Monday, September 18, 2017

The Second Line


"The first line is easy. It's the second line that's difficult, because it's the second line that give the first line meaning."
-Nick Cave on songwriting

The first lesson of a new topic is relatively easy. Finding that special Into that gets the kids excited, catches their attention, fires them up to know more.

But that second lesson, that's where the teaching is.

It's true with just about anything. Once isn't as painful as you think it will be. Anyone can write one blog post. Go to the gym one time. Take one guitar lesson. Start a diet.

Following through is the hard part. Finding a way to maintain. To do the same thing without doing the same thing. Doing the same thing but finding a new angle to attack it from. I'm not even talking about from year to year. Teaching that lesson again next year isn't that bad. You've got a whole year to (maybe) think about how it went and (perhaps) come up with a better way to do it. Still, that's just the one lesson. Oy, I just realized I've constantly got old lessons cycling through my brain, just waiting for the curriculum to get back there again, so I can take them apart and try them anew.

Learning doesn't happen all at once, no matter what some of our pacing guides might suggest. Yes, the students might need to see that material again. But not in the exact same way. No matter how much that jerk part of your brain might want you to try it, teaching the same thing but LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R doesn't actually work. It's teaching the follow-up in a way that engages the kids who got it the first time while bringing along the kids who didn't that's the hard part. And the fun part.

"So how can I make the second lesson better?" you ask. This stuff is some of my favorite parts of teaching. Taking a lesson apart and turning it this way and that until I can see it in a new light. or taking it apart and focusing on smaller bits. That's always a great way to get a fresh look at a lesson. Besides, the odds are that the kids got chunks, concepts, ideas. The second lesson is workshopping through the Big Idea step-by-step like a mechanic or a doctor. Following the internal flowchart we have. "Do you understand this? If yes, go here. If no, go back and take this path."

The second lesson is where student choice and voice become a vital part of the teaching. If I can't see the way, maybe if I give the kids the ultimate goal and tell them "Ok, go!" they'll find their way to it. This has pros and cons. How can I ask the kids to discover what it is they don't understand if they don't understand it? But how can I not guide them to that skill, since it'll be so important outside of school? Ah, the beautiful, maddening balancing act of education.

I supposed this is the point in the post where I'm supposed to use the word "grit". So...grit. There. EduSpeak box checked. Moving on.

It's the second lesson that moves the first along. A popular term, at least among the curriculum I'm using, is "spiraling". As in, "This curriculum spirals. If the kids don't get it the first time it'll come back around." Which is fine in concept, but you can't start a fire by getting the wood smoking then moving on to pitching your tent and assuming the smoke will still be there when you're done.

Chase that second lesson. Cherish the ideas that come to you during the first lesson when it's too late to use them, the ideas that come on the drive home, the ideas pilfered from social media friends, and the ideas that wake you just as you're falling asleep.

Teaching is often working as hard as you can, and then immediately thinking, "Now what?"

Now what?

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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 12, 2017

Hooked on a Feeling


The Guardians of the Galaxy would be either the best or the worst teaching team ever.

Let's imagine they were all on the same grade level team. Quill would decide he was the team lead, even though he didn't have the seniority or organizational skills. Gamora would know she should be the team lead, because she does have the organizational skills and is more competent. Rocket wouldn't care who thought they were the team lead and would be off doing his own thing, grumbling, and either fixing or breaking the copy machine. Groot would have no interest in being in charge of the team, content to be every student's favorite teacher whether they were in his room or not, and whether they understood everything he was saying or not. And this would be Drax in every meeting.

Picture your team at school. If you can't figure out which one of you is Drax, guess what.

But under it all they all have good hearts. Each of the Guardians comes from a broken place, and they each have dealt with that in different ways. Bad pasts, bad leaders, bad experiences being created.

Rocket and Gamora became what they are against their wills, and they both harbor a tremendous amount of anger about that. As someone who bangs on and on about the mentor teacher/student teacher relationship, I am worried about creating Rocket. But it doesn't stop him from doing what is right, even though he's going to gripe the whole time. Not exactly the best person to have on a team, but he does get things done. Gamora turned her anger into a more productive energy, laser focused and deadly. I know teachers who I would not get in the way of when they're on a mission.

Quill felt abandoned and mistreated, and so he learns to depend on himself only. Like, say if you worked at a school with a terrible administrator who didn't threaten to eat you, but might as well have. Doesn't stop you from being good at your job, but doesn't exactly instill a sense of authority in you either. Still, who needs authority? Until you find yourself in a position of authority. At least a negative example is an example.

Groot and Drax are the easiest teachers in the school to get along with. Especially once you get over Drax telling you exactly what he thinks about your lessons. Like that time he saw your book report packet and didn't respond encouragingly.
I do know one thing for sure- this grade level would have the best music coming from their rooms at all times.

Thinking of ourselves as Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a good teacher mindset. Guards are passive. They wait for something to come after them. Same with Avengers and Defenders to be honest. Our superheroes are all reactive. Because in fiction it's the baddies who attack. If there were no baddies, the Guardians would bum around space having a good time. Heck, they'd probably become the baddies just to have something to do.

Teachers are aggressive. We attack ignorance. We diagnose and pursue. We defend our students, but we teach our students to defend themselves. Unlike the Guardians, who will move on to another planet, it is our students who will move on. We can't save them, we can't fix them, those aren't the jobs and aren't what's needed anyway. We can prepare them.

Teachers aren't guardians. We aren't superheroes. We are preparing others to be their own superheroes.

I guess that makes us Nick Fury?
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I have a new book about the student teacher/mentor teacher relationship called A Classroom Of One coming very soon. 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 4, 2017

On The Eve



On the eve of another first day, another year, another class. My thirteenth, their sixth. All weekend, and of course it's a long weekend, I've paced. I've fidgeted. Jiggling leg, ready to go.

I wonder what they're doing on the eve of their first day. New grade. New teacher. New room. With strange desks and off chairs and are those puppets we saw at Open House? "I heard he doesn't give homework." "I heard he plays music in class." "I heard there's something about cardboard."

"I heard he's fun."

On the eve of another year I take stock again of what's important. What'll be new? New student teacher. That's exciting. It means more opportunities for learning, for the kids and for me. New computers, 1:1. Something I've wanted for years, now I have. Ball's in your court, Robertson. Time to show you know what you're doing. Again.

So much pressure, on the eve of another school year. Pressure from myself, to be my best. To find yet more creative ways to teach, be more flexible and responsive to the kids and what they need. Pressure on myself to finally get better at my weaknesses. "I will collect better data," I say to my understanding admin. She knows my room doesn't work that way, but I know the district does. So much pressure to find a better balance between the two, better than last year or the year before.

Of course, this is the eve of a whole new group. So the center of gravity has shifted once again. Which is part of the fun, balancing on a moving platform.

On the eve of the year, trying to find more goals. But goal setting in teaching is strange. The goal posts move, and there are so many. Each kid has dozens. Each classroom, each subject. I will be better at teaching math creatively. I will be better at assessing reading explicitly and recording it. I will use my class set of computers. But not too much. But not just to substitute. No digital worksheets. Unless there's a sub. Maybe.

On the eve of new building, new creation. A whole new start with a whole new crew. I hope they like me. I mean, it doesn't matter if I'm their friend.

But still.

Another marathon. But marathon is a bad metaphor. In a marathon all you have to do is run. There's so much more to it than that. Triathlon? Still too easy, too simple. Decathlon then. But without the breaks, and over and over, with different weigh discs and hammers, different height hurdles. And all with a smile and a laugh.

On the eve of another community. How well will they gel? Last year we struggled. This isn't last year, this is new, fresh, shiny. Use last year, absorb, integrate, move forward.

On the eve of so many long days and long nights. On the eve of another adventure bundling joy and stress together. Finding ins, finding paths, finding the wrong way to say something on the way to the right way.

An eve of I hope I remember how to do this.

An eve filled with excitement and nerves. It'll probably never go away.

I hope they're excited this eve. I hope they're ready. I hope I am. I am. I hope.

Let's go already.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Buzzwords and EduSpeak by Sarah Joncas


Sometimes I wonder if people in education fully understand most sentences from meetings, books, and PDs. It seems like every day contain more acronyms and buzzwords, all expected to be memorized and fully understood. But what’s at the heart of it? What words actually matter? What actions actually matter? If school is for students, we need the best way to cut through the buzzwords to find what we value. Not in teacher-speak, not in alphabet soup acronyms, but in simple plain English.

Tonight’s chat will run a little different - BW# is a “buzzword bonanza” challenge related to each question. When you see BW1, tweet BW1 with the buzzwords around the topic with the #WeirdEd hashtag. Use more than one tweet if needed, just like Pokemon your goal is to catch them all. Then, Q# relating to the buzzwords will be sent, and answer with A# and #WeirdEd. Let’s challenge ourselves in answering Q’s is to use as few of the buzzwords as possible and move past alphabet soup.

Let’s get some buzzwords and some real answers as we survive this busy BTS season! 

This post was written by Sarah Joncas.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Talking About Talking About the World

Regarding #WeirdEd- I want to talk about what we're going to talk about. Unfortunately, I'm at the tail-end of my vacation and I've been on the road for days and days with my family and tomorrow, Weds, Aug 23, is the last travel day and I won't be able to lead the conversation we're going to have during the chat. Even with stuff like this, which I wanted to get to last week, family gets put first. I'm afraid this won't be the last time we'll have to talk about it either. But it can't not be talked about. This chat isn't about a section of education, it's about all of it. To turn a blind eye is to admit you're ok with Both Sides talk and to pretend teachers don't have a part to play. I don't care if other chats do it, I don't run other chats. But #WeirdEd is mine and it ours, and the teachers who come to #WeirdEd want to be honest as much as they want to have goofy chats. I tapped Nathan Stevens to run the chat this week because I trust him and he's got interesting views on things. The blog is mine, the questions will be his. Thank you.

The president is unhinged. Let's get that out of the way. I know this because I've been paying attention for the last two years, but also because tonight he gave a speech in Arizona that was a ranting, raving bucket of lies. He's as mad as a bag of cats.

It used to be controversial to say something like the above about the president. People would still say it, but there would be a significant portion of the population who would be like, "Woah woah woah, hold on now. Let's look at this rationally." But now? Nothing you could say would feel like it's far enough. He's openly courting white supremacists. His main cheer leader is David Duke, the former Grand Dragon of the KKK. There are Nazis marching in the streets of America, and he thinks that pretty cool. AND THAT'S JUST STUFF THAT HAPPENED IN THE LAST WEEK.

School is starting again soon or has already started. Students are back in classrooms, teachers are finding new and interesting ways to reach their new and interesting kids, and things are moving along. Curriculum is being delivered. But there's an undercurrent through everything because there's a man in the White House who courted nuclear war on a whim from a golf course. Every teacher, even more than last November, is thinking, "What do I say when he comes up? Or when the Travesty Of The Day happens? How do I handle this?"

There's some great stuff going around on twitter under #CharlottesvilleCurriculum to help with that. Well, part of that. But what about the rest? What about what's coming?

The go-to answer in these cases is Listen To The Kids. Let them talk, let them share. We can't endorse one politician over another, but we can talk about various political positions. We can discuss racism and white supremacy because those are real things that are really happening (have been happening but are now more on the surface than ever), and that's called Current Events. That's in the PBiS lessons, my friends. Bullying, lying, and the like. It's all there. One way or another we're going to talk about it.

We're supposed to provide a view of events that allows students to make their own decisions, right? But this isn't a Both Sides issue, no matter what the Russian puppet says. How could we teach what's happening and not point to the swastikas and say, "This is awful. This is wrong. This was wrong before, it's wrong now, and it'll be wrong forever. There are no two sides to this." There's no two sides when one side's position is, "Most of you don't deserve to live." That's not a side that you need to hear.

I like to think that kids will know that. What will be harder is teaching the white supremacy stuff, because that's in deep. Again, making the classroom a safe space for kids to talk is going to be what starts this process. Teach history, talk about the statues, when they went up and where. This stuff fits into Common Core. Kids should be reading more non-fiction anyway.

Talking about talking about all this is a first step. But it's the easiest step. Reflect, look inside, decide what you'll do when you say the words "white supremacy" to your class in an educational, pedagogical way, and a parent in one of those red hats comes red faced into your room the next day. Is that conversation worth the truth you'll be having in class? It should be. This is probably something administrations should be addressing head-on with their teachers immediately.

Nevertheless, we can't Both Sides this. We can't let evil, actual literal evil that's so evil when a video game or a movie needs bullet sponges the player or viewer won't care about dropping they go with Nazis because who cares, live in schools or in this country.

Education is an inherently political act. Education acts against ignorance, and if you can't see that there's one side building a wall to Keep America Ignorant I'm not sure what else there is to say to you aside from please maybe not teach anymore because you're ok with someone who hates the students you teach.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Good Drumming vs Bad Drumming

First, watch this video, because it's the whole point of the post and if you don't watch it nothing that follows will track as well. It's four minutes long.




Brandon Khoo just answered the question of how you can tell a good teacher from a bad teacher.

I am in love with this video and Brandon Khoo's patience and clarity when answering what was probably meant as a jokey question. Because this is an important question: How can you tell something good from something bad? This seems like a subjective question. I think it's good because x, and you think it's bad because y. That's ok, we're allowed to think those things, because that's what opinions are for. But he spun it into a deeper question about the meaning of good and bad, and made what seems unquantifiable understandable.

There's an old story about the Beatles, possibly apocryphal, where an interviewer asked John Lennon if Ringo was the best drummer in the world. John responded, "Ringo isn't even the best drummer in The Beatles." John was a jerk.* This narrative of Ringo being good enough but not great, the lesser of the Fab Four, is always going to surround Ringo. Unfairly, as Brandon explains in the video. Ringo's job was to serve the song. That's what he did, every time. The Beatles weren't great because of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Beatles were great because they were John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr coming together, creating something as a whole. Look at any of their solo projects. Still great, but not the same. You couldn't put just anyone behind the drum kit and create The Beatles. It had to be Ringo.

Brandon does two types of drumming in the video. He Drums, with flash and fills. And he drums to serve the song. One is incredible to watch. The other makes the whole incredible. So which is better?

What makes a teacher Good is a  question that's tossed around all the time. Test scores? How the students feel in class? Quality of projects? Whether or not they talk to the whole group? Lesson creativity?

A good teacher is the one that best serves the learning. It's easy to become a Teacher with a capital T. A Good teacher best serves the song of each student, and our classrooms are the most eclectic mixtape ever assembled. Ringo didn't just keep the beat, he created the backbone of some of the greatest songs ever written. Sometimes he just needed to tap gently on the side of the snare. Sometimes he needed blisters on his fingers!

Some lessons, some students, need the apps sometimes. Sometimes we need the tech. Sometimes we don't. There's an urge to chase the flashy teaching. All The Apps, All The Tech, All The Time. What hashtag needs to be in my classroom this week? We lose the song in the technique. We, and I include myself in this, should try to teach more like Ringo. Strip it down, streamline it, and find the groove that each lesson needs, the beat for each student.

It wasn't a flash drum solo or a million fills that propelled The Beatles into the atmosphere. It was this.




*I think I'm going to make the above video part of any professional development I run and see what conversations come out of it.

**Full disclosure- my favorite drummer of all time is Neil Peart. Which, if the metaphor I'm working with in this blog post carries any weight at all, says something about my teaching. In my defense, Peart is never more indulgent than the songs he's writing need him to be. He manages to be incredibly complex without derailing the music. Peart serves the music first too.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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, August 7, 2017

The Goal Of Teaching





“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”



-Maya Angelou

This quote is not wrong.

This quote should not be the goal of teachers.

I can see why teachers latch onto it. Dr. Angelou tapped into a basic human truth here, as she did so often and with such facility. But here's the thing- teaching is more than basic.

This quote is a great way to live. It's a fantastic guiding light for leading people and for being a human in general. But I am not going to look at the parents of students in my class and say, "Your son might not remember what I teach him, but he'll remember it was fun."

I imagine their response would be something along the lines of, "Aren't you a teacher? Shouldn't you be teaching my kid things so he remembers them?"

I don't teach for the test. I don't teach for an assessment. I don't teach to get praise from my administrator or superintendent or parents. I teach because I love it and believe arming students with knowledge will prepare them for the present and the future.

But wait, as they say on the QVC, there's more! Because I believe teaching to be a holistic practice that cannot be split into sections and retain truth, I also teach so that students learn to learn. I teach so students love to learn. I teach so that, in case students do forget what they learning in my class, they know how to get it back.

However, I want to do my job well enough that they don't forget. I'd like to think I'm finding ways to teach that increase student retention of the information I am presenting in class. I believe this is called learning. As a fifth grade teacher, I appreciate it when the kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth grade teachers teach their students in a way that they retain the information. I imagine that my students' future sixth grade teachers, seventh grade teachers, and on up through high school and college, would appreciate it if the students who were in my class remember the things I taught them way back in fifth grade. Because learning is a continuum.

Maybe it's because I teach stuff like multiplication and reading comprehension. Skills that will be used over and over in a student's life. I'm only familiar with third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade curriculum. Those are the only grades I've taught. At some point, perhaps, the actual information taught loses value.

There is a tendency to take a smart thing, and the above quote is a very smart thing, and make it a guiding principal without considering the ramifications of that choice. There is a tendency, in other words, to go whole hog into a philosophy before attempting to make that philosophy mesh nicely with previously held and also true beliefs. Now, I believe in loving something like crazy, and going into things full bore. But I believe more in ideas and philosophies as gears in a larger machine. The power of gears coming together, gears of different sizes spinning at different speeds, but all their teeth fitting and working as one to create more power than any one gear could alone. Anyone who's ever tried to ride a bicycle up a hill will tell you it's easier with more choices than on a fixie. Tools for jobs.

My job, as a fifth grade teacher, is to teach the fifth grade curriculum. This is a fact. I assume, though maybe I've never been explicitly told this, that part of that job is to teach the fifth grade curriculum in such a way that the kids will remember it. Will they remember everything? Probably not. Let's be realistic. But do I teach everything with the goal that it will stick and stick forever? Yes. I want to teach so well, I want my kids to learn so completely, that they will remember the information forever. Like the other quote says, "If you shoot for the moon and miss, you'll still end up in orbit around the Earth or possibly sailing out into space forever, light years away from the nearest star."

Dr. Angelou's quote says nothing about students or their learning. She was a smart woman. If she meant for that quote to also say, "people will forget what you taught them" it would say that. But it doesn't. It says "what you said" and "what you did." Maybe the lesson to take away from the quote is if people are forgetting what you do and say, do they should do it and say it instead. Hey, that meshes nicely with project-based learning and student voice.

I refuse to wave the white flag and resign myself to the belief that the content of my teaching is so unimportant in the long run that my students will just forget it. Because if the students won't remember what we teach them, why teach them anything? Why have curriculum? Why all the planning and goals and study?

In fact, why should I go to any professional developments? That's learning. Is my learning so unlike the learning of my students that I am expected to retain the information long-term but my kids aren't? Or should I be picking PD based on how I'll feel at the end? "Well, Mrs. Principal Lady, I don't remember what I learned, but I feel really good about learning, and that's what matters most, isn't it? PD credit, please."

What I teach matters. How the kids feel also matters. These are not different ideas. They go hand-in-hand. They work together, like gears in an engine. Teaching the information well involves helping the students appreciate the process of learning. But the teaching and learning of information is vitally important.

If I have truly taught the information in a way that the student took on board and integrated into their existing knowledge then I have done my job well. Part of the doing of that, part of what makes that possible, are the connections and relationships formed in my classroom. But the connections are not the end goal. It's not good enough that my students remember how they felt. I need them to learn and to remember. Because love of learning isn't enough. It's only part. Knowledge must be gained and retained for it to be any good.

That's the goal.

Post Script- If an answer to any of this is, "Google has made knowing or remembering things obsolete," may your phone battery never die, and may you someday find the urge to depend on yourself again. Google cannot critically think using a base layer of knowledge. Google is a gear in the machine too.


If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). 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.