Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Where My Benches At?

The moral of this story is saying yes to things can yield really awesome things for your students. Especially when you say, "Yes, but what if it was More?"

My district started an initiative this year with the goal of connecting businesses to classrooms. They would enlist professionals to collaborate with teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, and together the teachers and business people would create some kind of experience for the students that helped them see how what they are learning connects to the wider world (don't say "real world", our kids live in the real world and school operates there already). Because I'm one of the two teachers at my school who is known to default to "Ok, let's try it" I got asked to volunteer to be a part of the program. The other teacher did too.

We were paired up for Fortis Construction, who is currently employed rebuilding one of our high schools. An educational consultant firm (I think, I'm still not clear on what this third party does) joined in the party too because they wanted to help build a wider curriculum out of whatever we came up with. This was a pilot year, so no one knew anything. I like this, because it means steering can happen more easily. When someone thinks they know exactly where they're going it's harder to change course. We were ground floor, which means everyone was looking at each other going, "I dunno, maybe this?"

The third party presented us- myself, the other teacher, and Fortis- with a packet of ideas they'd come up with that were "elementary appropriate". The other teacher and I looked at the packet for about five seconds before tossing it aside and asking for the middle or high school packet. You see, the elementary one was fine, or would have been had it not involved our classes. It was experiments in if you make a ramp at this angle how far will the marble roll and such. Fine, but easy. My kids had already made a cardboard arcade at this point. We're past ramp building. During the initial brainstorming session we landed on what is to be key in my project-based learning flow chart from here on out- How can the product be visible and exist in the real world for a real amount of time? This lead the other teacher to suggest a bench. As is, what if our classes designed and built a bench that Fortis, being a construction company, could then build and install? The guys from Fortis looked at us long and hard for a minute and then agreed that yes they could do that. Cool cool. (From here on out I'm going to only be talking about what my kids did because the other teacher dropped out of the project. he had 40 students and a lot going on. No guilt, no complaint. But I wanted the initial idea's credit to go to the proper place.)

We planned four dates out. First, Fortis would come into the classrooms and explain the project. Then they'd go away for a week while I led my students through the design of the benches. Rather than one bench it was decided that I would break my kids into eleven groups, each group would design their own bench. Then Fortis and a panel of experts would choose four of the eleven to actually build. Fortis supplied my students with basic parameters like how long the benches could be, how tall, how wide, and what materials they needed to use (wood only). Students were encouraged to get creative.

I didn't find out until much later than none of the other adults in the group understood what the students would be able to create. The Fortis guys actually thought the whole thing would probably go up in smoke. I mean, fourth graders creating benches? Really? And I understand this point of view, especially if you don't work with kids like we work with kids. You don't know what ten year olds can do unless you let them off the leash and the room has been built to allow that kind of thinking anyway.

My kids got to work on their designs. The next two Fortis visits were them coming in, looking at designs, and offering professional feedback. I didn't want to make it sound like they weren't invested in the previous paragraph. They were, they just didn't know what was possible. After the first pass through looking at designs they realized that not only would they be getting workable designs, they'd be getting deep, creative, thoughtful designs. And they went full-on, going group to group, offering advice, not stifling ideas. My kids went bug-nutty on it. Groups designed benches to look like panthers (our school mascot). A bunch of groups decided that a problem with the benches would be the rain or the sun, so they figured out how to engineer covers over their benches, going so far as to measure how tall they were sitting and standing and trying to figure out how tall a cover would have to be to work while not taking anyone's head off. When I say there was a billion different completely organic math problems involved in this project I do not use hyperbole. Kids sitting on yard sticks trying to figure out how many students could sit to one bench, kids stopping kinders in the hall to see where their knees bent so the bench heights would be 4th grader and kindergartner-friendly. The panther group put a tail on their bench design which wrapped around to the front and could act as a footrest.

I warned the groups that were going real big, like the groups with covers and tails, that I wasn't sure their designs were buildable, but told them not to hold back. Do it, ask for help from the pros, and let's see what happens. So they did, all with good measurements and specific blueprints.

Ah, blueprints. I make my kids plan everything they build, always have. Otherwise you end up with cardboard everywhere and nothing to show for it. But the Fortis guys showed them how to make useful blueprints, with three views and how those views work together and where the measurements went to be clear.

Then Fortis showed me one of their fanciest toys- a mixed reality headset. Mixed reality is different than augmented reality (as the guy in charge of that explained to me) in that AR is Pokemon Go, where something just appears in front of you but doesn't really react to the real world in any way. MR mean the program sees the space it's in an changes how the design is placed in the world. Here's the simpler version of that- The guy loaded up the high school's digital blueprint into the helmet and put it on me. Then I got to walk around inside a line drawing of the high school. The blue lines were the beams and the red tubes were ducting and the green squiggles were wiring. And as I walked around the room in real space a GPS in the helmet told the program and I moved around inside the blueprint of the high school. It was the freaking future, and it was cool as hell. They told me that before this program they had to really check all the drawing to make sure walls didn't meet weird or wiring went somewhere it shouldn't, and with this program they could just see where everything went before they built it.

So I went back to my classroom and showed my kids Tinkercad, a 3D design program that is free and you don't have to download, it runs right in your browser. I want to stress that I didn't teach my kids how to use Tinkercad. I used one computer lab day to point them at it, briefly show them "Look, you can make shapes and move them in space" and that was the extent of my instruction. Then I planted in their heads "Wouldn't it be cool if your benches were built in Tinkercad so you could see them in three dimensions and rotate them and stuff?" I did no Teaching. I showed, suggested, and moved aside.

Which leads us to the fourth and most important week of visits- The Pitches. To choose what benches to build we had the Fortis guys, plus their superintendent, my principal, my superintendent, and some other muckity-mucks come into my room and sit on a panel and judge each of the eleven presentations based on specific criteria. To prepare, three days before we did mock presentations and I gave very specific, detailed, Paul Hollywood-style feedback about presentation style, content, models, designs, everything. Then the kids rehearsed rehearsed rehearsed.

You have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders. I have never seen a more prepared group of fourth graders, and I do a bunch of presentations every year. Authentic audiences and stakes matter.

Friends, I could not be more proud of how my groups did and how hard they made it on the judges. There was great speaking, there were designs on paper and in a 3D-computer generated space, there were reasons why the benches were needed and why their benches solved the problems best. There were all the design elements I'd mentioned before but polished and reasoned to a T. They killed it. I mean, it's one thing to impress your teacher, but it's another to Wow a roomful of strange, important adults.

Four benches were chosen, and Fortis set to work on the construction. In the meantime, my class was redivided into groups that were all about checklists- Quality, Safety, Security, etc. You see, the plan was to put them outside in our school garden. We'd even collaborated with the 5th grade class who was redesigning the garden so we were sure our bench designs matched their garden plans. So much collaboration and cooperation.

Thursday the benches were delivered. Unpainted, but built, and we got to do a Grand Reveal. They looked Amazing. Again, better than any one of the adults expected. (Except me, and I don't say that to brag. I just...knew. If Fortis followed the designs the benches would look great.) And this is where my kids had to learn another lesson. You see, the plan was for the wooden benches to be painted, purple and black mostly, and according to the designs. But the wood used is really nice wood, and it looks great. Some adults resisted the painting, saying it would be a shame to cover up the wood. I advocated for my kids and their designs. We got to design them, you do what you picked. I don't care that now it's prettier than you thought. I'm still not sure how that will shake out, but I'm hearing that there's a stain that will make the benches purple while still keeping the wood grain. When I put it to my kids they agreed that could be a compromise.

Just look at how beautiful those benches are. My kids did that. Fourth graders designed that. With directions, parameters, and help but not nudging, fourth graders planned, blueprinted, measured, and justified those benches into existence. The only thing they didn't do, and I wish we could have, was turn a bolt or cut some wood.

The other compromise was a disappointment to everyone but came from above my pay grade- it was decided that the benches look too nice to be left outside where eventually the elements or other humans might ruin them. But put inside they could be used and maintained, lasting for a long time. I was not happy with this- my students designed the layout of the benches to be a social area while also allowing for an outdoor classroom feel one adult (not me) was asking for. The kids pushed back on the idea of bringing the benches inside, understanding the argument but at the same time holding their ground and proposing all kinds of covers and ways to protect the outside benches. Alas, my children, sometimes decisions are made for us. So we got to pick where in the school the benches will be place instead. And, now that I've got some distance from it, this is the right call. The benches will last for a long time inside the school, and probably only four or five years outside. But still, it was hard to change a plan that had been in place since day one. There's a lesson there too.

There is a happy ending to this part, however. Fortis, being cool  and righteous, understood our disappointment and agreed to build us four-to-eight cheaper, simpler, sustainable benches that could be placed in the garden. My kids wrote letters asking for that.

I cannot express the amount of work that went into this by the four or five Fortis guys who came into my room to help my kids, or by the district people, including my admin who supports me in all my madness, who helped guide this and make it possible. This sounds like a humblebrag and maybe it is (and if it is I earned it, damnit), but they gave me a lot of credit for setting up the classroom to be able to pull this off and for supporting the kids in all the way they needed to make this work. And I did do that. But what I really did was get handed a unique opportunity, crank it to eleven, and have faith that my kids could pull it off.

And I'm already trying to figure out how to top it next year.

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, June 3, 2019

The Madness of The End

We come, once again, to the end. With exactly a week and a few days of school left, the 2018-2019 school year doth draw to a close. The End is Nigh, as the guy with the sign screams as passersby. Unless he can't spell, in which case the end will be brought about by the sound a horse makes.

How do you close the year? I know how I do- By thinking of as many things I haven't gotten to do yet this year then cramming them into two weeks regardless of how long I know things ought to take. Also by forgetting to honestly reflect on the amount of work and learning that was done since September and instead focusing with laser precision on what was not done, not finished, not perfected, and not taught well enough. Mentally calculating how long it would take for me to write "It's not this child's fault, I didn't get to it" on 32 Post-It notes and sticking them on the front pages of The Folders. (By the way, literally the only time I look at The Folders is when they are given to me at the start of the year, and I place them ever so gently into a drawer, and at the end of the year when I remove them ever so gently from the drawer and insert the final report card, then hand it back to the office ladies who have been wondering where The Folders were this whole time because I once again forgot that I was supposed to take them, look them over, then give them back to the people who actually file things. I can't be the only one. Can I? From your silence I will take it you also do this. Thank you, dear readers.)

I end the year looking at the nine or so stories we still haven't gotten to in the language arts textbook (which I like because crap stories give me a chance to find ways to turn them into good lessons, and good stories are fodder for super neat stuff), and I let my students briefly look over them. Then I have them choose their Top Two Most Interesting Looking Stories from the remainders. We take votes and I break the class into four-ish groups based on which stories get the most votes, and I call it Final Story. The direction basically go, "You know what we've done with stories all year, with creative vocabulary things and looking at the main idea and all that? Do that with your story. Your groups will be presenting what you come up with to the class. When? Uhh...er...Friday?" Because I want to see what they think of when given the direction "Do what we did." What do you think we did all year?

Warning- This is not always a way to make yourself feel better about the stickiness of some of your lessons. But it is good for reflection. So there's that. Fun house mirrors are still mirrors.

We also build a ton during the course of the year, so of course we've going to finish with a build. A project which I've given the brilliant name of Final Design because, well, it's the final time they'll design something in this class. This comes with the wonderfully specific instructions of "Make a Thing. It must solve a problem of some sort. It must move. You must follow the design process." Oh yes, also, "It's due....er...Thursday-ish."

I allow conversations and lessons to get sidetracked much easier than they used to (and I'm not the best at this at the best of times). For example, part of the math I'm trying to cram in at the last minute is about length, liquid volume, and mass. Firstly, I love teaching volume because I will always make the joke of, "TODAY WE'RE GONNA LEARN ABOUT VOLUME! I REALLY LOVE TEACHING VOLUME!" until a student raises her hand and defines the proper type of volume for me. In fact, let's go with I do that whole shouty thing in order to get the kids to define it for themselves properly rather than because it makes me laugh every. single. time. Anyway, today we we're learning about mass, and I let myself get sidetracked into getting nit-picky about mass and weight not being the same thing, and the best example I can come up with to demonstrate that is talking about how on the Moon your weight would change but your mass would not. And if you give a teacher a chance to use space as an example, he's gonna want a YouTube video of astronauts walking on the moon. Once he shows a video of astronauts walking on the moon he's gonna need to talk about space and gravity in general. So he's gonna need a basketball, a baseball, and two volunteers to stand about 24 feet apart. And if a student is being the Earth he's gonna make that student gently rotate to demonstrate the Earth's rotation but also because how long will the student spin in place before asking to stop?

There's so much paperwork and madness at the end of the school year. Grading that has not been started yet and probably ought to be soon so it's not all having to be done in one day, because that always results in comments that read, "[Child name] was in my class well done have a good summer dont forget to read and math and stuff." that have to be changed right after pressing the Print button. There's the End of Year goals conference with the admin where we both have the best of intentions but let's be honest here, I kinda forgot what those goals are in the whole Teach All The Things maelstrom of the year and just looked at all that data again, but I will be happy to see that what I was doing did mostly positively impact the scores I set out to positively impact, and I'll feel justified in my Make Things To Learn philosophy because the scores that didn't go up like I wanted still went up. (I will also be filled with crippling self-doubt that my way might not be the best way and I should probably just teach like whatever my brain has decided a "normal" teacher teaches like because that would be better for my kids. Because teaching is fun.)

Oh, the end of the year is also the perfect chance to eye roll and wave garlic at Educational Innovators And Inspirational Peoples who will go on and on about how great teachers spend summers getting better and improving their practice and if you're not exhausted you're not teaching hard enough and your candle has two ends you wuss, why can't I see more smoke? These people are dangerous and bad for classroom teachers who really have earned some rest, relaxation, and non-teaching reading time.

We have reached yet another ending, my friends. We worked hard, we had laughs, we taught more than we know and they learned more than they realize. Relax and let yourself reflect on your own time, while your mind is distracted with other things. Unpack in dreams.

...oh crap, I still have to pack up my room for the summer painting.

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, May 28, 2019

The Cardboard City

My school built a Cardboard City. And it was awesome.

I've written about this in more general terms a few times here and here, but this post is meant to be All Cardboard City All The Time. I'm going to get into the thought processes, the workflow, the mistakes, the planning, and the doing of the thing as deeply as I can. Before I start I want to make as clear as possible that, while I was the nominal head of the operation I was by no means the sole driving force, the only operator, The Guy behind this thing. There was a team of four of us- myself and another teacher, a parent, and our principal- and without any one of us this could not have been done. Not "this could have have been done to this level", but simply "this could not have been done." As the person doing the writing about it I worry that that puts me front and center alone, and nothing could be further from the truth. You would be so lucky as to have a team like I got to work with.

The Initial Problem

For the past three years my school has put on a MakerFaire. We did it up right- Individual student projects, class projects, a film festival, TEDtalks, an art gallery, a make-and-take area. They were awesome. And they were also progressively smaller. The first one was huge, a massive success. The second was still successful but smaller. And by the third we could feel enthusiasm waning among even the staff who were invested.

We needed a change.

Our first thought was to go way backwards and cut it down to two big sections- Make and Take and Code With Your Kids. As we started to go over that we started to get ambitious. I want to point out here that part of the instigating idea that started this was to make it easier for us. We narrowed down what we wanted out of a revamped MakerFaire-

a) More family involvement

b) Students and families doing things.

c) Simpler overall, and we can add things later if we think they are needed.

d) Something STEAM-y

The solution to these questions came in the form of rebranding the MakerFaire to Powell Valley Makes. But what do we make? Brainstorming and googling gave us our answer- A Cardboard City. Yes, ok. This appealed for a lot of reasons. It's general but specific. There's a lot you can do under the umbrella of "cardboard city". It makes the layout of the rooms and division of labor very clear. Once we had the basic idea in place, all that took doing was the doing. And the specifics. ...and the doing.

Powell Valley Makes: The Cardboard City Concept 

Families will come to school on the night of. They will be presented with (or make?) a cardboard house. From there they will go to five stations, each station representing one aspect of STEAM. At each station they will do something to their houses. In this way we are demonstrating that STEAM, while appearing as separate disciplines, actually joins them together in a beautiful way. Once the house is built it will be placed on a giant map. In the end we will (should) have a big, gorgeous city made of cardboard created by families as they learned alongside their students.

What's With the Houses?

Now we had an idea, a skeleton. Time to put some meat on it. It's here where I stress that the first meeting where we came up with this idea took place waaaaaaay back in September or October. We know how much work one of these takes, and we wanted to get as far ahead of the ball as we could. 

That initial idea had families making their houses first. I probably suggested this, which probably lead to everyone around the table looking at me like I'd put on clown shoes and a red nose because my class does a lot of building and it is not...clean. So everyone immediately had a heart attack thinking about parents and kids with cardboard knives and scissors hacking through boxes, burning themselves on hot glue guns (where on Earth will we get enough?), and basically spending the two hours just doing construction. 

So that was quickly nixed and the first grade teacher on the team and I agreed to go our own ways and try to come up with a better solution. I put it to my students, as is my way. You can read about that here. While my kids came up with interesting designs, they didn't come up with ideas that could be easily expanded and translated. The first grade teacher, on the other hand, was much smarter than me. She googled house templates, grabbed a cereal box, traced it, cut it, folded it, taped it. Bim bam boom. My "I'll do it my damn self" works against me as often as it helps. Her idea was much better. Cereal boxes are plentiful, easy to cut, easy to fold, and easy to tape. We went with that and started asking teachers and families to bring in cereal boxes.

When the night was about a month away we started pairing up lower grades (K-2) with upper grades (3-5) and asked buddy classes to work together to make houses. We figured if every pairing made one house per two kids we'd have plenty. We were right. Doing it this way also allowed us to advertise the event to the kids, because they were part of the creation of the event. No, students were not able to build on the house they made. The logistics of that still give me nightmares. Every group did great, my own class worked with both a second grade class and a kinder class. It was a lot of fun, as it always is, to see the fourth graders patiently teaching the littles to fold and cut. We had the templates drawn on the boxes beforehand, and with the kinders we'd even cut out the templates so all they'd have to do was fold and cut. Probably didn't even need to do that. Kinders are incredibly capable. The only real trick was getting the folds creased hard, otherwise the houses pop open. 

But What Happens In The Rooms?

Ok, so there's a Science room, a Technology room, an Engineering room, an Art room, and a Math room. So what's that mean? Not only that, but how do you set expectations that can be met by a kindergartner and a fifth grader?

We got our principal to give us a full work day with paid subs so we could hide out in the MakerSpace and get a good chunk of planning in. The Big Goal for the day was figuring out what the rooms would be, making posters, and answering various other organizational questions.

Every room's plan came with an explanation, general ideas, and Guiding Questions that helped aim people in the direction we were thinking without dictating exactly what would be built. Our hope was that people would be creative. (Boy howdy did that pay off.)

Science would mean Earth Science, mostly because that simplified things. So in the Science room the kids would think about their plants and their yards and the animals around their homes. They could build a yard or a tree or an origami animal. 

Technology gave us a chance to use our left-over LED lights, batteries, and copper tape. "Make your house light up." How? That's tricky and it ended up falling to my students to come up with a way to modify the flashlight directions into something that could be applied to a cardboard house. I had a small group of kids who figured it out, and then I made them type out their directions in specific detail, then I made them make a video demonstrating the directions step-by-step, then I made them reshoot the whole video as a close-up on their hands so it was clear what was happening, then I made them rewrite the directions so they matched the video. Lotta learning in that process for them, and they never complained once. 

Engineering was a tricky one, and we landed on the general cop-out of "Uhh, make a garage that opens on its own, or a better door, or something." We put Popsicle sticks, glue, string, stuff like that in the room and hoped for the best.

Art was the easiest one. "Make your house purdy. Here's colored paper, markers, etc." 

Math was easy to plan too. In the process of building everything and planning the map I did more math than I would ever do on purpose and figured out the area of the map in square inches, and the footprint of the basic house in square inches. We put up a Public Record and invited families to measure their finished homes and record it so they could, in theory, figure out the total area taken up by homes, the volume of the homes, the amount of people who could live in the city, that kind of thing. It will not be a spoiler to say that, while people did this it was not as busy as the other stations.

The Eyebrows

All that done, we needed to figure out the pieces that would add to the experience and tie the room together, man. 

My first order of business was to make a paperslide video which would serve three purposes- 1) Explain to the staff what the plan was as we explained it to them, 2) Explain the idea to the kids and get them excited at assembly, and 3) Be running during the night of so families could see what exactly they'd shown up for. I have to say, I'm real proud of how the video came out. That's one take, done all alone. y

It's not impossible to get volunteers for stuff like this, but it does take a lot of people to run. We got parents, teachers, and one brave high school student to come help us, and then we had to explain to them exactly what we wanted in each area. There was a lot of explaining the vision, but not in a bad way. I understand that "We're making a Cardboard City using STEAM" doesn't exactly translate to normal people.


The brochures and signage were another thing. We got together a two-sheet with an explanation on one side and a map on the other that every family got as they came in the door. And we got the signs put together. This was a fun pain in the tape dispenser because we wanted Big Posters for the rooms, but the district print shop couldn't do it like we wanted, and we couldn't afford to have Kinko's or whoever do it, so we ended up printing a grid of the posters that had to be taped together first by us and later by my students. We also got everything translated into Spanish. Every room needed an outside sign and two big inside signs. That's a lot of signs.

We also needed a big Welcome To Cardboard City sign like you'd see off the freeway, and a smaller version of the same sign that could go on the map. Oh yes, the map...

The Map

I measured out the map with yellow butcher paper before I made it. I didn't make it with yellow because it's a city, the ground can't be yellow. This ain't Oz. So I figured out I needed five strips of green butcher paper, each strip 12.75 feet long. I wanted a river to bisect our city so I needed a strip of blue the same length. The only problem was we were out of both green and blue butcher paper. It was ordered on rush and arrived Monday. The event was Tuesday. So after school on Monday I got down on my knees on the stage in the gym and spent however long it took rolling out green and blue butcher paper and then laying grids and cul-du-sacs of roads so the houses would have somewhere to go. And taping on my little sign of course.

Fifth Grade Help
One of the fifth grade classes helped get the city started by taking some time to build bigger structures to situate around the city. We got a massive church, a museum, a McDonald's and a 7-11, an office building, a boat to float on down our river, and a bridge to span the river. We put these out before the night started. These really helped overall, because they gave people who weren't sure some ideas and let them see the scale we were thinking. They fleshed out the city and gave it some life right away.

It was suggested to me that we pipe city sounds into the gym where the map is, which was a great idea. After looking around for a while I found that the best, least obtrusive city noises were from the new Spider-Man PS4 game (great game). Someone had made a YouTube video of Spidey perched on a streetlight for an hour, so the sounds of the city just went on around him. Looped that on a Chromebook and plugged it in.

The Night Of

Finally it was time. You know that feeling where you're not really stressed anymore (even though you're still stressed) because you're so far past the point of no return that whatever is going to happen is going to happen and there's nothing you can do about it anymore? That feeling. School got out just past three and the team spend the next two and a half hours getting everything ready, hanging signage, going up and down the hall endlessly, helping the food people get set up, making sure all the t's were dotted and the i's were crossed. Hoping hoping hoping that people would show up, it would make sense, and something cool would happen. 

I knew what we'd done was cool. I had no idea what would happen when families started coming in. 

I should have had more faith. Even when I have faith in the power and creativity of my kids, I should still have more faith. 

It was outstanding. They Got It. They got it so much more than even I got it. Kids were coming out of the engineering room with swing sets made. I saw a Jacuzzi and a pool. A few kids made garages that opened and closed, but one or two had eyes for my heart and switched their garages over, turning them into drawbridges. I want a house with a drawbridge. And you know how the back of Kix boxes have a baseball diamond for some game? Two different kids saw that and thought, "My backyard needs a baseball diamond." Brilliant.

 The lights in the technology area weren't easy, no matter how clear the directions were. I got reports from the volunteers up there that it was a lot of fun watching parents hit frustration levels when their light wouldn't light, and how the kids would help them figure it out.

The math area wasn't terribly popular and I don't think our Public Record is that great, but that's on me too because I was supposed to be running that area for a while and I got busy doing other things. Oh well, we'll do it better next time.

I saw a bunch of creative plants coming out of the Science area. Big yards, potted plants, gardens. Then one kid came out with no plants and I was confused so I asked him what he'd done. He pointed to a gray dome with hints of green inside it. "I made a greenhouse." Oh dude. Wow. I didn't once think, "Maybe a kid will make a greenhouse!"

I knew this worked in my class- Multiple pathways + multiple unclear options + narrow bandwidth = interesting results. I didn't know how it would scale.

And the map. Friends, readers, as the map grew it got more and more beautiful. Not just because the lights added a special something to it that really made it glow. But because of the pride I was seeing. Kids would go to place their house, or hand it to the shoeless volunteer who's job it was to step on the map so kids wouldn't have to, and stop and ask their parents to take their picture with their house by the map first. So many smiling kids and parents proudly displaying what they'd built together before adding it to the community we'd all built together.

I didn't know it would be beautiful. I didn't know how much the kids would blow me away with their creativity over and over. I didn't know that at the end of it I'd be moved to tears (might also have been the exhaustion and the oncoming sickness). I'll be honest- I made a deal with myself before the night started. I told myself, "If this just goes ok I'm going to take next year off. We'll shelve this, let it rest a year, then bring it back." But it didn't go just ok. Which means instead I'm inspired to top it next time. Crap.

But damn it was beautiful.

I cannot say enough about the team that made this happen except to say you'd be lucky to have them. More than that, I can't help but use this as an object lesson and tell you to Go Bigger and Trust Your Kids More. Whatever your ideas are, pump *clap* them up. I'll help, email me. Tweet me. Make something cool.

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, May 20, 2019

The Eyebrows OR I'm A Better Teacher Because of You

"I'm a better teacher because I teach across the hall from you."

This is what I said to a teacher I work with last week. His class of fifth graders, forty* fifth graders, had just finished putting on a stellar Performing Arts Showcase (aka- a school talent show). His kids did everything themselves. He put it completely on their adolescent shoulders. The auditions, the planning, the scheduling, the lighting, every single thing needed to be done by the kids. He would supervise and project manage overall, he is the teacher, but it's for the kids to do.

And they did amazingly.

Here's the thing- the talent on display was no better or worse than it had been any other year. Lots of budding singers, a dancer or two, a bunch of jump ropers because that's big at our school, a kid who solved a Rubic's Cube live on stage in about a minute, a gymnast, and a piano player. I probably missed a few acts, but you get the idea. On its own it was a completely unremarkable talent show, excuse me, Performing Arts Showcase.

But this teacher cannot leave well enough alone. He has than internal drive to look at everything and think, "Ok, but how can this be better? Cooler? More professional?" So he found out that our school's stage not only has a high quality lighting rig, but the control box isn't terrible complicated. He grabbed a few volunteers who made it their mission every Wednesday morning for two months to come in early and learn the lighting system, and then build lighting cues for the entire show. He went on Donor's Choose and bought three clip-on lav mics for the hosts and one singer to wear, because you and I know that when children hold microphones we hear only every third word. Hands-free is always better. So the hosts had the mics- yes he had hosts who had bits written and rehearsed with specific comments relating to our Lifeskills (flexible, initiative, integrity, etc) for each and every act- but, because that's not enough when you've got one leftover mic. So for one of the singing acts he had the kid sit with his class instead of wait backstage, and when he got introduced the kid clicked on his mic started singing from his seat, slowly walking to the stage. Freaking dramatic, going that extra step. He also realized that we had UV lights and put that to his kids, and what they landed on was the final act of the performance featuring two of his kids roller blading around the auditorium while a bunch of others danced on stage, and then they hit the lights and everyone lit up in that cool blacklight green.

That whole long previous paragraph doesn't even mention that he assigned kids to be ushers, leading parents to specified seats and, and I freaking loved this, holding classes and students at the door if an act was on stage performing, not letting them in until the act was done. Or how he printed special Backstage Passes and handed them out to a few classes to give to deserving students so they could watch it from the back. Which is a brilliant freaking idea because my fourth graders are the ones who will be doing this show next year, so they got to see how it worked. They came back blown away.

This whole time the teacher stood near the back, headphones on to be in communication with his stage managers in the back. But the kids were doing it. It was there show. Fifth graders. When I asked him about some of the moving pieces he admitted that some of the best ideas came from necessity. He's got forty kids, so how do you keep all those kids busy? You find jobs. And those job make the show better.

This is the same teacher who put on a play a few weeks ago, and a few years ago worked with me to build our MakerSpace and our first MakerFaire.

"You make me a better teacher," I told him. I'm naturally an above and beyond person. I love looking for ways to make a thing go bigger louder faster cooler more more more. I'll do that whether anyone else cares or not. But having him there, right across the hall, helps me to see those places where the eyebrows need to go.

About the "the eyebrows" thing- When Frank Zappa would write songs with his band they would always get to a point where the song was good. It was pretty, it was complicated, it met with everyone's approval. Except Frank's. It was then that Frank would push his band to "put the eyebrows on it." What will make this song special? What makes it different, better, pushes it to eleven? Because I love Frank and I'm constantly inspired by him, I've adopted the phrase. It says it exactly right.

Tomorrow (today is Monday, 5/20/19) my school is putting up our fifth MakerFaire. We've rebranded it to Powell Valley Makes: Cardboard City, however. The idea is that families will come in with their students and grab a pre-made cardboard house (made by the students and buddy classes), and then travel to five places on campus representing STEAM- a Science Room, a Technology Room, and Engineering Room, an Art Room, and a Mathematics Room. In each room their will add to and improve their homes. Parents and students will work together to use STEAM to learn. Then the completed houses will go to the gym stage, where a giant map has been laid out. At the end of the night, in theory, we'll have a giant tiny cardboard city built by our families.

I put the eyebrows on stuff in my classroom all the time, but I'm in charge of the Powell Valley Makes, so I've gone ahead and really dug in here. So first we needed a promotional video to explain the concept to the students, to put on the Facebook page, and to show the night of to keep the explanation going. That's a lot of jobs for one video. I could have made a shoot-and-talk and gotten the job done, but what fun is that? Instead I made this-

That took a long freaking time. I did it alone. But look at how cool it is!

Then one of the other teachers working with me, who has also done hours and hours of work, casually mentioned that our city needed a Welcome sign. Of course it does! So I made two, one for the map and one for the front entrance. One one would have cared if they were just big signs, but that's not what city signs look like.

And I also needed to make the map. Now, no would knows what to expect, we've never done this before. This map could be anything. It could be as simple as possible. But what fun is that? It needs two water features (maybe someone will build a bridge!), and a bunch of different type of road layouts. What's our city going to look like? That's up to the kids. I'd put my home near the river, flood danger be damned.

(Yes, the sound in the background is an interview with a bunch of Zappa's old drummers. No, I didn't plan it that way, it's just a real good interview.)

I can't wait to update this blog with pictures and a video of what it looks like when it's done and fully lit tomorrow. Was this a lot of work? Of course. So much extra work. But it's gotta be done. That other teacher would do this, and probably other things I haven't thought of. He dropped the idea on me today that we should have "busy city sounds" softly playing over the PA on the night, which is a freaking brilliant addition.

I didn't do this just because he makes me better. I would have done this anyway because it's who I am. But I made that big giant sign look like that because I know he'd have, and it would be sweet. I also go this big for the few (very few) teachers at my school who can't, or their kids can't, when really they can I know it because specific reasons that aren't fair to blog about. I'll admit to living with a perpetual extended middle finger about a lot of things. Sometimes- not always, it's not healthy, but sometimes- you gotta do something because screw you I'll show you how cool this can be. Spite ain't the best fuel, it doesn't burn long, but it can be a great launch mix.

I hope my students look at what they are going to accomplish tomorrow and note the eyebrows everywhere. It's something they hear from me all the time (Frank's picture and a quote is the header image of both our class website and our Google Classroom). Model what you want to see from your kids. Model what you hope to see from your staff. And find someone who inspires your eyebrows.

*not a typo

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, May 13, 2019

No One Cares How Busy You Are

That's a suitably provocative title, innit it? 

I think the first time I heard the axiom "Nobody cares how busy you are" was on a podcast. It wasn't in an educational space. That's something people would think but never say out loud. It was one of the music podcasts I listen to, said by some musician who just got out of a van after a six week run playing eleven shows every twelve days, traveling so much he wasn't even sure where the last place he had a hotel room was. When he described it the host started to make sympathetic noises he was cut off by the artist. "That's what we do. We're all busy, no one cares how busy you are. It's how you get work done."

Because I'm broken and can't help it, I immediately filtered this through my Teacher Lens. I'm constantly busy. I'm so busy I don't make To Do lists because I would run out of paper and patience. I am on so many committees and a part of so many training groups that if there's a week I don't have two extra meetings odds are I forgot to go to a meeting and there's a passive aggressive email waiting for me somewhere in my inbox (related: what's the opposite of Inbox Zero?). All this doesn't include my normal teaching work, and it really doesn't include all the Dadding and Husbanding that I would never call a job because I love my wife and my kids and I already have a job where the People In Charge think being paid in the love of children should be enough.

What I just described is basically what anyone else at my school would describe. Maybe a few less meetings, but they're doing more grading or planning or copying. It balances. We're all slammed. All year. Sometimes in meetings people like to say, "This is a real busy time of year." When is not a real busy time of year? The start, when we're getting geared up and our classes together? The next few months when we're getting early assessments done and really getting the ball rolling? The few months after that when holiday breaks are coming so we've got to prepare for all of that and make sure we're all caught up? After break when we're reminding everyone what happens in our classrooms and we're charging towards testing? As testing comes and everyone is Not Just Preparing For The Test but that's also right there. During testing? After testing when report cards and the rest of the end of the year is tumbling like an avalanche towards us? When exactly is a good time? Never. Which is why I never wait to do something in my class, it'll never be a good time. But if this is a boat we're all in together, then does no one care how busy I am? They're just as busy.

So how do we talk about it?

There's a difference between venting and complaining. There's a difference between venting, complaining, and explaining. There's a difference between venting, complaining, explaining, and walking slowly away from the Google Invite while breathing and counting backwards from ten to one.

Let's add to the saying. Details matter. No one cares how busy you are if all you're doing is talking about how busy you are. No one cares how busy you are if it feels like you're trying to be a martyr, trying to impress us with how late you stay, how much you work, like Busy somehow equal Caring.

But we all understand how busy you are. We empathize. No one understands how busy a teacher is except another teacher. We know that glance you share with a teammate when the consultant tells you how easy it will be to add their fancy idea to your classroom. We know the silent sigh in the training, even if right after the sigh you get your head down and figure out how to implement the good from the training because it did have its good moments. You just need to break it a little to make it fit, like fitting a whole chicken into a motorcycle saddle bag.

Today I had a meeting with my principal after school because I'm the lead of the MakerFaire committee. As we were leaving she said, "Get some rest." I laughed, not because I don't respect her or appreciate the sentiment, but because in the next breath she was remembering that we have a meeting with a student tomorrow after school, on Wednesday I'm reviewing the MakerFaire plan with the staff in the morning (it's next Tuesday), and on Thursday we're got School Site Council after school. Friday though, nothing Friday. Except a Inside Baby Weirdling doctor's appointment. But that's not a school thing.

I don't think no one care how busy I am. I work with some very cool people who have open doors and open hearts and open ears. I still tell myself no one cares how busy I am when I'm feeling slammed, because I think that if I admit how busy I am it'll start the avalanche and all the plates I'm spinning will start to crash to the ground (how's that for a horribly mixed metaphor?). But, because balance, I also know how to move away from it. I'm school busy at school, and I'm home busy at home because I've decided it's important to me to leave stuff at school and not take it home. That's not for everyone. I recently had to do school work at home over a weekend and it bothered me to cross the line, but lines are meant to be crossed.

I don't think no one cares how busy you are. I think we do know how busy you are, and we aren't impressed. We aren't impressed, but we care. I care how busy you are. Because I care about you. You're a teacher, you're a human. We're in this together. Busily loves company.

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, May 6, 2019

Translating DeVos

Betsy DeVos is pro-school choice. Did you know that? Because if you didn't she'll tell you. And if you did she'll tell you again. In fact, it's the only thing she'll tell you about education. Most likely because it's the only thing she knows about education. She knows public education doesn't run like a business. She knows it should make her and her friends a profit. She knows those are her only talking points. And she's not even shy about flaunting how much she doesn't know. Like the rest of this administration, ignorance is a feature, not a bug.

Today, Monday, May 6, 2019, Sec of Ed DeVos gave a talk and interview with the Education Writers Association in Baltimore. It was a greatest hits tour of her thinly veiled attacks/talking points. Most of this blog will come from the livetweeting done by Evie Blad and Joy Resmovits.

DeVos began by claiming that she is an introvert and the media's focus should be "on the students." This is the first time but not the last time that she uses the children she claims to care about as a shield. It's a classic move that anyone who has been teaching for any length of time has seen a million times. Teachers constantly have students used against us. Also, she might be an introvert, but I think the real reason she doesn't like the attention is because she can't open her mouth without loosing a stream of falsehoods and nonsense and we are too smart to fall for it. I'm sure that she would disagree with me, but then she wouldn't have turned student journalists away if she was actually about focusing on the students.

Moving on, two examples that should alarm all of us...

Twice DeVos uses the language of business to describe education. First, she calls parents "consumers". Let's pretend that should be taken seriously for a second- What are they consuming? I know that DeVos would argue that this means that parents should be allowed to shop around, like when she tries to decide which new forty million dollar (not a typo) yacht to buy.  But here's the problem with that- How are those kids getting to the school their parents choose? Note- she doesn't have an answer for that. I'd make a cheap crack here about how she doesn't know how children get to school because her driver always drove her own children to their school, but I don't know if that's true and I'm not gonna look it up just for what's probably a joke. How about how do parents do this shopping around for different schools? How are the parents judging the quality of a school?

 She is advocating for parent choice, claiming that it will increase competition, and that competition is good for schools. Again, she would deny she thinks schools are businesses instead of a public good that exist not for profit but to strengthen humanity as a whole with no other gain in mind. As evidenced by this proof. No wait, that one is about her being ok with failing colleges making money off students. Hold on...Ok, this link. Crap, no. Sorry. That one is about her cutting student loan forgiveness again. You know, like someone who has "the students" front and center in her priorities.

And what about this?
This is important. So on one hand she's saying that competition is good, but right after that she's saying that it's up to the states themselves to monitor and prevent problems. So her plan is, "You deal with it." This falls in line with the idea that her real goal is to tear down the Department of Education as a whole. I know I can't type that without sounding like this, but I see no evidence to the contrary.

She also tried to argue what is and isn't public education, which is like my students when they haven't done their research well enough trying to explain to me what the Louisiana Purchase had to do with the Oregon Trail and settling for "it's in the west?" Rather than respond to it though, I'm going to let Jenn Binis be much more subtle and clear than I can be-

Evie Blad has a real great stretch about another blatant lie about school safety from Betsy that I'm not going to go into because she does a great job.

 Let us move on to her Top Two Most Egregious Stances of the time she spent lying on stage.

Oof. I mean...yeah. Bring it. I love it when the Secretary of Education openly attacks teachers in a public forum. This woman, who the newest National Teacher Of The Year had to meet (the President* wouldn't meet with him for some reason...I'll give you a hint- it rhymes with 'he's black'), is straight up saying, "The teachers aren't being adults and they're hurting kids." By trying to get paid a reasonable wage and by fighting for funding for schools so walls aren't falling in and computers are better than the ones from the Apollo missions and textbooks aren't so old that they only list six planets and are called Ye Olde Alchemy Booke.

And what does "adult time" mean? I mean, I know what it means in my house, and I guess that could be what Betsy means here- "Adult time" is when she tries to *&%$ us. I'm not surprised or shocked that she'd lay this at our feet, that she would stand on a national stage and claim that the teachers of this nation (during National Teacher Appreciate Week) are purposefully hurting children. But I do hope that those who welcomed her into their classrooms think back to that and wonder what they were thinking. You should have never given her a chance. We all knew.

And, to top it off, what's "great" mean? Who is to judge? Please tell me it's the person who failed the most basic part of her job interview. The person who admitted she doesn't even visit schools that underperform.

Let's close this bad boy out with her most awful and dangerous stance- How much she hates students of color, LGBTQ students, and students who are special needs. Again, "Gee Doug, hate seems like a real strong word." Yeah right.

Civil rights for students was governmental "overreach". Because she can't think of one instance in history where the government stepping in on a civil rights matter turned out well. Because we all know what side of the fence Betsy DeVos would have been on as Ruby Bridges made that long walk up to her school. She'd have been against the "overreach".

This is literally the Nuremberg Defense. "I only followed orders! I had nothing to do with the war! I didn't even know there was a war on! We lived at the back, near Switzerland. All we heard was yodeling... yodel le he hoo! Hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo, Yodelay, Yodelay, Yodelay!" As for the "first born" thing, what a weird aside, but ok. "I'm a first born and a terrible person, so I am especially good at following laws about hating gay people."

Now, if it sounds like I'm being too hard on Sec DeVos or you think I've taken some cheap shots, then please click on literally any one of the links I've supplied for you to read and tell me which one justifies her place in the United States government. Or find your own and leave it in the comments, tell me where I'm wrong or unfair. Please, it might actually make me feel better. There are a hundred ways the government is failing Americans right now, and it's easy to feel helpless against it while we wait for enough someones, anyones, to do the right thing and change things. I rally against a lot of it, but this is my home. This is the Sec of Education saying teachers are hurting students. This is her trying her best to scam my kids and their parents. She is attacking us. And we can not stand for it. We must call her out at every turn. We must grab her speeches and red line it like it was a final exam, checking every reference and claim. We must fight for us.

Oh yeah, she's still on her bears attacking schools thing too. Which is really funny. Until you remember it's all about her getting guns into schools.

**Thanks to all the education reporters who are covering her and giving us this information so that we clearly know who the people pretending to be in charge are. If you're on the tweets you should follow all the people I linked to, then follow who they RT.**

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, April 29, 2019

Commit to the Go

Post-swim Halewia Sprint Tri 2013
I vividly remember the moment I realized I am capable of more than my mind or my body thinks I am.

I was a swimmer for forever. For years before high school on a year round team, and then once I got to high school I swam for my year round team until swim season, then I switched over to the high school team. It was in high school that I became a stroke specialist, because in high school the coach needs to place swimmers in specific races. Due to my experience I could have swum just about anything (though putting me in the breaststroke or backstroke would have been pushing it), but I got put into the butterfly. Fly is the most notorious stroke, and the most difficult to to master. Yeah, I said it breaststrokers. Take your frog-looking nonsense into a different lane before I smack you in the back of the head as I fly past you.

Fly is hard. And it was mine. And I loved it.

It was a morning work out early in the season my freshman year. We were one or two sets into the workout when coach called out the set. "10 x 100 Specialty stroke" on some time that would make things interesting. 10 x 100 means ten reps of 100 yard swims. The time was probably 1:20 or something. So you have a minute twenty to swim four laps. The faster you do it the more rest you get. The faster you do it the quicker you get tired. Up until this particular practice I thought about this set as a survival set. How do I swim it fast enough to get rest, but not so fast that I burn up? This morning, completely on accident, I blew past that and learned something about myself.

I crushed that first 100. It felt great. Checking my time when I hit the wall it looked like I went out way too hard, but it didn't feel like it. So I punched the next one too. That one felt good. I was strong and my stroke way working exactly like it should. I went harder on the third one. By this point I the Governor in the back of my head was waving a calculator around and shouting, "If you keep this up you will die by the eighth hundred! It'll be bad!" I ignored him. It's hard to hear that voice when blood and water pound in your ears. It started to hurt around six. Here it comes, I thought. But it didn't. My times didn't drop. My arms didn't fall off and sink to the bottom of the pool. Swim hard. Hit the wall. Suck wind. Go again. Get some. Go again. During the ninth hundred it finally clicked. I'm so much stronger than I thought I was. I've got this. Holy crap. if I can do this here...my races should be so much more intense.

Changed. My. Life.

Right at that moment. In the pool, heart pounding, shoulders and abs burning. Everything changed. I found another gear. I found a strength in myself that I didn't know was there. My body didn't know it could do that. My brain didn't know.

This became advice that I would give to other swimmers. "How do I go faster?" "Commit to the Go and don't question it." It's the only way.

Yes, I see you waving your hand. I know this is a teaching blog. But really, at this point if you can't start drawing these parallels for yourself I don't know if you're actively reading.

I don't shy from Big Projects. Cardboard arcade. Rube Goldberg machine. Benches with a local construction company. Westward Expansion in the from of a Beautiful Mind string web. I have faith. Faith in myself that I can plan and execute a Big Project. I have faith that my students can find an extra gear and get the Big Project done. I will put things in front of them and have the same feeling I felt around the fifth 100. "I dunno about this, seems like it could end poorly." But I still put it in front of them because what's the worst that could happen? It does go poorly? Then we learn from that too. (I've got a principal that understands this is how I teach and she is ok with it. I've been less lucky other places, so I know how lucky I am now. If she ever tries to leave I'm chaining myself to her desk.)

I can't go straight to a Big Project, of course. But I start with projects that push them to different places than they thought they could go. We do the spaghetti towers immediately. We do a Quick Build in the first week. We're constantly finding limits and expanding them outward.

We fall down all the time too. Fourth graders don't just do cool projects because I'm like, "In high school I learned I could swim faster than I thought I could!" But I also had a lot of practices after that realization that kicked my butt and crushed me. My kids make bad projects. They don't put full effort in. They're ten, they don't know what full effort really is yet, mostly. But they're learning.

Here at the end of the year it's easy to stumble. I don't begrudge anyone who does either. This job is unspeakably difficult and to push hard all the way through is sometimes more than you can ask of a teacher. Sometimes we just make it to the end. Sometimes our classes do too. Been there. But that moment in the pool broke me just enough to allow me to see that the bottom isn't always the bottom. Sometimes it is, and it moves around. There's too many variables in a classroom to believe someone who marches in and says, "You Can Do Better! Have More Passion And Tenacity And CRUSH This Final Month." But what I'm saying is I know that, for me, if I can see it clearly, I can find the end and find it with a proper level of intensity.

Then the end of the year comes and I promptly get sick for a week, so...

*I know this should have like a big Rah Rah ending or something, but I just can't do that. I know how much we struggle and I don't want to finish on some disingenuous, disconnected note. So what's the goal for this post? What do I want a reader to get out of it? "Be inspired, be hardcore, but know thyself." Doesn't look good on a t-shirt or a hashtag, though. Ah well, that's for someone else to do.

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.