Monday, August 20, 2018

This Is Not What I Expected

It happens every year, right near the start of the year. A student gets that look in his eye. It's a slow dawning that, to the student, might even feel like a baby form of betrayal. That look that says, "This is not what I expected."

The student is slowly realizing that what they saw from outside the classroom door is not the same on the other side.

Outside, the classroom looked like a barrel of monkeys covered in cardboard run by puppets with a Taylor Swift soundtrack. This class looked awesome and fun.

Inside, there are puppets. And there is cardboard. And there's music. But it's all...educational. Like, we have to think about all this stuff. Inside the classroom everything has a point.

What the hell, man? This is not what it said on the box.

The greatest trick Mr Robertson ever pulled was convincing kids who aren't in my class that my class is a 24/7 party. Getting them super excited to come in, tricking them into buying-in with shenanigans that they can see, but rarely actually get to partake in. Because students don't often think around the corner of the lesson to see the point waiting to take them by surprise and jump in their backpacks.

Yes, my class has puppets. Because puppets are awesome and I love using them. Also because the kids pay better attention to the puppets than they do to me sometimes. They will ask for Sophie to teach them math. Oh yeah, they ask to be taught math. And then Sophie does a real math lesson, with real cognitive demands, asking real math discourse questions, all in her high, silly voice, while interjecting the occasional shout of "Bobble!" with her signature head wave. (She's got tiny giraffe-like knobs on her head that "bobble" back and forth when she shakes her head and the kids love it.)

There's so much cardboard in my classroom. We're constantly building things. But not for fun. Never for fun. There's always a reason. You can't build for building's sake. Do you know what happens when you do that? Your principal walks in and asks a student what she's learning right now and the child says, "Uh...building with cardboard?" Yeah, that's an email.

Instead we're doing a Quick Build- "Make a wind-powered card. You can use anything in the room. You have an hour to design, build, test, and revise. Groups of no more than three. Yes, four is more than three. Ready...go." But the point isn't the wind-powered car. The point is the design process we're practicing. Does it look familiar? Because it should. The writing process is plan, draft, edit, revise. The math process is evaluate, attempt, assess, revise. I'm not having my kids build cars to build cars. I'm having them practice the skills they will use for the rest of the year. And I am explicitly pointing this out after the lesson and then every time we write or do math. "Did you edit this? Remember how easy it was to decide to fix the car? Why?"

The kid will say, "Well, it didn't work right."

I will reply, "Good! Does this work right? Have you read it?" (Yes, we all have to ask the kids if they've read what they wrote. because, you know, they didn't. We need to teach that too.) The Quick Build lessons come back over and over and over until the real reasons are internalized.

We spend the first few weeks on a Hobby Project that tasks the class with choosing something they've never done before, a brand new skill, and getting as good at it as possible in three weeks. They need to journal every day what they did and how they felt. And at the end of the three weeks everyone will demonstrate how well they can juggle or sew or ride a unicycle or do magic or whatever. And the whole time I'll be going on about, "I don't expect you to be good at this by the end. You only have three weeks! I do expect you to be better at it. You're gonna suck. That's cool. But slowly you won't. That's cooler." And I hit that again during the reflection at the end of the project. Same thing. It's one thing to tell my kids what growth mindset is, it's something completely different to trick them into experiencing it for themselves first hand with something they wanted to do. And it comes back constantly too. "Ok, we're starting dividing fractions. This is gonna look real tricky to some of you at first. That's fine. You couldn't juggle when you started either. How did you learn to do it? Right, same muscles here. Yes Josh, 'brain' muscles. Sit down please."

In the first week we do secret handshakes. Find a partner and build a secret handshake. Its got to be at least five different movements. You have *ridiculously contracted period of time* to practice and get perfect. Go." We practice then I send them to recess. When they come back they go to the front of the room and perform their not-secret-anymore handshakes. They nail it. Some kids have gotten real fancy, adding to it at recess. Their handshake is ten, fifteen steps long. Immediately after that I pull out ten poems and say, "Ok, we're gonna memorize poems. You get to choose one. You have until next week to be completely off book."

A kid will always raise her hand. "Mr Robertson, I'm not good at memorizing."

"Oh really, my child? Huh. Hey, can you show me your secret handshake again?"

"Uh, yeah." She start to get up. Stops. Looks at me. Sighs. "'re gonna say I just memorized a bunch of stuff easily, aren't you?"

"Maybe. Don't forget how much easier it was when you were moving though. That'll come in handy." I live for those moments. The moments when they realize what they did was deeper than what they thought and the pool becomes crystal clear, so clear they can't even see the bottom.

The kids come around fairly quickly. I demand good work, hard work, focus. We play, but it's all in service of cognitively demanding overarching ideals.

Something I always think less about is how my class looks from the outside to other teachers. This struck me hard earlier this week when I was at a math training with someone else on my staff who is in the room next to mine and we had to work together to plan specifics of how we would instill a growth mindset in our students at the year's start. I said, "Well, it's baked into my class. I can't not do that and have anything about my room work." And she didn't have any idea what I was talking about. So I started talking about my projects and building and eventually she stopped me. "Yeah, I knew you did all that. But I never realized why you did all that. A bunch of us have always kinda wondered..." and she trailed off, leaving "if your kids learn reading and math and stuff" unspoken. Heard it before. It's cool. I'm not mad at her or grumpy about any of that. It's on me to have been more explicit outside of my class, just like it's on them to ask. If the students don't expect the cognitive rigor, why should a second grade teacher who I never plan with because I'm way up in, at the time, fifth, know any specifics about what's going on behind the scenes? Yes, I write about it. But I've never worked somewhere where people I worked with read my stuff. I don't really advertise around school. "Hey, I've written books, here's my blog." It's different with people you work with every day. The link to this blog is in my email signature. But it feels super weird to, like, promote my stuff to my staff. I dunno why, that's probably worth its own post down the road.

Nevertheless, "this is not what I expected" is a reaction I expect from students and from other teachers. And that's cool with me. The unexpected works well in a lot of situations. Like jokes and getting people interested in what you're selling. Not so much in colonoscopies though. Keep that very expected. And as the year progresses my kids adjust and learn that everything Mr Robertson does probably has layers to it, and then they look for the layers. Sometimes they create layers I didn't intend that I can then steal and write blogs and book chapters about. They don't learn to expect the unexpected. They learn to expect depth and meaning.

Can't ask for much more than that from a classroom, can we?

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