Monday, May 21, 2018

Your Journey Home by Brian Costello

Guest Blog by Brian Costello

We are going to look at the Hero’s Journey, yes it’s been done and done some more, but in a way that you’ve probably never looked at it.

For most of us the year is coming to a close. Take a moment, breathe it in. Now exhale a giant sigh of relief (I won’t tell anyone) because despite what you may have been told, you are on the return journey, you are heading home. It is a time to celebrate, to reflect, and most importantly to begin a process of renewal that most of us need in order to be able to do it all over again.

I thought about making this post about any number of epic heroes, movies, cartoons, or nearly anything else, but when it comes down to it, I want this to be about you. So I’ll skip the Shrek references for now and save gifs for the chat. This is about you. You are a hero.

I know what most of you are thinking. Doug is probably thinking it right now (that’s right I am in your brain). “Oh god here comes the teachers as superheroes thing again…” To which I say, you couldn’t be more wrong. You aren’t a superhero (unless you are and I am not outing your secret identity) but you are a hero. A hero isn’t someone with some incredible superpower, but someone who has grown, struggled, lost, learned, and become better in some way if they managed to survive the journey. You are a hero. So is the person in the classroom next to you, so is each and everyone of your students. All of us is the hero of our own story. So now, you need to take control of that. Each of us needs to own it. Something awesome, great you should celebrate. Something awful, how can we recover? For many teachers it can be hard to accept praise or think of themselves as the most important character in their story. We are generally wired to care about others. So much so that we have dedicated our lives to helping young people in a variety of ways. No matter what we are doing, you cannot escape the fact that YOU are the center of your story and no one else. So accept it and let’s move on because as much as what we do is about kids, your story, your journey is about you. That part may seem hard to swallow given all we think our kids deserve, but it gets harder.

YOU ARE NOT ANYONE ELSE’S HERO. When you try to become the hero for someone else, you take away from them. As educators we need to stop pretending that we are the hero in anyone else’s story. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can’t. That does not make me the central focus of your story. All I get to be is a character in the story of others. I get to choose what kind of impact I want to have on kids, on teachers, or on other people in general. What kind of impact do you want to have on others? Do you know? It is ok to say no. You can figure that out. Hopefully the generic answer is a positive one, but from there we return the focus back to you. What skills do you have, what experiences? How can you actually be a positive influence on the lives of others without trying to be their knight in shining armor. No more saviors. Saviors imply we don’t have the ability to help ourselves. Instead let’s focus on what we have that makes each other better. Do that. You don’t need to be anyone else’s hero but your own.

Now let’s get back to the celebrating. You are almost there. But, the world won’t be the same place when you get back next year. You will find the people have changed (they are smaller than you remember) and there are less doors (I think) and those doors might even have rocks for your safety. Going back to the beginning will be hard, so for #WeirdEd tonight let’s focus on who YOU are, who YOU want to be, and how you can prepare yourself for the next journey you are about to undertake.

If you like what you read, or the chat, or you hate it all and you want to scream into the void of the internet, please take a look at The Teacher’s Journey . It is filled with stories of my struggles and growth, as well as those of many others. The Hero’s Journey (or the monomyth) is told by many cultures and in many ways. My book takes a look at how those themes are told through education and how understanding them can help us become better.

Buy Brian's new book here!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Rube Goldberg Machinations

I'm a sucker for a good metaphor. I love a good metaphor like Hugh Jackman loves literally any script that will let him sing and dance.

It's because of this that I love the Rube Goldberg Machine project my class did for MakerFaire last year and is doing again this year.

At the most basic level, a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex series of actions and reactions that result in the completion of the most mundane activity. You know, like getting kids invested in learning dividing fractions, and then explaining why dividing fractions works. I sometimes feel like my classroom is just a series of Rube Goldberg machines running in tandem, while also all somehow part of a larger Rube Goldberg machine.

Because education isn't simple and it's never easy, you see. To that end, never trust anyone who says "just" before giving you advice to make your class better or more effective.

To back up, since we started in the middle *sings* a less good place to staaart *mercifully stops singing*, for the last three years my school has hosted a MakerFaire. It's a massive undertaking combining a science fair, TEDtalk symposium, film festival, and check-out-our-learning Open House. Students are invited to create their own projects, and teachers are inviting to create class projects. Last year, thanks to the wonderful OK Go video for "This Too Shall Pass", I decided my class would build a Rube Goldberg machine.

We learned a lot and I thought of ways the project could be improved over the course of the build, so I was excited to do it again this year.

Today we started our journey.

I broke my class up into eight groups of four students each. I choose the groups. Depending on the project and timeframe I'll let the kids choose their groups or I choose for them. This needs to be done quickly and in well-balanced groups, so I'll take the reigns for this part, thank you very much. I ordered the groups one through eight. Then I set them the challenge-

Thou shalt create a Rube Goldberg machine. Each group is responsible for a section of the machine, and each section must include at least two action/reactions. For added difficulty, each group must also ensure that their section of the machine connects with the sections on either side so that the machine requires no no NO human intervention once the initial reaction has been triggered. Your section must be started by the end of the previous section, and your section must end with the triggering of the following section. 
Dude. That's a lot. I admit that's a lot. And it's not easy. That's why I love it.

There's so very much engineering built into this project. If you leave students to their own devices, as I learned last year, they will design a machine that should be, if built properly, seventeen feet tall and uses gravity and marbles and that's all. Everything will be downhill, all the energy transfer points will be basic, and nothing will be interesting. So I get to show that music video and we take close looks at exactly what is happening. I focus in on the section below, from 0:42 - 0:50. Just eight seconds. Everything the kids need to know about what they should do happens in these eight seconds. Here, you watch. Again, 0:42, where it's cued up to already, through 0:50.

Did you see how much happened? How many different types of energy transfer there are right there? There's the rolling tube (inertia) which drops (gravity) causing a weight to release (gravity/pulley) which lifts the cupped lever (lever) which is holding a marble, returning the energy back to a height so everything can continue using gravity (gravity). In eight seconds.

Suddenly options open up. Suddenly we're having this detailed conversation about energy transfers and simple machines. They don't know the words, but I can give them the words. Those eight seconds gave them the ideas. Now we don't need to build this giant, tall behemoth. Now we've got variety. We've got choice. Because it's not enough to say "You are able to learn. Go forth and learn, and then apply that learning." That ain't even Guide On The Side. That's Guy In The Room.

Back to the metaphor thing, I mean look. Not only are they building a Rube Goldberg machine, but the process of building it is almost Rube Goldbergian. There are so many moving pieces! So much communication and compromise and co-planning needs to take place to be successful.

FIRST- The group must plan their section. They plan it alone, just the four of them, without worrying about any other group. It's too much to think about if they start being concerned with everyone else. The group of four must decide how creative and challenging their section will be, what simple machines and energy transfers will happen, what tools they'll use. They must design and blueprint. They must compromise with each other until everyone is satisfied.

SECOND- They must talk to the groups on either side of them. This immediately throws their plans out of whack because "What do you mean you want your marble to be triggered by a car? Ours doesn't have a car. Ours ends low, and yours starts high. Crap. Now what?" Revision. Natural, organic, collaborative revision. Lots of communication about these engineering concepts. And remember, every groups except the first and last has to go through this process twice.

THIRD- Bring your blueprint to me, whereupon I'll break it down with simple questions like "Why is this ramp floating in space, where are your supports?" and "How long are these parts?" They have to go away and revise again. Rethink again. This is by far the most difficult build of the year, that's why it's the last one. They've built tree kangaroo traps and arcade games and wind-powered cars and trebuchets. They know the process.

I'm not going to say 100% of my kids are 100% engaged with their groups 100% of the time, but I am going to say that even without my stepping in, I'd bet those numbers are up around 90%. These kids are excited and locked in. They're talking and designing and planning and revising without my having to sit on their shoulders and tap them in the foreheads with a spoon*.

And all of this is before they have cut a piece of cardboard or measured a section of string. If I can get them on board and invested in the design process, the build process is so much easier.

Not that the build process is easy. I approved a few plans that aren't going to work in practice but look good on paper, or work in student heads because they don't understand that a marble will not carry enough weight to crash into the toy car and get it to roll forward far enough to trigger those dominoes. That's fine. Build a simple version, run a proof-of-concept (yes, I use that term with them), and revise as needed.

Part of this is the panic that comes with trying to eat the elephant on a time limit. Embrace the panic, expect it. Last year I was positive the machine wouldn't actually work up until five minutes before it actually did. We got three good runs in and then someone accidentally bumped something and we never got it realigned properly. But we still succeeded, and you should have heard the room explode. Have faith. Not faith that you'll succeed, but faith that the real goal, the learning, will be accomplished.

This year I learned from last year. By front-loading the simple machine concepts, by forcing the planning in more detail, I hope to prevent the last minute stress. I'm pretty sure it still won't work until the last possible second, but one can hope.

Take a risk. Understand that teaching is the stringing together of many complex, disparate actions to create something simple on the surface. Use that to help you think around corners and solve problems in new ways. Come play.

*I've never literally done this, but we all figuratively have.


 Today we successfully finished our Rube Goldberg machine. It was four days of hard work, planning, revision, panic, frustration, and finally joy and relief. I did some documenting of it on the twitters so I'm going to link to those.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Forego Fortnite

I never wrote a lesson for my students that incorporated Pokemon Go. I let my kids use fidget spinners in class but didn't build a math unit around them. When I was a Weird Student my teachers never brought Pogs into the classroom.

And I won't create a Fortnite Curriculum.

I see why teachers do this and before I go any farther let me make clear that if this stuff works for you then godspeed you black emperor. Students, classrooms, and teachers are too varied to throw out general rules for everywhere and to pretend to know what's good for everyone. I mean, unless you're a thought leader. Then that's basically your bread and butter.

Fortnite, for those of you reading this who somehow haven't heard your students talking about it, is a free-to-play video game where you raid, fight, build, and survive with and against other players. The fun part of the game, at least for my kids, comes from the massive multiplayer online aspect of it. This means that rather than play against NPCs (Non-Player Characters, game characters controlled by the computer), players play against other people. See- Massive Multiplayer Online. Which is great. I love video games and one of my favorite current games is Overwatch, a team-based shooter played with and against people all around the world. Fortnite has exploded in popularity recently because it's a "living, breathing world" according to The Verge's Nick Statt. It helps that kids can go home and play with their friends. I'm in no way against Fortnite.

I am not, however, a fan of teachers trying to bring this game into schools. There's a lot of reasons for this, but I can boil them down to three four.

Reason One- It's a Shooter
The core gameplay loop in Fortnite, like many video games, is shooting. Video games are all, at their hearts, about solving puzzles. How do I get this thing to that place? How can I get these bricks lined up in a way that makes them disappear? How can I get this obstacle out of my way? The answer many game devs have come up with, an answer that has created one of the most popular genres of video game ever, is "shoot the obstacle in the face."

There is nothing inherently wrong with shooters. Like I said, I play the hell out of Overwatch and that's all about shooting other players in the face better than they shoot you in the face. It's great fun. Players killing monsters, Nazis (could have grouped them under monsters), other players, plants, zombies is a thing that happens in video games. I don't think this makes us more violent as a society, that's pure nonsense that ignores that every other country in the world has access to the same games and doesn't have the problems we have (hint- the problem is actual, real guns).

"So Doug," you say. "You like shooters. You say they don't make us violent. I'm thinking you're first reason holds no water." Oh but it does, Hypothetical Reader. You see- I'm fine with those games at home. I have Feelings and Opinions about fifth graders playing jingoistic games like Call of Duty where they snipe people and there's a celebration of blood spray, but that's a parenting call not my call. I have problems with teachers taking a game where the gameplay loop is "shoot it in the face" and trying to make it work in schools. It feels tasteless to me. You know what schools need less of? Shooting. Speaking as someone who works in elementary school and so is ignorant of the reading habits of middle and high school, we're not even reading hyper-violent books. Coraline is probably as intense as my class gets, and while that has such delightful exchanges as "I swear on my mother's grave." "Does your mother even have a grave?" "Oh yes, I put her there myself. And when she tried to escape I put her back." it's still not advocating violence for problem solving (Yes, that's what Fortnite does. Haven't you been paying attention to the whole puzzle solving gameplay loop thing?). Let's keep shooters in any form out of schools.

Reason Two- It's Not Mine, It's Theirs
"Ok Doug," you say. "But I want to connect with my kids on their level. It helps buy-in when I use something they like." To respond in a way that The Kids would also understand, Hypothetical Reader, let me post a popular meme.
They know we're not cool. We're not supposed to be cool. I don't believe that this is what's meant by "connecting curriculum to the Real World".

This is not to say that I don't let my kids use their interests in class. Student choice is important to me so if they can fit what they love into an assignment in an organic way that makes sense then I'm totally for it. But notice- if they can fit it in. I'm not going out of my way to do it. Because it's not mine, it's theirs. I don't want to make it School. I'll teach them about critical thinking and bring up things they love within the context of a larger lesson and might use an example here or there, but I'm not making Pokemon Go or Fortnite or Fidget Spinners homework. I'm cool with kid stuff being kid stuff.

I still connect with my students through things that they like. I had a kid last year who loved Overwatch. Almost every day on the walk from the classroom to the buses he and I would chat about the game and new heroes and who was getting buffed or nerfed. I have a student this year who is all about My Little Pony, and at the beginning of the year I'd listen to her talk about it and nod along, but recently my Weirdlings got deeply into MLP and, because I watch what they watch, so have I. Also, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a really funny, smart, well-written show with a deep, thought-out lore. Which means that now I can converse with her on an intelligent level about her interest. Not because I had a student who liked a thing so I went out and learned all about it so we could connect, but because it naturally came up in my life too. This leads me to my third point.

Reason Three- Way To Narrow Your Audience
Not all of my kids play Fortnite. Not all of my families can afford the systems needed for their child to play it. So by making it the center of an assignment I'd be highlighting an economic difference in my class, or at least parenting differences. Talking about differences is fine, building empathy is awesome, but an assignment that breaks my kids into groups that Know a Pop Culture Thing and groups that Don't creates an inequality in my room that doesn't need to be there. It was the same with Pokemon Go. Part of all those lessons needed to be "If you don't have a phone then find a friend who's parents can afford to get them one and tag along." Don't come at me with "kids today all have smart phones" because you're just showing how small your world is.

If I make Fortnite an assignment I've got to make sure everyone has background enough to understand the assignment, or I've got to create an assignment so shallow that everyone has access equally, which means I might as well have used something that lets everyone start on equal footing to begin with. While the game is hugely popular, that doesn't mean 32 out of my 32 kids play it or even know what it is. Heck, I've got kids who don't know anything about Star Wars and you literally can't find a more ubiquitous piece of pop culture in the world right now.

Student choice allows kids to use their interests in their own way, but that's not me creating an assignment around Fortnite. That's my kids finding a way to use what they like without having to convince the rest of the class that this thing is something they need to understand to learn today.

Reason Four- That's Not My Job
I'll be honest- I'm not at all sure the "I use this to engage kids" argument is worth the paper this blog is printed on (because it's not on paper at all, you see). We don't need to come to them with bells and whistles to make them care about math or reading or science. We can use their interests as peripheral tools, but pop culture as an engagement strategy is a crutch. A crutch that needs to be replaced constantly. All those Pokemon Go lessons from last year? Gone. Toss 'em. No one cares. All the Fortnite lessons? Gone. Total impermanence. Not to advocate that things shouldn't change, I doubt I've taught anything the same way twice in my entire career. But I try to build things like Lego constructions- there's the main block, and then I can add and subtract as needed. But if the main block is an effort to just be hip and with it then its worth is fleeting. Be interesting and engaging without being hip. I talk about Star Trek in my class All. The Time. And not one of those kids could care less about Star Trek because their parents are terrible (joking!). But I care, and I can use it to help them. When I do bring up Harry Potter or Doctor Who or some band or something in pop culture, it's not the center of anything. It's icing. If I want a lesson on Fortnite I'm not going to write it, I'm going to challenge a kid to write it.

At the end of the day, my job is not to teach my students about things they already love. I can teach them to think critically about what they love, but that's different than just using it because I know they identify with it. I'm not triggering their "Hey, I know that thing" reaction to get their eyes up and brains engaged. Because you know what my job really is? My job, our job, is to get kids to care about stuff they don't know. To get them to engage with stuff they don't care about. I don't read them novels they've already read, I read them novels I know they haven't. I don't play the music they love, I play music they might not be exposed to. I don't teach them things I already know they know, I teach them new, different things that will challenge them and push them in different directions.

We're in the business of expanding minds, of pushing and stretching. Using Fortnite or Pokemon Go or whatever is cool at the moment is a trick, it's shallow and easy. Sometimes that's fine. But creating whole lessons, whole projects around them? For so many reasons it's not the best way. It's not using the real world, it's pretending that what we have to teach and how we teach it isn't good enough.

I think maybe the only lesson I'd use Fortnite in directly is to teach my kids what a portmanteau is and then what a fortnight is, so that they could sound fancy with their parents. "Yes mother, for the last fortnight we have been learning to manipulate fractions. It has been splendid!"

*Post script- Minecraft doesn't fall into this argument. Minecraft is build for creation, that's its gameplay loop. Creation is also education's gameplay loop.*

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

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Deconstructing Where the Wild Things Are

Let's take a closer look at classic children's picture book Where the Wild Things Are.

Oh, and I forgot to mention in the video, check the last picture. Max is removing his hood, signaling that he is no longer a Wild Thing.

I also know that the audio goes out of sync with the video, my phone did that when recording somehow.

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

Monday, April 30, 2018

Working Well/Working Slow

"Make sure you do your best work. This is not a race. Take your time, do it right."

We all say it with certain assignments and projects. Many of us have been saying it more often than normal because The Big Test At The End is upon us and if there's one thing we are allowed to say it's "Take your time, you have plenty, please don't rush though this."

I've heard it said, and have since stolen and repeated, that projects are like gas- they will expand to fill the space given. Give a student three weeks, and he will finish the night before it's due. Give the same student the same project and only a week, he will finish the night before, and quality will only be minimally impacted, depending on the assignment. (Obviously, and I feel it's important to point this out because we have a tendency to over-simplify the complexities of education in conversation, this is a generalization. I know some assignments take longer to do well than others. The general idea stands.) This is the idea idea behind both my Hobby Project assignment and my Quick Build projects. Teaching students that they are capable of managing time and learning faster than they thought they could.

Time is always a factor in everything we do. Time management is one of the hardest parts of learning to teach because you simply cannot learn it as a student. You must be standing in front of a class and have it slowly dawn on you that it is lunch time already holy crap I've been teaching this for ninety minutes that's just not possible the class clock must be wrong I'll just check my phone oh no. Time management is why, amongst other reasons, the Big Test At The End sucks. It eats up give chunks of instructional time, or time I could be napping and showing episodes of Bill Nye*. Time management is why I like making videos for kids to watch in class for instruction sometimes. I can get a lesson across quicker in a video than I can in front of the room, and it gives me time to mix around the room and give more personalized instruction while giving the kids the option to rewind as needed. Note- I said in class. I'm not flipping for videos to be watched at home, this is inequitable for my population.

Given all that, it's important to remind students "you have as much time as you need. Do your best." I always forget to add one important piece to that direction. I should say "You have much time as you need within reason. Do your best." Let's now sit together for a moment and pretend that adding "within reason" would actually make a huge difference. ... Feels good right? Feels like one of those feel-good cat poster tweets that sounds deep but doesn't actually say anything. "Within reason." How does that differentiate? As the teacher I know that "within reason" is different for each of my kids. I know that this one can be done with the whole writing assignment in an hour, including planning and editing. And I know this kid will be just about done planning and might have started his rough draft in that time. I know this kid will think she's done in the hour but will actually only be done with a rough draft and oh no, this is not fifth grade work.***

Who is working well and who is working slow? Who is taking advantage of the time and who is taking advantage of the time? This is always a teacher's call. We need to decide on the fly, using what we know about the kids and what we see being produced, whether the work being done makes sense given the time and instruction. Where does "doing your best" end and "come on, let's get a move on" start?

On top of that, how willing should we be to tell students "You have been doing this test for much too long, and at this point you either know it or you don't. Guess." You have given those tests. When nearly everyone in the room is done and you walk by the kids still working and one is on question two of sixteen. What? Come on. Where did you go? Speaking for myself as a test-taker, I am hyper-aware of what I know and what I don't. I tend to test quickly because I know when I don't know something and I don't spend a lot of time cranking on it unless I think I can puzzle it out. A personal example of taking a long time on a test would be when I had to get Oregon teacher certified when I moved here from Hawaii. I needed to take a bunch of tests, and the math test had a few questions that at first glance I had no idea how to do, but I knew I could grind and find a long way around to the answer. Maybe not the right way or the fast way, but a way. That test took me a long time, I was working slowly but well. When I take a writing test or a reading comprehension test I finish fast. If I'm taking a long time on one of those that's bad because it means I'm drifting. So I use my personal experience when watching kids work, but I tie that to knowing my kids aren't me so what are they doing, and why. If I can I stop the student and ask them to explain what they're stuck on or what their thinking is. If I can't stop the student then I hope they don't believe "take your time, do it right" actually means "stare at this long enough and I'll magically understand it".

Is this student working well or working slow, or is it some combination of the two, is just one of the calculations we do multiple times a day. It's one more reason teaching and learning can't be broken down into simple ideas. Take your time. But not too much time. A reasonable amount of time. For you. For this task. Today.

Oh, one last thing, because I can hear someone in the back shouting it at me- Yes, I know in your job it'll be rare for your boss to say "Hey Peter, if you can finish these TPS Reports at the pace which will allow you to do your best work and have it on my desk when you're done, that would be greeaaat." I know that many bosses will say "This thing you have to do for your job needs to be done by the end of the day". I know that because I also have a job with time-sensitive work. However, I do not see my job as preparing students to enter the job market. I am helping to prepare kids to be responsible, productive members of society and, more importantly, awesome, fully realized humans. Just like I believe that if I teach well without teaching to the test my kids will do well on the test, so too do I believe that if I help my kids become the fully realized humans they want to be, they will be successful in whatever job they take on. I'm not training a workforce. I'm teaching people.

*this is what's known as a "joke"**

**I show Cosmos now instead, longer episodes mean longer naps

*** "fifth grade work" also being a flexible term than varies depending on the fifth grader I'm talking to

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

Making Bad Choices

I am in favor of student voice and student choice. I believe that my kids will be more invested if I give them the option to choose what they want to learn (always within the borders of what I want them to learn and within reason). 

I also believe that my students will make some really goofy choices that might end up blowing up in their faces, and I have to accept that in order to keep the whole Student Choice edifice from falling down around my ears. 

For the last few years I have done a version of TEDtalks (that link takes you to the assignment) in my class wherein my kids are allowed to pick anything they want to talk about, research that topic (don't do it off the top of your head, yes I know you think you know it but that's not the goal or purpose), and then give a five minute talk about that topic without any notes of any kind. When I introduce the lesson I say in italics "you may choose ANYTHING you want. Yes anything. Can you talk about what? Is that an anything? Then yes. Still yes. Also yes. BUT-" and then I include guidelines like it's your job to make us as the audience care about the thing you're talking about, you're not to just spit facts and figures you found on the internet at us, but relate it to yourself and, if possible, to us in some way. Choice, within boundaries. I give you the end point and a map, you choose how you get there. 

Here's the thing- some kids will choose to get there by airplane, making the trip as quick and easily as possible. Others will choose to go by rusty one-wheeled bicycle (not an actual unicycle, but a bicycle that is missing a wheel). 

And I have to let them. 

That's when the project gets hard for me. I have to choke back the urge to say "Umm, this topic you've pick. It''s gonna be really hard and you should pick something else. I'm not saying you have to change topics, I'm just saying that you might want to change topics." I can't do that. That destroys the structure of choice because then the student starts bringing me ideas and looking for approval. Then who is doing the choosing? I am. 

I can guide once the choice is made though. Nudge, staying within my boundaries and their choice. "Ok, you've chosen x. What do you know about it? Why should I care? How can you talk about it while talking about something else?" I love that last question. It's really hard to answer. I push the kids to think about layers. We watch a ton of TEDtalks, like this one by astronaut Chris Hadfield called "What I Learned From Going Blind In Space". I ask, "What was that about?" They say, "Him going blind in space." "No! Well, only kinda. He spent maybe five of the eighteen minutes telling that particular story. What's the talk really about?" Eventually we get to "It's about fear, and dealing with being afraid." YES! That's the Big Goal. Use your TEDtalk to talk about a sport, sure, but talk about something else by talking about the sport. Again- I know this is really difficult. It's supposed to be. I let them pick the topic to make it easier. 

Let's look at the list of topics my students this year have chosen. See if you can pick out who is flying to the goal via airplane and who is trying to pump up a flat bike tire.

Movie- lessons about never giving up
Dodgers- history of
Gymnastics- moves
How to drive a Formula One car
Fortnite- mods and online
Football- Julio Jones
Squishies- how they're made
NBA- Boston Celtics, Kyrie Irving
softball- history of
ballet- Missie Copeland
Minecraft- learning through
space- how the planets work together
magic- tricks
Five Nights a Freddy's- game design and mechanics
Astros- failure to success
Splatoon 2- why is it good?
MLP- Magical Mystery Cure- Being true to yourself
Soccer- you can play it anywhere
Contortion- what it is and means
How sports helps students academically
Benefits of reading and why it's not a punishment
animal body language
professional wrestling
Great Wolf Lodge- MagiQuest, failure is good
graffiti/conquering your fears
Soccer- equipment and how to play it
astrology- your sign doesn't matter

There's sports and video games and tv shows and all kinds of things fifth graders are obsessed with. I had to talk to each of these kids and aim them at their goal without changing their vehicle. 

Teaching is hard. It's also incredibly exciting. These two states exist simultaneously all the time. I can not wait to see how My Little Pony becomes a TEDtalk. I have no idea how squishies will be related to the rest of the class in a way they care about, but I'm very interested to see what happens. Am I worried they won't work? Yup. Do I want to step in and say, "Come here and let me do this with you so it can be done right, because we can make this work." Yup. But I'm not going to. That will come after. I want the students to do this on their own after our initial meeting. I have to play Ivan Drago, stand back, and say, "If he (metaphorically) dies, he dies."

That's the part of student choice that doesn't get talked about enough. Student choice sometimes means student failure. Student choice means letting students choose poorly so that they might learn to either choose better next time or make their poor choice work. Which means teacher fears about student choice are completely founded. There is no room for mockery or looking down on teachers who hesitate to invest deeply in student choice. Easy to say when they aren't your kids, when it isn't your job, your classroom. Investing in student choice means letting your kids fail, and fail hard, until they learn not to. There's a lot of pressure on teachers to have our kids succeed. You need some combination of the right admin, the right team, the right mindset to make it work and to stick with it for the long haul, watching kids get better at choice, watching them learn to fail faster and earlier in the process that they might revise before the finish comes. 

TEDtalks start tomorrow. Like the night before any project I'm more nervous about what's going to be presented in a few hours than I would be if I was doing the presenting. I've given over control and am running on trust and faith that this way will serve my students in the long term, no matter how it does now.

And if they fail then we talk about how to do it better. We reflect and revise and (they don't know this yet so don't tell them) I'll let them do it again. I don't tell them, by the way, because they'll use that as a Get Out Of Jail Free card. I want the initial pressure.

I'll be in the back of the room tomorrow sending thoughts to my students like I always do. Please be good. Please find ways to layer your talks. Please be relatable. Please be rehearsed. Please have learned and show it. Please trust me, I know it's hard. You can do it. 

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Data Would Make a Terrible Teacher

Data would make a terrible teacher. Yes, in "All Good Things" former Lt Commander Data has become a professor, but that's years after we knew him on the Enterprise. The Data we know and love would make a terrible teacher, for the same reason he made a compelling character- he doesn't understand human emotion. Data knows everything there is to know, and what he doesn't know he can learn faster than anyone else on the ship (unless it's Riker learning a new ensign's room number). Data can relay all that information back to you. But, with a quizzical head tilt, he cannot understand why you don't get it. He can relay the information, but he can't relate to it.

So who on the NCC-1701D would make a good teacher? What can we learn about teaching from my Enterprise crew?

Some may answer Jean-Luc Picard, the best captain a ship named Enterprise ever saw. And it's hard to disagree. He's powerful, commanding, well-read, empathetic, loves history, and can play the Ressikan flute on the days the music teacher is sick. Oh yeah, also he can't stand being around kids. At all. As in, in the season 5 episode "Disaster" when everything goes wrong and everyone is trapped doing jobs they are not equipped to do (is this also the "You may now give birth" episode) the show traps Picard with three children. And for just a moment, he would rather fall to his death in a broken turbolift than figure out a way to survive along with the kids. There's a lot to love about Jean-Luc (just ask Vash), but he's not the best teacher. Not even, I'd think, at the university level because even though he loves his history, he'd be one of those professors who loves his subject so much that he doesn't realize he's talking straight past his students. However, you could get in his good graces by bringing him tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Riker also has qualities that would make him a good teacher, and others that disqualify him immediately. For example, he would probably have excellent relationships with the moms in his class, as well as those parents with no gender.* He's got an easy smile and the respect of those who work him him. Also, it would be fun to watch him sit down. But he's also hard on those under him, and not terribly supportive at times. Riker couldn't stand Barkley, for example, and how a character treats Barkley can be a litmus test for how good of a teacher they'll be. He also had trouble relating to the cadets and junior officers in "Lower Decks", which means he might forget what his students are going through. And finally, he might teach his students to play trombone, which is a deal breaker.

While we're on the subject of Barkley, Geordi also wouldn't make a great teacher. Like Riker, Geordi couldn't stand the insecure goofball when he met him and had no patience for his fumbling and stuttering. Geordi knows his ship inside and out, and solves problems creatively, though maybe a little creepily. You don't want Geordi teaching a class, he's more at home with his engines. I assume he could see what's written on the notes his students are passing without opening them up, which would be helpful.

Everyone's LOL choice would be Worf, but I don't think he'd be as bad as all that. Hear me out- Worf evolves a lot over the course of the show. Season one Worf, no, not a good teacher. But in season one Worf's response to literally anything was "Shoot it with a phaser." But then we get to "Lower Decks" and Worf drops this amazing bit of teaching.

I honestly love that scene, what she takes from it, and how he conveys it. Worf also actively tries to grow and get better. He's never a great father to Alexander, but he improves and finds ways to accept how his son is different and that he has to teach him the way Alexander needs to learn, which might not be the Klingon Way. Worf is also my favorite character, so I'm biased about all this because he'd also headbutt a parent into next week given the right motivation.

We're left with two main cast members- Troi and Dr. Crusher. I have to say I'm a little disappointed that the two most likely to be good teachers are the two women, but we can be honest and say that for as progressive as TNG was, it still put the women in the care-giver roles. (Except Tasha, but Tasha wouldn't make a good teacher because she'd die halfway through a lesson early in the year.)

Troi is an empath and a counselor. And honestly, if I had her at a school, I wouldn't put her in a classroom, I'd put her in the counselor's office. She would make an excellent teacher, with her ability to read the kid's emotions. But I think she might not be as strong as they would need sometimes. Yes, she learns to be stronger in "Disaster' (wow, the same episodes are coming up over and over), but a great school counselor is a gift. Come to think of it, you could transpose the whole crew into similar school situations and it would work. Picard as principal, Riker as VP, Geordi doing Maker classes, Data teaching logic and computers, Worf teaching PE, Deanna in the counselor's office.

Leaving us with the best teacher on the main cast- Doctor Beverly Crusher. Strong, smart, empathetic, with experience with children. Dr. Crusher would be the teacher everyone learned the most from. She also was willing to put Picard (and anyone else) in place when needed. She can feel the emotion of a moment while also moving through it to do the job. She is confident in herself and knows that sometimes it's the world that's mad, not you. She took the time to teach Data to dance, and when Data downloaded a program to dance technically right she knew to tell him that technically right isn't the same as dancing well. Dr. Crusher knows that data isn't the end, but it is a tool she can use to do her job. I want to be in Dr Crusher's class.

Honorable Mentions-

Keiko O'Brian- She ends up being a teacher once she and Miles depart to Deep Space Nine, but she only gets an honorable mention because she's a botanist who decided to become a teacher because the station needed a teacher and how hard can it be? I hate that trope.

Guinan- Not a regular cast member, but more regular than Keiko, Guinan the bartender probably would actually be the best teacher on the ship, because that's often what her job was. She'd smile, tell a little story, and let the other crew members figure out their problems. She was also hundreds of years old, so she knew what was up. I'd also like to be in Guinan's classroom.

Q- Q would be The Greatest Teacher Ever and also The Worst Teacher Ever, often at the same time. He hates the rules, can't stand people who don't understand him, is constantly condescending and mocking, once asking Worf, "Eat any good books lately?" And yet, you know Q's class would be Can't Miss. 

*The Outcast is an outstanding episode with a dark ending that should have gone all the way with the casting of J'naii but does a lot for being a show that came out in 1992. 

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