want this to be about you. So I’ll skip the Shrek references for now and save gifs for the chat. This is about you. You are a hero.

I know what most of you are thinking. Doug is probably thinking it right now (that’s right I am in your brain). “Oh god here comes the teachers as superheroes thing again…” To which I say, you couldn’t be more wrong. You aren’t a superhero (unless you are and I am not outing your secret identity) but you are a hero. A hero isn’t someone with some incredible superpower, but someone who has grown, struggled, lost, learned, and become better in some way if they managed to survive the journey. You are a hero. So is the person in the classroom next to you, so is each and everyone of your students. All of us is the hero of our own story. So now, you need to take control of that. Each of us needs to own it. Something awesome, great you should celebrate. Something awful, how can we recover? For many teachers it can be hard to accept praise or think of themselves as the most important character in their story. We are generally wired to care about others. So much so that we have dedicated our lives to helping young people in a variety of ways. No matter what we are doing, you cannot escape the fact that YOU are the center of your story and no one else. So accept it and let’s move on because as much as what we do is about kids, your story, your journey is about you. That part may seem hard to swallow given all we think our kids deserve, but it gets harder.

YOU ARE NOT ANYONE ELSE’S HERO. When you try to become the hero for someone else, you take away from them. As educators we need to stop pretending that we are the hero in anyone else’s story. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can’t. That does not make me the central focus of your story. All I get to be is a character in the story of others. I get to choose what kind of impact I want to have on kids, on teachers, or on other people in general. What kind of impact do you want to have on others? Do you know? It is ok to say no. You can figure that out. Hopefully the generic answer is a positive one, but from there we return the focus back to you. What skills do you have, what experiences? How can you actually be a positive influence on the lives of others without trying to be their knight in shining armor. No more saviors. Saviors imply we don’t have the ability to help ourselves. Instead let’s focus on what we have that makes each other better. Do that. You don’t need to be anyone else’s hero but your own.

Now let’s get back to the celebrating. You are almost there. But, the world won’t be the same place when you get back next year. You will find the people have changed (they are smaller than you remember) and there are less doors (I think) and those doors might even have rocks for your safety. Going back to the beginning will be hard, so for #WeirdEd tonight let’s focus on who YOU are, who YOU want to be, and how you can prepare yourself for the next journey you are about to undertake.

If you like what you read, or the chat, or you hate it all and you want to scream into the void of the internet, please take a look at The Teacher’s Journey . It is filled with stories of my struggles and growth, as well as those of many others. The Hero’s Journey (or the monomyth) is told by many cultures and in many ways. My book takes a look at how those themes are told through education and how understanding them can help us become better.

Buy Brian's new book here!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Rube Goldberg Machinations

I'm a sucker for a good metaphor. I love a good metaphor like Hugh Jackman loves literally any script that will let him sing and dance.

It's because of this that I love the Rube Goldberg Machine project my class did for MakerFaire last year and is doing again this year.

At the most basic level, a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex series of actions and reactions that result in the completion of the most mundane activity. You know, like getting kids invested in learning dividing fractions, and then explaining why dividing fractions works. I sometimes feel like my classroom is just a series of Rube Goldberg machines running in tandem, while also all somehow part of a larger Rube Goldberg machine.

Because education isn't simple and it's never easy, you see. To that end, never trust anyone who says "just" before giving you advice to make your class better or more effective.

To back up, since we started in the middle *sings* a less good place to staaart *mercifully stops singing*, for the last three years my school has hosted a MakerFaire. It's a massive undertaking combining a science fair, TEDtalk symposium, film festival, and check-out-our-learning Open House. Students are invited to create their own projects, and teachers are inviting to create class projects. Last year, thanks to the wonderful OK Go video for "This Too Shall Pass", I decided my class would build a Rube Goldberg machine.

We learned a lot and I thought of ways the project could be improved over the course of the build, so I was excited to do it again this year.

Today we started our journey.

I broke my class up into eight groups of four students each. I choose the groups. Depending on the project and timeframe I'll let the kids choose their groups or I choose for them. This needs to be done quickly and in well-balanced groups, so I'll take the reigns for this part, thank you very much. I ordered the groups one through eight. Then I set them the challenge-

Thou shalt create a Rube Goldberg machine. Each group is responsible for a section of the machine, and each section must include at least two action/reactions. For added difficulty, each group must also ensure that their section of the machine connects with the sections on either side so that the machine requires no no NO human intervention once the initial reaction has been triggered. Your section must be started by the end of the previous section, and your section must end with the triggering of the following section. 
Dude. That's a lot. I admit that's a lot. And it's not easy. That's why I love it.

There's so very much engineering built into this project. If you leave students to their own devices, as I learned last year, they will design a machine that should be, if built properly, seventeen feet tall and uses gravity and marbles and that's all. Everything will be downhill, all the energy transfer points will be basic, and nothing will be interesting. So I get to show that music video and we take close looks at exactly what is happening. I focus in on the section below, from 0:42 - 0:50. Just eight seconds. Everything the kids need to know about what they should do happens in these eight seconds. Here, you watch. Again, 0:42, where it's cued up to already, through 0:50.

Did you see how much happened? How many different types of energy transfer there are right there? There's the rolling tube (inertia) which drops (gravity) causing a weight to release (gravity/pulley) which lifts the cupped lever (lever) which is holding a marble, returning the energy back to a height so everything can continue using gravity (gravity). In eight seconds.

Suddenly options open up. Suddenly we're having this detailed conversation about energy transfers and simple machines. They don't know the words, but I can give them the words. Those eight seconds gave them the ideas. Now we don't need to build this giant, tall behemoth. Now we've got variety. We've got choice. Because it's not enough to say "You are able to learn. Go forth and learn, and then apply that learning." That ain't even Guide On The Side. That's Guy In The Room.

Back to the metaphor thing, I mean look. Not only are they building a Rube Goldberg machine, but the process of building it is almost Rube Goldbergian. There are so many moving pieces! So much communication and compromise and co-planning needs to take place to be successful.

FIRST- The group must plan their section. They plan it alone, just the four of them, without worrying about any other group. It's too much to think about if they start being concerned with everyone else. The group of four must decide how creative and challenging their section will be, what simple machines and energy transfers will happen, what tools they'll use. They must design and blueprint. They must compromise with each other until everyone is satisfied.

SECOND- They must talk to the groups on either side of them. This immediately throws their plans out of whack because "What do you mean you want your marble to be triggered by a car? Ours doesn't have a car. Ours ends low, and yours starts high. Crap. Now what?" Revision. Natural, organic, collaborative revision. Lots of communication about these engineering concepts. And remember, every groups except the first and last has to go through this process twice.

THIRD- Bring your blueprint to me, whereupon I'll break it down with simple questions like "Why is this ramp floating in space, where are your supports?" and "How long are these parts?" They have to go away and revise again. Rethink again. This is by far the most difficult build of the year, that's why it's the last one. They've built tree kangaroo traps and arcade games and wind-powered cars and trebuchets. They know the process.

I'm not going to say 100% of my kids are 100% engaged with their groups 100% of the time, but I am going to say that even without my stepping in, I'd bet those numbers are up around 90%. These kids are excited and locked in. They're talking and designing and planning and revising without my having to sit on their shoulders and tap them in the foreheads with a spoon*.

And all of this is before they have cut a piece of cardboard or measured a section of string. If I can get them on board and invested in the design process, the build process is so much easier.

Not that the build process is easy. I approved a few plans that aren't going to work in practice but look good on paper, or work in student heads because they don't understand that a marble will not carry enough weight to crash into the toy car and get it to roll forward far enough to trigger those dominoes. That's fine. Build a simple version, run a proof-of-concept (yes, I use that term with them), and revise as needed.

Part of this is the panic that comes with trying to eat the elephant on a time limit. Embrace the panic, expect it. Last year I was positive the machine wouldn't actually work up until five minutes before it actually did. We got three good runs in and then someone accidentally bumped something and we never got it realigned properly. But we still succeeded, and you should have heard the room explode. Have faith. Not faith that you'll succeed, but faith that the real goal, the learning, will be accomplished.

This year I learned from last year. By front-loading the simple machine concepts, by forcing the planning in more detail, I hope to prevent the last minute stress. I'm pretty sure it still won't work until the last possible second, but one can hope.

Take a risk. Understand that teaching is the stringing together of many complex, disparate actions to create something simple on the surface. Use that to help you think around corners and solve problems in new ways. Come play.

*I've never literally done this, but we all figuratively have.


 Today we successfully finished our Rube Goldberg machine. It was four days of hard work, planning, revision, panic, frustration, and finally joy and relief. I did some documenting of it on the twitters so I'm going to link to those.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Forego Fortnite

I never wrote a lesson for my students that incorporated Pokemon Go. I let my kids use fidget spinners in class but didn't build a math unit around them. When I was a Weird Student my teachers never brought Pogs into the classroom.

And I won't create a Fortnite Curriculum.

I see why teachers do this and before I go any farther let me make clear that if this stuff works for you then godspeed you black emperor. Students, classrooms, and teachers are too varied to throw out general rules for everywhere and to pretend to know what's good for everyone. I mean, unless you're a thought leader. Then that's basically your bread and butter.

Fortnite, for those of you reading this who somehow haven't heard your students talking about it, is a free-to-play video game where you raid, fight, build, and survive with and against other players. The fun part of the game, at least for my kids, comes from the massive multiplayer online aspect of it. This means that rather than play against NPCs (Non-Player Characters, game characters controlled by the computer), players play against other people. See- Massive Multiplayer Online. Which is great. I love video games and one of my favorite current games is Overwatch, a team-based shooter played with and against people all around the world. Fortnite has exploded in popularity recently because it's a "living, breathing world" according to The Verge's Nick Statt. It helps that kids can go home and play with their friends. I'm in no way against Fortnite.

I am not, however, a fan of teachers trying to bring this game into schools. There's a lot of reasons for this, but I can boil them down to three four.

Reason One- It's a Shooter
The core gameplay loop in Fortnite, like many video games, is shooting. Video games are all, at their hearts, about solving puzzles. How do I get this thing to that place? How can I get these bricks lined up in a way that makes them disappear? How can I get this obstacle out of my way? The answer many game devs have come up with, an answer that has created one of the most popular genres of video game ever, is "shoot the obstacle in the face."

There is nothing inherently wrong with shooters. Like I said, I play the hell out of Overwatch and that's all about shooting other players in the face better than they shoot you in the face. It's great fun. Players killing monsters, Nazis (could have grouped them under monsters), other players, plants, zombies is a thing that happens in video games. I don't think this makes us more violent as a society, that's pure nonsense that ignores that every other country in the world has access to the same games and doesn't have the problems we have (hint- the problem is actual, real guns).

"So Doug," you say. "You like shooters. You say they don't make us violent. I'm thinking you're first reason holds no water." Oh but it does, Hypothetical Reader. You see- I'm fine with those games at home. I have Feelings and Opinions about fifth graders playing jingoistic games like Call of Duty where they snipe people and there's a celebration of blood spray, but that's a parenting call not my call. I have problems with teachers taking a game where the gameplay loop is "shoot it in the face" and trying to make it work in schools. It feels tasteless to me. You know what schools need less of? Shooting. Speaking as someone who works in elementary school and so is ignorant of the reading habits of middle and high school, we're not even reading hyper-violent books. Coraline is probably as intense as my class gets, and while that has such delightful exchanges as "I swear on my mother's grave." "Does your mother even have a grave?" "Oh yes, I put her there myself. And when she tried to escape I put her back." it's still not advocating violence for problem solving (Yes, that's what Fortnite does. Haven't you been paying attention to the whole puzzle solving gameplay loop thing?). Let's keep shooters in any form out of schools.

Reason Two- It's Not Mine, It's Theirs
"Ok Doug," you say. "But I want to connect with my kids on their level. It helps buy-in when I use something they like." To respond in a way that The Kids would also understand, Hypothetical Reader, let me post a popular meme.
They know we're not cool. We're not supposed to be cool. I don't believe that this is what's meant by "connecting curriculum to the Real World".

This is not to say that I don't let my kids use their interests in class. Student choice is important to me so if they can fit what they love into an assignment in an organic way that makes sense then I'm totally for it. But notice- if they can fit it in. I'm not going out of my way to do it. Because it's not mine, it's theirs. I don't want to make it School. I'll teach them about critical thinking and bring up things they love within the context of a larger lesson and might use an example here or there, but I'm not making Pokemon Go or Fortnite or Fidget Spinners homework. I'm cool with kid stuff being kid stuff.

I still connect with my students through things that they like. I had a kid last year who loved Overwatch. Almost every day on the walk from the classroom to the buses he and I would chat about the game and new heroes and who was getting buffed or nerfed. I have a student this year who is all about My Little Pony, and at the beginning of the year I'd listen to her talk about it and nod along, but recently my Weirdlings got deeply into MLP and, because I watch what they watch, so have I. Also, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a really funny, smart, well-written show with a deep, thought-out lore. Which means that now I can converse with her on an intelligent level about her interest. Not because I had a student who liked a thing so I went out and learned all about it so we could connect, but because it naturally came up in my life too. This leads me to my third point.

Reason Three- Way To Narrow Your Audience
Not all of my kids play Fortnite. Not all of my families can afford the systems needed for their child to play it. So by making it the center of an assignment I'd be highlighting an economic difference in my class, or at least parenting differences. Talking about differences is fine, building empathy is awesome, but an assignment that breaks my kids into groups that Know a Pop Culture Thing and groups that Don't creates an inequality in my room that doesn't need to be there. It was the same with Pokemon Go. Part of all those lessons needed to be "If you don't have a phone then find a friend who's parents can afford to get them one and tag along." Don't come at me with "kids today all have smart phones" because you're just showing how small your world is.

If I make Fortnite an assignment I've got to make sure everyone has background enough to understand the assignment, or I've got to create an assignment so shallow that everyone has access equally, which means I might as well have used something that lets everyone start on equal footing to begin with. While the game is hugely popular, that doesn't mean 32 out of my 32 kids play it or even know what it is. Heck, I've got kids who don't know anything about Star Wars and you literally can't find a more ubiquitous piece of pop culture in the world right now.

Student choice allows kids to use their interests in their own way, but that's not me creating an assignment around Fortnite. That's my kids finding a way to use what they like without having to convince the rest of the class that this thing is something they need to understand to learn today.

Reason Four- That's Not My Job
I'll be honest- I'm not at all sure the "I use this to engage kids" argument is worth the paper this blog is printed on (because it's not on paper at all, you see). We don't need to come to them with bells and whistles to make them care about math or reading or science. We can use their interests as peripheral tools, but pop culture as an engagement strategy is a crutch. A crutch that needs to be replaced constantly. All those Pokemon Go lessons from last year? Gone. Toss 'em. No one cares. All the Fortnite lessons? Gone. Total impermanence. Not to advocate that things shouldn't change, I doubt I've taught anything the same way twice in my entire career. But I try to build things like Lego constructions- there's the main block, and then I can add and subtract as needed. But if the main block is an effort to just be hip and with it then its worth is fleeting. Be interesting and engaging without being hip. I talk about Star Trek in my class All. The Time. And not one of those kids could care less about Star Trek because their parents are terrible (joking!). But I care, and I can use it to help them. When I do bring up Harry Potter or Doctor Who or some band or something in pop culture, it's not the center of anything. It's icing. If I want a lesson on Fortnite I'm not going to write it, I'm going to challenge a kid to write it.

At the end of the day, my job is not to teach my students about things they already love. I can teach them to think critically about what they love, but that's different than just using it because I know they identify with it. I'm not triggering their "Hey, I know that thing" reaction to get their eyes up and brains engaged. Because you know what my job really is? My job, our job, is to get kids to care about stuff they don't know. To get them to engage with stuff they don't care about. I don't read them novels they've already read, I read them novels I know they haven't. I don't play the music they love, I play music they might not be exposed to. I don't teach them things I already know they know, I teach them new, different things that will challenge them and push them in different directions.

We're in the business of expanding minds, of pushing and stretching. Using Fortnite or Pokemon Go or whatever is cool at the moment is a trick, it's shallow and easy. Sometimes that's fine. But creating whole lessons, whole projects around them? For so many reasons it's not the best way. It's not using the real world, it's pretending that what we have to teach and how we teach it isn't good enough.

I think maybe the only lesson I'd use Fortnite in directly is to teach my kids what a portmanteau is and then what a fortnight is, so that they could sound fancy with their parents. "Yes mother, for the last fortnight we have been learning to manipulate fractions. It has been splendid!"

*Post script- Minecraft doesn't fall into this argument. Minecraft is build for creation, that's its gameplay loop. Creation is also education's gameplay loop.*

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Deconstructing Where the Wild Things Are

Let's take a closer look at classic children's picture book Where the Wild Things Are.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in the video, check the last picture. Max is removing his hood, signaling that he is no longer a Wild Thing.

I also know that the audio goes out of sync with the video, my phone did that when recording somehow.

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