Monday, December 2, 2019

Losing a Leader

At the end of this month my principal of the past five years will move on from our school to the district office. This is what happens when there's unnamed upheaval (unnamed in that teachers can tell something more is happening up there but no one up there will be specific with exactly what) in the upper levels of the district, which are causing people to leave, which are causing spots to need to be filled. A spot opened up near the beginning of the school year that my principal would be perfect for, the district asked her to apply for it, and she got it. These things happen and I'm not here to complain or litigate the timing of things, even though taking our principal mid-year is a real annoying choice to say the least. What makes it worse is the job she's getting will be perfect for her and she's going to be extremely good at it, so I can't even complain about that.

My principal leaving has brought up a whole host of emotions in me. I've already had this conversation with her, so she knows this stuff. But reflecting out loud helps me process, and I never know if admin somewhere else will read this and learn from it. Because there are things an administrator could learn from what I'm about to write.

My principal for the past five years has been the best boss I've ever worked for. I literally could not have asked for a better administrator. I've worked in a lot of schools and under even more principals and vice principals, and they've ranged from good to middling to downright awful. I know what I'm looking for in a boss and who I'll work well under and who I'll chafe with. You get by in any situation, but I firmly believe that teachers, if able to, don't leave schools. They leave administrators. I know I did. My last VP was a nightmare on two legs.

My principal hired me the day of my interview. I rolled in straight from teaching session at a three day conference in Northern California. I'm in Gresham, as far north in Oregon as you can get without actually being in Washington. I'd gotten the call with the offer to interview the day before, and it was the last day of the conference. So I finished my last session, jumped on my motorcycle, drove the three hours home, changed, grabbed interview clothes, got in the car (it's a long way to go on a bike after a long day), and hit the road for a four and a half hour drive while my wife found a hotel. I got to town at probably one am, crashed out, and was up at six for an interview at seven. First one of the day. Got there, had to dissect some data (weeee), teach a mock lesson to the panel, and do the interview thing. I felt like I nailed it. Afterward I went to get lunch, more coffee, and get ready to drive home.

As I was getting my Baja Fresh I got a call. Not from that interview, but from a different school in the same area who I'd had a video interview with a few days before. They wanted to offer me the job. I begged off, telling them I needed to think about it for a few hours and I'd get back to them. As I was finishing by lunch I got another call, this from the school I'd just interviewed at, also offering me the job.

Holy crap. Two offers in one day? When does this happen? I was still in town too, which meant it was my turn to interview the principals. I went to the video interview school first, met the principal, got a tour of the school, and talked to her for about a half hour. She was very friendly and the school was nice. Then I headed to the school I'd been at that morning and toured the school and chatted with that principal. I asked her all the questions I wanted to know, about technology and teacher freedom and data and creativity. She gave great answers and I was feeling convinced. Then I asked her, very specifically, "How driven by data are you? Will I be tied to a curriculum?" And she said magic words, words that made my mind up right then and there. She said, "Well, we have to use data, that's part of what comes down on us from the state and the district. But I believe that teaching is an art as much as it is a science, so as long as teachers get results I want them to be creative. I think students respond to that." I'm going to put that in big bold text now so you know how important it was to me.

"I believe that teaching is an art as much as it is a science, so as long as teachers get results I want them to be creative. I think students respond to that."

Oh yeah, this is the place for me. I took the job on the spot. It's a risk. Principals say all kinds of things they don't actually mean. But she felt like she meant it. And she pretty immediately proved that she did.

I have told bits of these stories in the past in this space, but they're important to make my wider point. When I started at my school I became friends with the other guy teacher in fifth grade, a kindred spirit of creativity. It wasn't long before we were talking about making stuff in the classroom and investigating these things called MakerSpaces what what would that be like, how cool would that be? We picked out a room being used for storage, built a wishlist and a plan, and went to her office to pitch her. We fully expected to be shot down. One does not simply walk into your principal's office and ask for five thousand dollars to do something brand new. But you gotta take the swing, right? She listened carefully, asked good questions, and then said yes. Yes! Told us to come to the PTC meeting coming up and pitch them because they'll love it and they'll give us money. Told us there was technology budget we could use. Hooked us up with an amazing parent who got hyper-involved and became the third arm of the team. Did everything we could have asked for and more, all without a shrug or an "I dunno..." or a question that this would be good for kids. The MakerSpace is still there, still being supported, she still believes in its power. If she didn't it would have been converted into something else long ago.

A few months later we went back to her. Since the MakerSpace is cool, how about this thing called a MakerFaire? Could we do that? It would be a lot of work but we could get one going by the end of the year. She said yes again! She found the money and time. She backed us up in front of the staff. The MakerFaire is still going strong. She's still involved, still helping us, still encouraging the teachers who might not be as enthused as we are.

This can do, yes let's do it attitude of hers has heavily influenced my own teaching. I am and always have been a jump first, ask permission later kind of human. This does not always sit well with administrators. I know plenty of principals who need the Why and Wherefore first. I know more who look at the schedule not as a playground to work within but as a sacrosanct text to be followed to the minute. I don't work well in those scenarios. My principal never pushed those things. She understands that sometimes reading runs long, especially if we get caught up in the story and are suddenly in the midst of building tree kangaroo traps. She knows that construction is math so even though we're not exactly on where we need to be, the kids are learning what they need to learn. She trusts that if she comes into my room and sees cardboard everywhere and the room looks like a giant mess, the kids are learning. Why should she trust that? Because I tell my students, "If Mrs Cook comes in here and the room looks like this she's going to wonder what on Earth we're learning. She's going to ask me what you're learning. Do you know what I'm going to tell her? Ask the kids!" She comes into my room while we're building and knows not to ask me what's going on. She asks them not what they're doing, but what they're learning. And they know, so she's cool with it.

Our deal has always been as long as my data doesn't slip, she trusts that what I'm doing works. My data doesn't slip. My kids love coming to school. My discipline is contained. We're good, and she believes that's what learning and teaching is.

Last year she suggested me for a construction pilot that ended with my kids building benches that now exist around my school. I didn't seek that out. She brought it to me. She trusted me with it. It paid off, we did amazing things. And we're going to do amazing things again this year with a fifth grade class led by my kindred spirit co-conspirator.

I went to her when I didn't understand a bunch of what she was talking about in a data meeting and said, "I don't understand what you were just talking about in this data meeting" and she took time after school to walk me through it. She didn't say, "Why don't you know this?" or "You ought to figure this out." She was a leader, appreciated me saying I didn't get it, and showed me the way. I've never worked for a principal I've been comfortable saying, "This stuff that you're talking about like we all get it? I'm drowning and don't get it at all" to. That's a crazy thing to say to your boss. Unless your boss is awesome. (I think I wrote about this after it happened but if I did the blog is buried among the however many are in the archives here. You dig, there's a lot of good stuff back there.)

We had this conversation about leadership.

I don't know if everyone knows how good we have it. I feel like teachers have a hard time seeing outside of our bubble sometimes and there's always something to pick at. Real problems need picking, of course, and no one is perfect. But the things we are able to do right now, the freedoms we are afforded, these are more precious and rare than I think some realize.

I'm incredibly nervous about having a new principal. I feel very safe and supported right now. I can do what I do because she trusts that it's right. We're going to have an interim principal for the remainder of the year and that will be whatever. I dunno. I'm sure it will be fine, but even if it's not it's only a few months. After that, what then? I acknowledge that this statement makes me sound like I think I'm a delicate special snowflake teacher, but my way of teaching is not normal and doesn't often read as normal. Especially if the administrator is a by the book type. We will rub each other the wrong way. What if the next person doesn't get it? Doesn't trust? I'm willing to be flexible, but I'm not willing to not teach how I think is best. I will be unable to fit into a "From right now to right now you're all to be teaching reading from the book" rigid schedule. The district is saying all the right things about what they're looking for in a principal for us, but the truth is no one will replace who I've been working with for five years.

A good principal makes all the difference. So does a bad one. All I want from a leader is trust and support. I've had that in spades and it has made me a better teacher. It has made our school a great place to work and to learn. What do I want in a new principal? Faith and trust. What do I really want? My principal to not leave.

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 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, November 19, 2019

Musical Chairs of Responsibility

Musical Chairs...get it?
My students want so badly to be responsible kids. They want to take responsibility for their behavior and own their choices. They want to know themselves and be proactive with that knowledge.

And now they're realizing just how complex all of that is when you try to put it together into a workable whole.

At class meeting last week a student raised his hand. I threw him our Talking Vader (some classes have a talking stick or some other bauble, I've got a little stuffed Darth Vader). He said, "I feel like I'm tempted to talk too much in the group that I'm in and I think I should be moved."

Some background before we go on- I do not create seating charts or assign seats unless absolutely necessary. From the first day of school my students choose where in the room they will sit and who they will sit near. This is because our classroom runs on choice and that can't just be lip service. If you say you do student choice, you gotta lean into it and make it a reality. Just because a student chooses a place to sit doesn't mean that's where they will always be, however. They know this, we talk about it a lot. "I'm letting you make this choice, but the most important part of my job is allowing you to be in an environment where you'll learn. Some of your seating choices might not be the best for your learning or the learning of those around you, so I will occasionally have to move you." That's my job as the teacher. Their job is to make a choice that precludes me from having to take any further action. They're nine. So some of them don't. Not at first, at least. This is to be expected and fine, it's part of learning the responsibility of having choices.

I will make one or two rules when it comes to seating- I do not want groups that are all students who identify the same way, our groups must be mixed. I do this because students in fourth grade still split up into "boys" and "girls" for one reason or another and I don't like it. Nothing in my class is split down gender lines, especially since binary gender lines don't exist. The second rule is anyone who wears glasses needs to choose to be near the front because I need you to be able to see the board even if you forget your glasses. That's it.

Back to my student who is trying to make the good choice by being reflective and asking to be moved to a group where he won't talk. He's in the front of the room because he's a student who needs that little extra proximity sometimes and because he has already been moved at least once for being distracted by and distracting those around him. Hey, he's nine. It happens. I'm here to help. He asked me for help. "I need to be moved."

Here's what I did not say- "Ok, how about you and this kid switch. Sweet, problem solved. Moving on." You, dear reader, are a teacher who is on it and I bet you know why I didn't say that. I bet you can even guess what I said instead. Let's see if you're right, shall we?

I said, "I am glad that you are asking me to do this. It shows strong reflective abilities and a willingness to be responsible. What group could I move you to that has no one you will be tempted to talk to?" You see, dear reader, this problem is not mine. It's the student's. Let us watch as he looks around the room, along with everyone else, and they all realize for the first time that the groups are divided in a very specific way, almost as though by letting them make their own choices, and then making small adjustments, we've engineered a relative balance in the room. Let's watch as he looks at one group and thinks, "I could, he's there." To another, "Oh! Here. Wait no, then I'd be across from..." And so on. Yes, my child. You have friends at each of the other five groups, don't you? Whatcha gonna do?

He looks back at me with an idea in his eyes and I can say it along with him. He's about to suggest not just a two person switch, but a wholesale realignment of the classroom. He's about to set up a scenario in which I've got to pull up two diagrams, a graph, a map, and a horoscope in a futile attempt to somehow balance the room so no one ends up next to or near anyone else they will talk to. Newp, I think not.

Finally we get to the meat of the issue. Finally we get to have the conversation that we need to have about this.

"It is not up to me to keep you from talking. That is impossible. I can help, absolutely. And I will. I move you away from friends that you cannot resist talking to to the detriment of your education. However, there are too many of you to keep you away from anyone you're likely to talk to. I refuse to move you out of groups and into rows just to solve this problem. It won't work, for one, and for two, I despise rows with a fiery passion. And you will too once you think for a moment about how much group work we do, because if you make me put you into rows it won't be a sometimes thing. Instead, this is the point at which you need to choose what kind of a student you will be. We talk about responsibility all the time. We only have four rules in this class- Be Respectful. Be Responsible. Be Safe. Make Good Choices. And we often boil those rules down to the One Big Rule- Be Cool.

"Responsibility is easy when there's nothing pulling you in any other direction. But that's not the world you live in. You'll always be tempted. I'm tempted. I like the teachers I work with and we have to sit in some long meetings. You think I don't want to talk instead of listen sometimes? Of course I do. But I don't* because that's the mature, responsible choice. It's time for you to start learning that lesson for real."

We have a good talk about it. We talk about how it's hard and how they will fail. We talk about how I'll still move students who need moving for whatever reason. But it's vital that this is the point that they realize I'm not a superhero, here to swoop in and solve their problems for them. Some of them have already realized that when they asked me how to spell or define a word and I go off on, "If only there was a book...a book with all the words in it. A big red book..." or a similar riff but for Google or the glossary in the back of the book or whatever other academic problem that is not so major they can't solve it for themselves, at least partially.

Now, if you're near someone who is making you feel unsafe in some way, that's different. I'll help solve that problem right away. That's serious. Temptation to talk is not. I will not move your seat just because you're near someone you think you might talk to. I will be glad that you know you're near someone you might talk to. I expect you to take that information and use it. This lesson in a microcosm for literally everything in our class.

*mostly. Shut up, you do too.

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 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 11, 2019

I Failed...I Think

I will start this blog post with a caveat and an excuse- It's going to be vague. Or at least the details of the inciting incident will be vague, and I'm doing that on purpose. Sometimes in education the stories we are a part of are not ours to share. This is not one of those. The details of this particular story will be kept vague because I'm not looking to drag the main character out here on the internet. I'll also admit that subtle is not something that I'm known for, so my attempts to make a point while keeping the details of why that point is on my mind might be clumsy.

This year I started a journey that I've taken a few times in the course of my career. It's a very important journey to me, so much so that I've spent month and months and tens of thousands of words talking about it and sharing my outlook on it. I think it's the best kind of professional development a teacher can undertake because it forces you to reflect openly and honestly on a constant basis. I took on a student teacher.

I've had many student teachers, and they've ranged from absolutely wonderful to simply very good. To this point I've worked with three university programs. I go into mentor teaching with a positive outlook and a servant mentality, ready to give of myself and my time because growing new teachers is a vital part of a veteran teacher's job in my opinion.

I am, if I may say so myself, good at being a mentor teacher. This is not my ego talking (though you'll have to trust me on that). My student teachers leave my classroom ready for their own, and many of them have stepped from my classroom straight into their own without having to go through the long process of subbing and applying and applying and applying like many, including myself, had to do at the start of our careers. Part of my identity as a teacher is closely tied to being a good mentor teacher. Yes, I'm a good classroom teacher. My kids love coming to school, they learn a lot and in creative ways. But I'm also good at translating that for another adult in the room who is watching and learning how to do it.

Teaching is a hard job. Student teaching is an exceptionally hard job, because on top of the expectations of the student's placement there are the expectations of being a college student. It's a lot. But, in my mind, our students should always take priority. Above anything else, a student teacher is responsible for the learning of the however many kids that are in that room with us. So while I'm exceedingly flexible because I understand the difficulty of the learning process, I also feel very strongly about this. I don't think I understood exactly how strongly I feel about the job until this year. I've never been pushed like this before. I've never had to grapple with the emotions that I felt this year in connection to my student teacher, so I spent a lot of time reflecting on them. I needed to understand why I was getting so worked up when I never have before. Now, I run hot a lot of the time, especially when it comes to this job. I'm always Up. But there's a difference between being passionate (buzzword bonus points) and being angry. I was angry. A lot.

Without going into detail, so you, my dear reader, are going to have to decide how much you trust me and how unreliable of a narrator you think I might be, a lot happened in my classroom and outside of my classroom since the start of the year that made me feel that I was not respected and my students were not respected. There was no isolated incident, there was only a near constant piling on of issues, some big, some small, but most things that on their own could have be handled.

Handling things, though, is a two-way street. While I'm sure that the other person's story would be different, it always is, my issues were never dealt with or treated with respect. I don't think they were actually heard. There is a level of maturity required in education that was not present, and this lead to a regular series of issues that snowballed at the end into a few Very Big Poor Choices that should never have happened. Feedback was never taken on-board in a meaningful way. Occasionally, and after the fact, the words were said that made it sound like feedback was heard, but actions never reflected this.

You see, part of being a mentor teacher is you tell me something, I give you feedback, you choose to act on it or not. I expect that you act on it because I'm rarely going to say something that won't work. I am, as I said, good at this. Been doing it for a while. Doesn't mean I know everything, I'm not perfect, but I am good. What a student teacher shouldn't do is turn that feedback back on their mentor teacher.

Here, I will be specific about one incident because I do want you, reader, to understand what I mean. Right at the end I gave a piece of feedback that went like this. "You are still too sarcastic with the kids. It doesn't work. You sound like a dick sometimes." The context for this is it's a conversation that had taken place previously and it was during a conversation initiated by the student teacher asking the very good question of how to deal with challenging students, one in particular. This is a good question, or would be if the person asking it wanted to hear an answer. So I said, "You're still too sarcastic with the kids." The immediate response, and I mean immediate, there was no moment of reflection, no thought, the immediate response was, "Well so are you."


I want to be clear- I'm not too big to take feedback from anyone. I've got a sign on my door asking for feedback. However, this wasn't feedback. This was an excuse. It was a retort jumping up to defend a fragile ego. It also wasn't the time to do that because a lot of other things had happened surrounding this moment to make that an even worse choice that it might sound like to you.

"Well so are you."

Yes, I am. Because I know my kids and I don't use it as a weapon. Because I've been doing this long enough that I know the difference between gentle pushing with certain kids and using it for control. And maybe that's how I should have responded. But I didn't because I was knocked on my butt by the gall it must have taken to respond like that. "You asked me for feedback, I gave it, and we're not talking about me. We're talking about you. The student teacher." He went on, digging deeper, trying to say I modeled the behavior and he learned it from me.

This was one of many things. It wouldn't be the first time or the last time I'd be put into the Bad Guy position that day. That day, by the way, was his last day.

I've never dismissed a student teacher before. This one had been told not to come in at least once previously and warned that is something didn't happened they wouldn't come in another time. This was the last straw. And then later that day he added three more tons of straw on top of it. That recess was a bad scene.

I'm not here to vent about him though. I needed to use at least one specific example even though I said I'd try to stay vague. I'm here to talk about how I felt leading up to that.

I felt like I failed. Like the problem was on me. I knew the problems were coming from him, but I thought there was things I wasn't doing. But I also can't do the job for a student teacher. That's not the job of a mentor teacher. I prepare, but they've got to be prepared. And up till now, they have been. This one never was. Not even when given the smallest direction. It was this moment, "Well so are you" when I fully internalized that there was nothing I could have done this year to prepare the person for teaching. Their choices were beyond me.

I understand ego protecting ego. I get that. I get being defensive. I get making excuses. I get being insecure and compensating in bad ways. But I do not get letting that happen with my kids. My responsibility to them outweighs everything else. You can't make someone mature.

I think I might have failed at being a mentor teacher. And that hurts. But I'm pretty sure I never had a chance.

Or maybe I succeeded as a mentor teacher because there are people who are not ready to be teachers, or should never be, and the unpleasant job of a mentor teacher, the part of the job I've never once had to think about before now, is preventing those people from entering their own classroom. My job is not to protect an ego.

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 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 4, 2019

The Threat of Vanilla

It's November. The month of giving thanks. But sometimes in order to give thanks for thinks you have you have to look to the flip side and see what makes you angry. Anger is often conveyed as a bad emotion, something you shouldn't feel or express. That's unhealthy, anger is human and anger is fuel. It burns hot and fast and it's not sustainable, but it works. Anger can focus you if you're mature about it.

You know what makes me angry?

How many teachers seem to take snake oil salesmen seriously. How many people can continue to be fed the meaningless gruel of "Be positive and ignore the negative", "Just love your kids", "In the 'Real Word'", and the like and eat it up and ask for like an orphan in Dickens. These messages are vanilla at best and dangerous at worst. They perpetuate a system that upholds the status quo while pretending at revolution where none exists. They pander to the safest, easiest impulses of ourselves rather than do any pushing at all because you can't push with cotton candy.

There is nothing risky in saying "You know what teachers need to do? Love their kids." We are sold it like it's this revolutionary concept. Holy crap, man! Did you hear what he said? Love the kids! Like love is all you need. He should write a song. It would be a hit. It also puts an incredible amount of pressure on teachers. "You know what's wrong with you? You don't love your kids enough." Screw that, I'm working hard. Frankly, my job is to teach my kids first. I do love my job. I do love working with my kids. But putting "You gotta love your kids" on someone creates deeply unrealistic expectations.

Loving the kids is also the language of those actively trying to hurt public education. It plays right into the hands of people who want to continue to pay us an almost living wage with one hand while calling us valued professionals with the other. Every time there's a strike or a walk-out or a protest, LOVE YOUR KIDS is the first place those who want to hurt us attack us. "Look at these teachers. They say they love their students, but if they did would they be walking out?" We're immediately back on our heels having to argue from a place of "I do love my kids! But..." This is a tactic sold to us as pedagogy. You know someone really loves something when they're forced to defend it loudly. Just like you know someone really loves students when they tell you you should be doing it all the time. Especially people who don't have students but love telling you how much you should love yours.

It's not a risk. We should be angry that "risk" is reduced to such bland, tasteless vanilla.

I'm angry that thought leaders won't be bothered to respond to critical responses to what they say and their fans don't care. We should be scared and angry that those who style themselves as leaders in our community call any questioning of their ideas "bullying" or "trolling" or "rude". We should wonder what they are so scared of. But when I push my mentions are filled with people asking me why I'm so mean instead of wondering why the person who presented the idea in the first place won't support or defend it. My mentions are filled with people telling me to talk to the person I disagree with in private rather than in public. Let us ignore that they're ok with disagreeing with me in public. And I'd prefer that anyway. I have the strength of my convictions, I'm not afraid of being wrong, of being challenged, of standing behind what I say. Question it and let's see if the towers I build stand up under high wind. If they don't that's good, I can build them better next time.

A popular thought leader who gets paid a lot of money to spread his ideas and cannot handle being questioned at all ignored my pushing him on something ridiculous he said until he finally bravely said that he would only only talk to me about it I would follow him, DM him my phone number, and then he would call me, and then we could talk about what he had to say. This was his "I'm putting all my cards on the table" move. He was so brave, so unafraid of defending the ideas that he puts into public, that he was willing to defend them only in a situation of his total control and in completely privacy. And when I called him on that too he said he guessed I wasn't the one willing to have a conversation. The conversation I'd been pushing for hours. The conversation he would only have if his specific demands were met.

Such brave. So risk. Much positive.

I'm angry about what's hailed as leadership and good ideas. There's a dude out there who thinks he's a dynamic professional developer, an author who writes about discipline. A white dude who used the n-word is his book but thinks it's ok because he was trying to make a point. A guy who talks about "mouthy kids" (code word alert) and suggests that instead of being "mad" at the kid (the "mouthy" kid) we should be "sad" for that kid. And people are like, "Yeah! That's the way to deal with it! Pity the child. Like Mr T, except with our students." Why shouldn't I be angry that these are the ideas that gain traction?

Books full of quotes Jack Handy would have left on the cutting room floor get published and pushed like their the Next Big Thing even though they're actually the Same Old Thing all over again. Mouthwash swishing from cheek to cheek. We should be angry that this is what passes for leadership, for risk, in some education circles. We should wonder who wants this big bowl of nothing and can't wait to order another.

I wonder at the writers who assert that teachers should just use technology better, more effectively, to reduce student stress, or increase engagement, or solve some other ill, while ignoring the lack of technology in schools. Yes, your solution would totally work if A, B, and C were also true. I want to rally against that. Against notions like the rate of change happening inside of classrooms is not keeping pace with the rate of change outside of classrooms. According to who and what, I wonder. Where does this data come from? Is it anecdotal? There's always someone out there willing and ready to talk about how bad education is. There has to be, you can't sell a fix to something if you don't talk about how broken it is first. And there are parts of education that are broken, to be sure. But loving kids, teacher evolution, effort of students and teachers, professionals who push the boundaries and do it while doing everything else we do, that's all happening.

There are so many great education writers out there. So many good authors writing important things. So many people in and out of the classroom who still have a realistic view of education. Who know that platitudes solve exactly zero problems and are the MΓΆbius strip of the education world- you use them, they do nothing, and then you can suggest them again as a solution, round and round ad infinitum. We should celebrate them and every time a nothing sentiment gets thrown around like it's something, we should throw it back. "Sorry, this is too small. Bring it back when it's mature enough to catch and use."

I'm angry at being disrespected by those who want me to do better and claim to be positive while doing it. Hiding isn't positive. Creating a bubble, an echo chamber isn't positive. Rushing to defend your favs without wondering if maybe there's a point in the pushback isn't being positive. Using "But he's nice/trying hard" isn't actually an argument in favor of any idea. It's a cult of personality.

Why aren't I calling any of these people out specifically? I would like to do that. But I would also rather focus on the idea than the person. I don't think most of these people are bad people, though a few are hacks and thieves and frauds. I do think there's a lot of meaningless-to-dangerous ideas being put forth by good people who are just trying to help. But intention doesn't actually count for anything, result counts.

Please stop calling yourselves thought leaders. No one's thoughts need to be led, and most of your thoughts aren't so original that all of ours are clambering to fall in line.

Leaders stand behind their words. Leaders do the work rather than talk about the work. Leaders act in specific ways. Leaders are brave enough to put their chins out in the air. Leaders fail in public, admit it, and move forward stronger and better.

We should be angry at those who pretend to be leaders, and we should celebrate those who actually lead.

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 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, October 29, 2019

What if You Classroom Was Haunted?

I wonder what it would be like if my classroom were haunted.

Would it be haunted by the ghost of a former teacher? Is that where teachers go after they die? They say your spirit can't move on if you've got unfinished business. This should scare all teachers because, really, who has all their grading done? Put your hand down, you liar. Even if your grading is done you haven't finished planning that next lesson.

My classroom being haunted by a teacher would explain why I can't find things and why student pencils always go missing. It's either that or my students and I are completely unorganized, and I know that can't possibly be it. So it's probably a ghost. This would explain why my projector sometimes freaks out and switches channels. Ghost teacher, trying to send me a message that I shouldn't be talking any more. Oh sure, Mrs Ghost. When you taught it was all slate boards and chalk so you can't understand why I'm casting a Chromebook to the overhead. You don't even know what those words mean. And you should, Mrs Ghost, because you've been in my room for years so you've heard me explain it. But I guess once you're a ghost you're not really looking to learn or grow anymore. 

If my classroom were haunted by a former teacher it would probably be cleaner though. I don't know a whole lot of teachers who are ok with my style of "organization". Mrs Ghost teacher would probably move stuff around and I'd get back and instead of Haunted Mansion tea parties and precarious book stacks every pencil would be sharpened and in a cup, all my papers would be stacked nicely, and my coffee machine would finally be cleaned. 

Maybe I do need a ghost teacher in my room.

If it were a ghost student, let's call him Kaspar for legal reasons, that would explain how so many of my students fall out of chairs and off wobble stools. It's not that they're rocking back and forth or playing around. Kaspar is a punk and he's pushing them off and laughing about it. He's also getting into their desks and stealing morning work so they can't find it even though they know they put it right back into their folder just like I said. Kaspar strikes again. 

Kaspar breaks pencils, even as the student is writing with them. And Kaspar, let's call him Kas, messed with my pencil sharpener so it never actually sharpens the pencil, it just eats it. Can ghosts climb inside pencil sharpeners? Sure they can. Kas is ruining pencils. And markers! Holy cow, this is all coming together now. Kas goes around and loosens whiteboard marker caps so the pens dry up. I bet Kas has a bunch of tiny whiteboard marker ghosts following him around everywhere, doing his evil bidding. That's why he didn't cross over. There was one more prank left to pull. 

I'm absolutely going to haunt my classroom after I die. I'm already lame, might as well lean into it in the afterlife. I'll whisper answers into student ears while they're testing, sometimes right, sometimes wrong depending on how I feel that day. I'll whoosh across the teacher's desk, scattering papers everywhere. Me and the ghost custodian will play with the lights and make sure the fire alarm never works during drills until after the administration have called maintenance. In that millisecond flash between when the teacher turns the projector off and the light actually goes out I'll stand (float?) in front of the screen so my afterimage is burned into everyone's subconscious. I'll short out the microwave in the teacher's lounge. 

Unless they leave out dark chocolate M&Ms for me as a peace offering. Leave out the dark chocolate, show some respect to the phantom of the schoolhouse, use the lesson plans I write, and hire the young teacher I secretly trained in the broom closet, and I'll leave you be.

Or will I? *spooky ghost laugh goes here*

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 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 21, 2019

"Does This Make Sense?" Doesn't Make Sense. this got a lot more traction than I expected. But I also never know what tweets will get a reaction and what won't. I just say stuff I'm thinking about, and sometimes it hits a nerve.

Because it's important (to me, but I actually like the engagement of twitter, not just the engagement numbers*) not to leave a popular tweet like this just floating contextless in the education space, I want to talk about the why of it all, and where I'm coming from. Then we'll look at what some other people in the long long thread had to say.

"Does this make sense?" is a pretty terrible check-for-understanding question to ask students. How will they answer? They'll say, "Yes." That's actually the whole line from GHOSTBUSTERS. "Ray, if someone asks you if you're a god, or if what they just taught makes sense, you say 'YES!'" It's in the extended edition. Don't google it, just trust me.

Students will default to Yes for a variety of reasons- They don't want to look like the one kid who doesn't know. They weren't listening and Yes is a safer answer than No. They do actually understand, at least part of it. They know Yes will probably get you to stop talking. They think they understand but actually don't. They are a god. None of these things help me as the teacher do my job at all. The question is too open-ended, too vague. At the least, it requires a few follow-ups questions. But those need to be done one-on-one with a student and can come off as "I'm trying to catch you not being honest" questions.

The cousins to "Does that make sense?", in case you're curious, are "Any questions?", "Everyone got it?", "Soooo...yeah?",  "Can we move on?", and "Eh? *gestures at board* Eh? Right?" Holy cow, there was so much punctuation in that last sentence.

The problem is, "Does this make sense?" seems like it should be a good question. We assume our kids are honest, and I think they mostly are. We assume they want to learn, and I think they do. We assume they will tell us when they're confused, and...that's a learned skill coupled with everyone's favorite Education Word- relationship-dependent. My students will, for the most part, tell me if they're confused. By now, eight or nine weeks in, we've built a relationship and a trust and hopefully encourages that and has made it clear not understanding is not a bad thing. I've got a few kids I can depend on to ask for help, and a few who, at parent/teacher conferences the end of November, I know I'll be telling their parents "I would really like it is s/he would ask some more questions in class." Because it is on the kids to take their learning into their own hands. If this is a conversation then it should be two-way, but I can't expect them to do it all themselves. And asking bad questions like "Does this make sense?" is not helping.

We must be more specific with our questioning.

  • "What's something cool you noticed about what we just did?"
  • "If you had to explain this to my six-year old, what would you say?"
  • "Can you please give me an example based on what we just learned?"

You know- specific questions that cannot be answered with Yes/No. And those can still have follow-up questions. I love having the kids re-explain what someone else said. You know what's really fun, and I only do it occasionally because it's not a well you can go back to a lot without it running dry? For a Think Time option, rather than Turn And Talk, I tell my kids I've hidden an invisible white mouse in each of their desks. Please open your desk, gently take the mouse out, cup it in your hands, and whisper what you think/know/learned/understood to the mouse, then hold it to your ear and listen for what the mouse says. Then tell me what the mouse says. Friends, the first time I did this was because I had, as I often do, and idea that began "Wouldn't it be funny if..." and then I decided to see what would happen. And they all did it. It was awesome. They ask to explain things to their mice. They name their mice.

I'm also thinking about this question, and other in-the-moment assessment questions like it because I've got a student teacher, and he's working on these same skills. As with everything I tell him, I have to run it through my personal Teacher Brain first. What am I telling him? Why am I saying it? What's the pedagogical point? Why do I do that? He's trying to find the best way to do comprehension checks too, just like we all are.

Hence, the tweet. Now that's I've gone on for a while, let's check out some of the responses in the thread, shall we? Learn from each other.

I like a lot of the ideas in this. I think that I'll be specifically trying to add the "You must ask me two questions" thing. I also completely agree with Alicia that no matter how good our questioning is, at some point you've still got to know your kids and just be on the look out for the floating question mark over their heads. That's part of being a teacher. We should have to take body language classes in university, like Tim Roth on Lie To Me, except not to be cops about it. Never to be a cop about it.

It's also worth scrolling through the responses to the original tweet because so many teachers said something along the lines of, "Oh man, me too." This is a goodness. We're all in this together, we're all struggling and making mistakes, and we're all doing things that we know aren't the best, trying to fix them, but still being honest about it happening. It's not saying "I sucked today", it's specific, detailed reflection that is actionable. You know, just like what we're trying to ask our students.

Here's one last funny thing about tweets like this- There is no request for help in this tweet. It doesn't ask for advice. But a lot of teachers just can't help themselves. And, to be honest, that can be a little off-putting, no matter how well intentioned the advice is. We need to be able to see the difference between "I have trouble with this, what should I do?" and "I have trouble with this." Those are two very different statements. In this case, after advice continued to roll in, I choose to lean into it. Why fight the tide? Truthfully though, who amongst us actually enjoys unsolicited advice? I say all of this as a guy who has responded to tweets that do not ask for advice with advice and got shot down hard for it. The women (yes, I too succumb to the mansplain and I'm doing everything I can not to, and these experiences getting shot down helped me with that) who shot me down were right to too. They didn't ask, I assumed. So even though this whole thread came out good, and there was a lot of helpful ideas shared, I think it's important to be aware of the difference between a statement and a request. Personally, I try to remember to ask, "Yeah, do you want to know what I do?" before jumping in with "Here's what I'd do." Everyone just wants to help. Not one person in this thread was being a jerk or being rude or being anything but open, honest, and helpful. But even a lifeguard doesn't jump in until the person asks for help or can no longer ask.

We want our kids to ask us for help before we help them. Then they know they need it, they feel safe enough to ask, and they know what to ask for. We need to help them by asking the right leading questions. When everyone comes together in understanding for understanding, everything is better understood.

Does all that make sense?

*"But Doug, I hear you cry, you barely responded to anyone in the thread. That, dear reader, is because it blew up while I was teaching, then I went straight from school to my bass lesson, then straight home and my wife went to a PTC meeting at our oldest son's school and I had the two boys. Then they went to bed and she came home and we spent some time together and now I'm up in my office writing this. Sixty-two replies (as of this moment) is a whole lot to respond to. I'll try later.

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 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 14, 2019

Real Men What? Guest post by Alexander Fishman

Get it?

I decided that I was a feminist some time in high school. Deciding to claim an identity and living it out are by no means the same thing. For a long time, I marked the beginning of my journey as the evening when I argued with my father standing outside our apartment in Brooklyn. The argument ranged and meandered, as conversations between parents and children will do, but landed on me yelling at my father to stop telling me “be a man”. For a long time, I remembered that evening as my taking a stand for something. Lately, what I remember most about that night, is that while we extended our evening walk to have this argument, my mom was upstairs in the apartment doing dishes and laundry, after having cooked us dinner.

The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. Change happens in the space between the two. But if I am satisfied with my “End White Supremacy” T-Shirt and use it as a way to absolve myself from rooting out racism, then change doesn’t happen at all.

Today I was having another argument on Twitter, about being a man, and what it means to be a ‘real man’, and what the words ‘real men’ mean in the classroom. I may have convinced someone to read bell hooks, or maybe not. I definitely talked my way into writing a blog for Doug (Ed. Note- Truth, but I like hosting smart writing here). I definitely said things that people who aren’t men have already said. Is it still mansplaining when it is done among men? It is.

It might also be necessary to have men speak with one another about the harm sexism is doing and the need to examine and dismantle patriarchy. No, it is definitely necessary. But when I speak out in public, like let’s say on Twitter, it’s easy for the conversation to end at the acknowledgement. Hey look, this dude says he is a feminist and has called out a sexist thing. Applause. And after the applause, comes silence.

I have been having difficult conversations with a small group of activists within White People 4 Black Lives, who are working to examine their male privilege. Those conversations have been private, with less applause and more introspection. I am grateful for the leadership of men who’ve been discussing this longer than I have. The more I dig into sexism, the clearer it is that it’s not just in the culture but in me. As much as I don’t like the ‘real men’ hashtag that started this blog, I dislike that part of myself that is satisfied to clap-back and move on. The part of me that values competition and one-up-MAN-ship is what I need to change.

So back to the argument on twitter. Yes, it bothers me if there are people who think ‘male educators’ are somehow under privileged in schools. But there is a bigger conversation we could be having.

We could talk about the disproportionate amount of attention that men in schools get. How folks of all genders do the work, but men get the admin positions and awards. But should I be leading that conversation, when I’ve gotten those admin positions and those awards?

We could talk about how even in classrooms and schools dominated by women, patriarchy is the driving force. People of all genders need to start dismantling patriarchy in our classroom management, in our curriculum, and in our organizational structures. But can I really lead a conversation like that, when I started teaching without any knowledge of intersectionality, and certainly ran my classroom management with a deep ignorance of class, race, and gender?

We can talk about how our curriculum continues to put white men in the center, and how clumsy attempts at ‘diversity’ make the ‘hidden figures’ seem the exception that proves the rule. But is the conversation around meaningful inclusion in need of another white voice?

We could talk about how patriarchy harms children of all genders, how entitled men who abuse power, start out as little boys who are denied access to their emotions and denied the tools to understand the emotions of others. But none of these are conversations that should be led by me or by any white men for that matter. In fact, those conversations are already taking place. Kimberle Crenshaw described intersectionality in the 1980’s. bell hooks elaborated on the role of feminism for men’s liberation in the 2000’s. Since then educators, often led by educators of color, have been applying these ideas to the classroom. I just need to make room, to listen, to learn, and to support.

Meanwhile I have internal work to do. In my teaching career I have been handed amazing opportunities, and I have been constantly elevated, often when there were non-male and non-white educators who could have taken on those roles. I’ve been used to seeing myself as someone who steps up, but now I am learning to consider stepping back and getting out of the way. I used to think, “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” where now I am trying out, “who in my community can I support who is already doing this work:?” This is painfully obvious stuff, but white male privilege is a powerful drug, it feeds us lies like perfectionism and “There is only one right way.” I have to admit that my way may not be right, and accept that for some reason that’s super hard for my inflated ego.

The distance between who we want to or perceive ourselves to be, and how we actually show up, is often vast. The twitter persona I have is one of a woke activist teacher who is a great ally. I got a lot of digital high fives for calling out the problematic ‘real men’ language. To be honest, I even started writing down questions we could ask on #WeirdEd. Then I remembered #ClearTheAir and #EduColor and a quick search showed me that I was basically paraphrasing stuff that other teachers had already asked, in some cases three or more years ago. Questions about teaching with an intersectional lens, have been discussed in depth on those chats. And I should have remembered because I even participated in those conversations. Insert facepalm emoji.

Me ‘starting’ the conversation about male privilege in the classroom would be like that time Lyft decided they invented buses. So if I am going to contribute to an original #WeirdEd let’s ask this - What patterns are you trying to change in your teaching that are difficult to shake?

My pattern has to do with ego. It is tied to that self righteous teenager, who knew there was something wrong with ‘masculinity’ but didn’t take the time to notice how he was benefiting from it. My pattern is about a young teacher who thought he had to fight the system, but didn’t notice that he was the system. My pattern is about a teacher who was ready to lead the fight for change, but didn’t notice that others were already in the fight. My pattern is about wanting to be the change, without fully realizing that I need to change. Maybe other white men in education experience this, or is it just me?

Thanks to Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun I have a name for my pattern and it’s called ‘white supremacy culture’ Remember that t-shirt I mentioned? Getting the T-shirt was the easy part. Pulling out this thing that has roots in my ego is going to be hard. So that’s me being a real...person.

Alexander Fishman can be found on twitter. He is a teacher. His work is inspired by students who want to see real change in the places where they live. This is his 13th year in the classroom. He began teaching Regenerate Neighborhoods in Chicago and is currently the Elementary Technology Teacher at Campbell Hall in Los Angeles. 

Monday, October 7, 2019

Solo Co-Planning

When you do a Google image search for "all alone" the first hundred responses (at least, I didn't keep digging) are all depressing. "Working alone" too, including this poor guy who I'm pretty sure is dead. For the header image here I even searched "working alone happily". Look at all those people who are not alone at all not even a little. This is some real interesting messaging- If you're alone, you're depressed. It's like all those teacher memes where we're supposed to get the introverted quiet kid to open up because that's like playing the video game on Hard. It completely ignores the joy of working and creating alone that many students (and teachers) feel. It emphasizes The Group. Why don't you want to be part of The Group? What's wrong? You should join The Group. The Group is good.

I like working alone. I've spent most of my teaching career working alone. Not because I'm anti-social or superior or a jerk no one wants to hang out with, but because even in grade level teams teaching is often a solitary thing.

My first job was teaching third grade. The other third grade teacher was also a first year teacher. So we planned together because it's harder to drown alone. Then I moved to Hawaii. Hawaii is amazing and they really do mean all that ohana stuff that makes it into the tourist material. Locals are the coolest people and I worked with a really big, really cool team my first year there. I got a lot of help, I was a second year teacher, after all. But the next year I worked with the meanest, worst women I've ever had to be around. I stopped eating lunch with them by the third week of school, I avoided them at all costs unless we were forced to work together. After that year I bounced around from third to fourth for a bit, all great teams, but as I started to develop my own teaching voice and style and beliefs I drifted away from the group planning. This is nothing against those other teams I worked with in Hawaii, they were wonderful (except the sixth grade team, who were the meanest women on Earth, like I said).  But the more established teachers had their Stuff and I was still building my Stuff and deciding that I would throw away a lot of my Stuff every year to make way for new Stuff. I'd always been different my whole life, and I was finally confident enough in my teaching for that aspect of my personality to come through.

So I planned with others as far as we all had to, but I was on my own out in my little portable too. This only got stronger as I moved back to the mainland and brought my growing sense of Weird Teacher-ness with me. Again, great team, great people, didn't really plan together, didn't really do the same stuff through the team.

It wasn't until I got to the school I'm at now where that started to swing back the other way, where I found a kindred spirit in Making. But he was also a loner as far as it was. So we'd bounce ideas off each other and then go to our rooms and create those ideas in our own students' image. Co-planning, but not at the same time. A happy balance. We do us, but I get to do me more. Perfect.

Cut to this year. My team of myself and two other teachers is wonderful. Really and truly fantastic. We get along better than I've gotten along with any other team, bar none. Planning takes place between cracking each other up. And we're very different teachers. One is a second year teacher, much more confident in himself this year, ready to take on new challenges, and one is a veteran teacher who is way more Type A than either of us, but willing to put up with our nonsense as long as she can see the whole and how it connects to the standards. A strong balance.

And I'm struggling with part of it. Not in a bad way, mind. I don't want this to come off like a complaint. But I like planning alone. That's the process I've built over fifteen years. So when we're having a planning session as a team and someone says, "Ok, but how can we make this more project-based learning?" I feel like I should have an answer. I'm a PBL guy. I do trainings and whatnot on it. My kids build stuff all the time. I should be able to hit them with ideas and we hash them out together and Boom, awesome happens.

Except, ideas don't really come to me like that. Ideas come to me when I'm staring at my computer, heavy metal blasting from the tiny speakers, spacing out, turning the most recent Journeys story or math lesson or whatever over and over in my head, talking to myself, waiting for something to come. Then a little light shows up, so I follow it, and eventually it becomes a Thing. But even then, most of the time I don't know if it's a Good Thing or a Bad Thing yet. It's just a Thing. The quality of the Thing won't become clear until I start saying it out loud at kids, or writing it out. And even then chances are high the Thing will change again once I'm actually working it with my students.

That's my process. It's slow and messy (unless the idea comes fast and fully formed) and it often looks like nothing until it suddenly looks like something. And that's really freaking hard to explain to a grade level team on Thursday afternoon trying to plan for the next week. "I dunno man. I gotta, like, talk to myself for a while." Even then, I know that when I try to explain it that first time it still looks odd. That's not because I'm The Weird Teacher and I've gotta stay On Brand. It's because that's how I see things. Last year I saw a spiderweb that became a metaphor for Westward Expansion that I got really excited about and didn't fully understand until my kids finished making it. Things always get bigger than they are initially. Or get too big and they have to be pared back.

None of this is a problem when I'm planning alone, or with a student teacher. I get to go on that little journey all by my lonesome, following paths and rabbit trails, pulling strings, standing in the center of my room, hands on hips, then laying down in the center of the room, then looking intently at a tabletop for a minute (ten minutes?), then playing air guitar when Slayer comes on, then finding it.

Michelangelo said that sculpture was not creating a shape out of stone, the sculpture was already in the stone and he had only to free it by removing the excess stone around it. (This is probably apocryphal but I love the metaphor of it so google it and correct me in the comments or twitter thread if you must.) The project, the plan, the idea is there, I've just gotta have faith and get to it.

That does not really work with two (or three if my student teacher is there) people sitting and waiting for you to be a part of the meeting. I'm having to change how I create and think. This is not a bad thing, evolution is good, teamwork is good, they make my ideas better just like I make their ideas better. But at the same time I like working alone. I like being king of my island of misfit ideas and wandering through it as I wish. I'm happy alone in my classroom, working out problems. I'm also happy in a small meeting, laughing and joking and hashing things out together.

For one last example of Doug Likes To Work Alone And Pretends It's Collaborative- today we had a half day training on co-teaching because of the push-in model we're doing with our SPED and ELL teachers. Who are both excellent teachers and I like working with them a lot. But as the trainer lady was explaining one of the co-teaching methods where the two teachers play against each other and focus on different things while working the same topic, all I could think was, "Hey! I do that with my puppets! I've been co-teaching with Courson. I do like this." So, in other words, my favorite kind of co-teaching is when I'm teaching alongside myself. Yeah, nice moment of self-reflection there, Robertson.

It's a good problem to have. It is still something of a problem though, and I'll have to keep an eye on it as the year goes on to see how I grow into it. I like problems.

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 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 30, 2019

Students vs Tree

"Imagine you are running through a forest as fast as you can. Because you're so focused on running as fast as you can you've got your head down and you you're charging straight ahead, arms and legs pumping. Suddenly BAM! You run headfirst into a tree. It staggers you, knocks you down. You get back up, shake your head, take a step back, and resume running at full speed. BAM! Right into the same tree. Over and over you repeat this. BAM! Get up. Run forward. BAM! Are you ever going to knock that tree over?"

I wait and my students all shout through their laughter, "No!"

I wait, milking it, because now they're with me and waiting to find out what the point is.

"No! Of course not. What should you do?"

"Go around the tree?"

"Go around the tree!" I shout. "Look up, take a step to the side, and go. Around. The. Tree. You're never taking that tree down with brute force. You have to be smarter than the tree."

They laugh again here. "Smarter than a tree" is a laugh line. Trust me. I wait for the laughter to die down again. Then wait a moment longer.

Because drama.

"So...why are you all getting stuck on number three here? You've got six more problems after it that you need to get to. You don't know how to do number three YET (you gotta hit 'em with the YET, growth mindset and all), and you're going to let that tree stop you in your tracks? Be smarter than the problems. Look up, step around. We'll come back to it later." This, by the way, is where the metaphor could fall apart, because metaphors always fall apart. They're good for an example, a quick way to remember something, but they're nothing to build an entire style on. However, you can duct tape the metaphor together if you really want to and extend it to, "So the next time you're running through this particular forest (math or whatever), and you come to this tree, you'll know how to get by it without bashing your head in."

If you come into my classroom you will hear a student explain why they skipped a problem as a "tree". It's shorthand we have. They ran into the tree, couldn't get through it, so they went around it instead. They'll come back to the tree after the run (the assignment, you see) is over and take a closer look at it and try to figure out what it was about it that stopped them. But only after everything else is done. This is a life skill and a test taking skill and a common sense skill all rolled into one, if only I take the teachable moment to call it out. There are few problems that should stop you dead in your tracks completely.

We all know that students love to find ways to delay work. Teachers do it too. I will happily get into the weeds of planning with my team to kill five or ten minutes before moving forward. Students will use, "Well I don't know how to do number three" as an excuse for days. "I can't do it, so I have to sit on it." No. Look up, step around the tree, move on with your learning/life, and come back to it when you've got everything else cleaned up. Think of things in your life that you haven't done because there was one piece of it that you weren't clear on. Was there a way to step around that tree?

Sometimes there's not, by the way. It's a metaphor, it's not a Truth. You can't apply it to everything like a magic spell. There are plenty of times when you need to figure that tree out right then and there before you can move forward. But often even in there you can find pieces that can be stepped around. Prioritized. Seeing the Big Picture even inside the smaller picture.

I need my kids to see the trees they can't get by, it shows a level of metacognition and reflection that will make them better learners. It's ok to not get it. It ok to say you don't get it. As long as you ask for help or go back to it when you don't have quite so much pressing on you and can take the time to dissect it better.

This should never be read as an excuse to give up on something hard. Yes, I tell them about running with their heads up so they can see the trees. Yes I tell them to step around trees when they need to. But I also tell them a story the Twelfth Doctor told us in his best episode- "Heaven Sent". I'm not going to spoil the context of the story (which is perfect) because it would be a major spoiler for the episode.

Personally, I think that's a hell of a bird. Because time and hard work can accomplish anything. It's not always fun. It's not always easy. It's not always fast. But it still gets done.

Sometimes my students can be smarter than a tree. Sometimes they need to be a hell of a bird.

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 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 23, 2019

Fearing Flash

We're about to get real self-reflective up in here. Buckle up, grab a mirror.

Last Wednesday I got to watch a teacher I've worked with for a few years teach. Somehow in all the years we've worked together and all the things we've done together I've never gotten to watch her actually doing her job in front of students. I wasn't there to observe her. We were supposed to get a bunch of kids together, then split them in half and I take half to my room and she keeps half in her room and we both teach basic multiplication skills. But there weren't that many kids so we quickly agreed to keep them all in her room and divide the work in there. Easier, quicker.

Then she took over the lesson. And within five minutes I was sitting at a table in her room taking notes. It just kinda happened. I didn't abandon her and she didn't leave me behind. It was just immediately obvious that she did not need me. At all. Which didn't hurt my ego, I didn't think she would need me. But the kids didn't need me either. They were 100% engaged with her. Me trying to interject myself into the lesson would have served only to distract them.

I am a great believer in a variety of teaching styles. My way is not your way nor should it be. It's one of the things I constantly preach at my student teachers. "Don't try to teach like me. Teach like you." Sure, part of that for them is copying me but that's how you learn your voice when you're new. You try on other voices until you find one that fits. Just like my teaching style is not best for all students, and it's on me to adapt myself to them rather than on them to come to me. I'm the one getting paid for this, after all. I can't teach like anything but me and they can't learn like anything but them. We meet in the middle, I hope.

Here's the thing about my style- It's real big and loud. There's not much I can do about that. I like puppets and playing music and standing on things and shouting and dramatically draping myself across desks and Using The Space. It's a lot. Which means when you watch me teach and I'm on my game it really looks like I'm doing something. I think I am too. The kids are engaged. They're laughing and on task and we're getting our learning on. We're doing The Work.

But are we doing it enough?

This teacher that I watched was just as engaging, just as interesting, the kids were just as engrossed, and she was a sliver of a fraction as Big And Dramatic as I was. In fact, the kids might have learned even more from her than they would have learned from me had we split the class like we'd originally planned. She's real good. I am stealing things from her. And I'm worried that my "way" is getting in the way.

Which is good, right? I should be reflective about my practice. I should constantly be thinking about what I'm doing to keep the learning front and center and making every other thing that happens in the room about the learning. I'm not the most organized person and doing stations frankly freaks me out because that's a whole lot of planning and organizing and balls in the air at once all the time. I do them, but I always steal those ideas and plans from other teachers because they think those things through much better than I do. (Than I do now? Growth Mindset says I should add "yet" to that statement and be striving for better self-made stations. But play to your strengths and get help with your weaknesses, right? Or be happy with your strengths and work to improve your weaknesses? What if I just don't like planning stations and would rather take good ideas and apply my energy in other places? Am I self justifying not being more organized? Gah.)

I think about this a lot when it comes to reflecting about my practice. I'm good at the Show. And I truly believe that my Show contains all the vitamins and minerals kids need to grow. But I've also had conversations with teacher who, when I explain all the thought and intention that goes into some of my big, flashy projects, say, "Oh! I thought you were building that stuff because it was fun." And it is, but there's more to that. I'm good at this.

I know where my weaknesses are. I still don't use data to its fullest potential, and I constantly struggle with the "it's just numbers" vs "yeah, but we know some of these numbers actually do have value" push and pull. I'm getting better, thanks in no small part to an incredibly patient and helpful principal. I'm getting much better at teaching math creatively thanks to a training last year, intentional session choices at conferences, and stealing from friends who are better than me.

Does being flashy distract from my lessons? Does it let me get away with less pedagogically-sound methods because they look cool and there's so much going on? The kids won't hold me accountable if they're enjoying school, we're too busy laughing to notice we missed another benchmark. Not that they don't want to learn, but it's my job to help them and guide them. I think it would slip through if I let it. If I didn't pay attention and care about objectives and layers and pushing my lessons and my kids to go as deep as I could. Anyone can look good in an observation, and anyone savvy enough to graduate college can write goals that are attainable. This scares me. I don't want to be The Fun Teacher. I want to be The Surprisingly Challenging But In a Good Way That Made Me Love School While Also Finding Learning In Unexpected Places Teacher. (I probably should have made WEIRD into an acronym right then to make my point, but that would have been gross for all of us.)

A corollary to all of this is I worry that on education social media I'm seen often as the funny teacher guy who makes jokes and throws things at the self-important, rather than as someone who does those things but is first and foremost a real good teacher with real good ideas and lessons to steal, modify, push back on, and talk about, and often the blogs (and books) I write that are more pedagogically-focused get passed over because of that. My most popular blog is still the one I wrote making fun of people who got super worked up and grumpy about fidget spinners. It's a great post and I'm proud of it, but I write a lot about the teaching I do in my room too.

I don't need to teach like the other teacher and she doesn't need to teach like me. I'm not better than her and she's not better than me. Teaching isn't a competition and comparing yourself like that, even in your fifteenth year, isn't healthy. I honestly believe that asking myself these questions, questions like, "Am I doing what's best for the kids in this lesson?", "Does this type of teaching work?", "What holes am I letting through?", and "Where are my weaknesses?" keeps me strong and keeps me growing. I've got a student teacher this year and it's important for him to see me reflecting like that even while he's looking to me for guidance in How To Be A Good Teacher. Because honestly asking yourself, "Am I a Good Teacher? Why and What Am I Doing About It?" is part of that.

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 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, September 17, 2019

This Post Is NSFW

WARNING: This post contains things that are Not Safe For Work.

 I have four rules in my class and I regularly violate one of them (depending on your definition of the rule). That rule? Be Safe. The other rules, before you ask, are Be Responsible, Be Respectful, and Make Good Choices. And, just to simplify as much as possible, my Big Class Rule That Covers Everything is Be Cool.

But am I safe in class? Is my classroom safe? I wonder. Let's take a look at some of the things in my class that might be NSFW.

I stand on desks. Sometimes I even stand on chairs. OM gosh, amiright? "Doug," I hear you ask. "Do you stand on desks because of that one Robin Willi-" Imma stop you right there, my friend. No. No I don't. To be honest, I've never seen that movie. I know they stand on desks and recite poetry and it's this amazing teaching/learning moment. That's not why I do it. My kids don't stand on the desks. This is one of those few times where I flex that Because I'm The Teacher reason. Why do I stand on desks then? Honestly, because it's there. Because I'm used to having 35 students in a room and that's a lot of desks. You know the easiest way to get across a classroom with 35 desks in it? Straight across, as the teacher flies. Plus, I have changed the heights of the desks in my classroom, so some are as low as a desk can get, mere feet off the floor. It's not even a big step to get up there. I like having the kids track me around the room, and sometimes all a class needs to get back on track is the surprise of a teacher stepping up onto a desk. Or the thought that the teacher might step up on a desk.

I'll also stand on chairs, but I don't really have stable chairs in my classroom so I only stand on a chair if the spirit moves me, and even then it is almost immediately followed by my near death. "What happened at school today?" "Mr Robertson died! It was amazing."

I know I just said I don't let my kids stand on their desks, because I'm not a complete nut, but I do let them sit up there. What do I care, as long as they're working and gravity isn't especially strong in that area of the classroom. Be comfortable.

Know what else happens in my class that's NSFW? Google. Oh yeah, we Google things. Like, all the time. I know, risk taker. Some of you are scoffing right now, like, "Lolz Doug. Ok, whatever, nice jokey joke. 'Googling things is NSFW' I get it because Google has security issues we don't fully understand and yet we've embraced it completely."

Nah man. It's because my kids do things like animal research projects and you've never known stress until you hear a kid say, "Mr Robertson, I did an image search for cougars and...umm...can you come here?" Or, "Mr Robertson, I Googled literally anything about the president* and what does this word mean?"

Teaching digital citizenship is vital (I'll also forever argue that we don't need to call it "digital citizenship" anymore, it's just "citizenship" now). But part of learning the ways of the internets is failing and finding those places online that aren't awesome. Talking about cyberbullying is one thing, experiencing it is something else. Talking about how little YouTube regulates is algorithm is one thing, but experiencing how quickly a student can go from legitimate research results to autoplaying "101 Ways The Government Is  Keeping The White Man Down" radicalizing channels is another. The internet is great, but it isn't exactly safe.

That's not a reason to not use it though. It might be a better reason to use it, because it's real.

I've got half a dozen steel plates across the back of my classroom. Why? Because I'm METAL!

Ok, that's not the real reason. The real reason is I wanted more writing space in my classroom and whiteboards and freaking expensive. Any kind of decent-sized whiteboard. I wanted a few too. My wife discovered a website that suggested thin stainless steel plates. You can write on them with whiteboard markers and they erase. They're light and thin, so they're easy to hang, and they're shiny so they actually brighten the room up a little. And they're metal so they look cool. We bought a few and screwed them right into the wall of my classroom and my students use them all the time.

They're still metal plates hanging on the wall though, so I'm sure plenty of people would have safety concerns and questions. "Aren't the edges pointy/sharp?" They would be if the wizard hadn't given me a brain and I hadn't bent those edges in. I don't want a student walking by and snagging a sleeve or a piece of skin on the board, or on a screw. Much like most heavy metal, it looks dangerous, but it's actually safe enough for ten year olds.

I have over a dozen knives in my classroom. This took some doing, I'll admit. You can't find an administrator who will be ok with a teacher asking for the k-word in their classroom. Especially not an elementary school administrator. As I've said hundreds of times and will continue to say, I'm incredibly lucky on this front. My principal was not thrilled with the idea that I'd have cardboard knives in my classroom, but she also trusts me that one I'd teach my kids how to use them, and two, I wouldn't bring something actually dangerous into my classroom. Look at that picture, these aren't that dangerous. You've got to either really try or really space out to hurt yourself with one, and even then it's just going to be a thin paper cut. The edges are barely serrated and the tip is dull. We have a loooooong conversation about the proper way to carry and use these tools. Frankly, if you are ok with your students using serious scissors you're already ok with them using sharp, dangerous objects. These are safer. And why do I need them? Because w build with cardboard all the time. My class is all about the making and building, that project-based learning, that STEAM. Cutting cardboard with scissors, even good ones, sucks. But with a cardboard knife? It's quick, it's easy to get curves cut, everything is better. Like any other tool, use it right and it's all good.

Do any of these things actually make my class unsafe? No, of course not. In fact, I'd argue that my room is safer overall than most because we have the added pressure of having and doing things that could be seen as unsafe from the outside. My students know that they've got to be on top of their choices because everything we have depends on them making the best choices.

Which brings me to my final and most NSFW action in my classroom...

The Unknown.

Just yesterday another teacher who teaches with a similar philosophy to myself and I were trying to explain to our grade level teams an idea we had. The person who had worked with us for years was immediately on board. The two new teachers had a lot of questions, good questions, reasonable questions. The first of which was, "What exactly will this look like when it's finished?" He and I smiled and said, "We don't know. But it'll work. And if it doesn't, something else will."

I love teaching without a net. It's all trying things out, old things done new ways and brand new things I've never tried before and (because we all know kids and how this goes) old things that for sure ought to work because they've worked for years but now all of the sudden they don't because kids are similar but they sure aren't the same. Classrooms are full of the unknown, and it's up to us to choose how we deal with it. A lot of teachers try to control it and make it known as much as possible, which isn't bad. I'm teaching my student teacher to do something similar to that because it serves brand new teachers well to have one less thing to worry about. But I don't do that though because I like the discovery of the unknown. I know what should happen in my class. I know, normally, at least a general outline of what's coming. But I don't have any honest idea what each kid will bring me come Hobby Project day, or Cardboard Arcade day, or any of a dozen other I Hope This Works projects. Then it's on me to check understanding in my is and connect their learning to The Things They Must Know and I have to trust I'll be able to. Having faith there's valuable learning in the Unknown doesn't feel safe, but it is the best.

How NSFW is you class?

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 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. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.