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.