You Want Me to Teach Like a What?

A few summers ago I learned about teaching like a rock star. I took a drive down Highway 49 and spent a couple days at Minarets High School, met some amazing people, and continued to change the way I think about what I do in the classroom. If you have never gone to one of these camps, I highly recommend them. They sell out fast, so you have to sign up quickly.  About a year ago I read the book Teach Like a Pirate. I love that book. It really takes what I try to do to another level. No, I do not dress up in costume like the author does, but I do try to make the day interesting, relevant, and even fun for the students in the class. School should not be boring. Really, it shouldn’t.

Now there is a new movement taking shape: Teach Like A Feral Pig.  I have never met a real rock star or pirate that I know of. But we have feral pigs in the area I live. They are not considered good things. But then, neither are pirates. I surely do not want to live next to a real rock star- I have heard about those parties! But back to the pigs, they are usually big- real big. They like to dig things up. We have a friend whose yard is constantly being ripped up by feral pigs. He can’t stop these things. They know what they want and they don’t let pesky things like fences keep them from their goal. They are downright disruptive!

We teachers should be like that. We should be disruptive. We shouldn’t do things just because that is how it’s done. Rock stars are rock stars because they don’t do things like its always been done. Pirates were pirates because they were rebelling against the establishment. (OK history peeps, don’t jump me on that one, I’m making a point here.) And feral pigs are feral because, well, at some point they busted out of the fences the farmer had them in!

I am going to spend my summer planning on how to be a feral rock star pirate pig! Whose with me?

Image

Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!

3rd Quarter is a Wrap

The third quarter is in the books. I tried a lot of new things this quarter and I have say, by and large, I am glad of it. The biggest changes started as a result of a conversation I had earlier in the year about why I didn’t have standards of the day posted. My principal was showing a new district admin around the campus and they stopped in my room. I answered that standards of the day don’t work really well when the students are all over the place in terms of what they are doing and learning. Some have been in my class for a week and others for a year or more. So he asked if that meant they all had individual daily standards of the day because “that would be pretty cool.”

Yea, it would. 

I have long wanted to be able to work with each student to create an individual learning plan. Instead of me telling them each day what to do, why can’t we – the student and I- create a plan for where the student wants to go in the year? Its a pretty daunting task when you really think about it, sitting down with each student, each day, and talk about what they are doing and what they need to keep going. But I realized it is not too tremendously different than what I was already doing. Some kids were working on self designed projects, some were working on basic projects I had given them, and still others were working on special projects for other people, like what happens in a job. So I thought, what the heck, go for it.

I decided that I would, as much as possible, talk with each student each day about what they were working on, and develop a plan for what is next. Sometimes that would mean what they were doing today, but other times the talk was what was going to happen tomorrow. So far it is working pretty well. It is shifting responsibility for what is happening in the room from me to the students. They don’t come in and wait for me to tell them what to do, they already know what they need to do. They may not know how- that might be their daily goal, figure out how to accomplish something- but they know what they need to do.

The grade book was the scary part for me. How could I keep a grade book if everyone was truly doing something different? The answer was simple; don’t keep the grade book.  As Alice Keeler would say, let it go! The final assignment for the quarter was for students to tell me what they learned, and provide evidence. If I was going to see it all in one sitting, and I was going to sit down with each student each day, why did I need to keep entering numbers in a spreadsheet? I didn’t need to. I was giving them verbal feedback each day, that was better than a number or a grade. What really surprised me was not only did very few students seem to notice the grade book was empty  but many students asked if it would be OK if they could redo this or that and show it to me tomorrow when it was better.

Um, yea, that would be good.

What Are We Doing Today?

You would think that after eighteen years in the classroom I would really be zeroed in on what my curriculum is going to be one year to the next. You might think I have this big file cabinet full of project outlines, or binders full of project ideas. When I started teaching all those years ago I thought that was where I was going.  I bought binders, lots of them, so I could save student projects one year to the next so students would have exemplars; students could see what a good project looks like. I was told a good teacher knows where the class is going, and has a clear roadmap, or curricular plan, on how to get there. A good teacher has a binder with all of the assignments for the year. Students will do this, then that, then the next. A good teacher plans each detail of the year. Thats what I was taught.

So what happened? Where’s the binder?

Well, technology happened. It would be absurd for me to ask my students to do the same things I was asking them to do just 5 years ago. The things they were doing  and spending a week on can now be done in five minutes with any number of apps on their cell phones. What was impressive and engaging for students a couple years ago is old hat now. So I have to take risks. I have to try this, and try that. Some things just don’t work either technologically, or I can’t capture kids interest. Other things work. They engage kids. I don’t know from one week to the next what is going to really click, or from one kid to the next. The heck with two or three years down the road!

A tweet caught my eye the other day-

I usually do not know where my students are going with their work in class. I have no idea what form their “projects” are going to take a month from now. I will show them a tool, suggest some kind of topic, provide an example, and challenge them to use the tool. Yes it is a standards based class, but that doesn’t mean everyone is doing the same, preplanned thing at the same time. They aren’t. We are figuring it out together as we go. Some times it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well. But I am really glad I don’t have those binders that used to seem so important.

The Daily Objective

I had a couple administrators walk through my classroom the other day. It was no big deal, the principal was just showing her new boss around. We chatted. It was nice. Then I was asked why my daily objectives were not posted anywhere. I gave my standard answer; after about a month into the school year most kids are in totally different places in the curriculum. How can I have one objective when I have a room full of people all doing different things? In the past visitors would accept this answer and move on to something else.

But this time there was a followup question. “Does that mean that all of the students develop their own daily objectives?” I never had a follow up question before. I think I actually stammered in my response. I said something about the advanced kids are supposed to make weekly objectives and if I was better at what I do they would do a better job of it.

I have never really given a lot of thought to each student having a different daily objective. I think it would be a really, really good thing to do, but I don’t have any idea how to make it actually make it work. I can’t talk with each student each day to develop an objective; by the time I got half way around the room the period would be over. But I am thinking I could do a Google form, or a Doctopus page, where each day at the start of the day the student writes down, first thing, what the objective is for the week and the day. That way each student is working on a clear measurable objective. And they know what it is.

I would love to hear other ideas on how I can do this.

Being proud and actually saying it.

I was able to attend Fall Cue this year again.  It was, as usual, a great experience. It was a little different this year in that I didn’t come home with a great new tool. Usually I learn of a great tool that is new to me; an app, a web site, or a gadget. This year there was no such discovery for me. The learning for me seemed to center on attitude. Mostly my own. I really wanted to refine my thinking about the maker concept and design thinking, and I was able to do that, but it wasn’t really new.

The opening keynote by Ramsey Mussalum, which can be seen here, was great. Does Ramsey do anything not great? (Why do they call it the opening keynote when it is delivered at the midway point of the conference? But that is an aside.) Ramsey talked about why so many kids hate school, and to combat that we, as teachers, need to love our jobs. If you don’t love your job it shows, and you make it all the more likely that your students will #hateschool. Fortunately, #Ilovemyjob.

The closing keynote by Angela Maiers was equally powerful. She talked about how kids just want to be acknowledged and valued. Call them by their name Angela said. All of them. Make them know you notice them. In a good way.

One of the reasons #Ilovemyjob is because I work at a small school where I can know every kid’s name. We have less than 250 kids. I need to do better about knowing all of their names, even those who don’t hang out in Awesomnesity Central, or for those who don’t know, Room 17. I came back to school with the plan that I was going to seek out those kids who think #Ihateschool and say hello to them, by name. It seemed simple enough, and sounded like a pretty good idea.

It was Tuesday afternoon, the last period of the day. I spent most of the day honestly amazed at the work my students were doing. We were doing some pretty complicated GIS stuff on a school network that doesn’t like GIS stuff. We had lots of issues, and the kids were just plowing right through them. They were almost finished with a project and I was just beaming with pride. I said it.

“You guys are really doing amazing work, sticking to it, working through problems. Its amazing to watch. I am proud of you.”

One girl turned around and asked “Me? You are proud of me too?

“Yea, you. Everyone in here. You guys are doing amazing stuff.”

“But you mean me? You are proud of me?”

“Yea. Of course. Your data was gone, you got it back, like it was no big deal. You have been doing great work. Why are you acting surprised?”

“Because no one has ever said that to me.” Long pause. “No, no one. No one has ever said they were proud of me.”

I am glad I went to Fall Cue.

Is it Good Enough?

Something different is happening in my classroom this year. To start with my students are moving along faster, doing much more complicated work than I have ever had happen before. They are working through difficult technical issues with good, positive attitudes. Lots of “well that didn’t work, lets try this” types of things are happening. One afternoon a kid yelled out, with his arms raised in triumph “Yes, our point data is displaying right, we did it!” As he finished the sentence the bell rang and he said “Dang, I still need to make a layer package!” It was fun to watch. In past years many kids would have given up, and I would spend lots of time trying to coax them into continuing. But its different this year.

I think part of the reason for the difference is I have made a deliberate effort this year to “encourage kids to fail.” Not fail as in flunk, but to take risks. I tell them they are supposed to mess up- that’s why we call it school. I dare them to break the software. I remind them to save often, but don’t be afraid to push buttons and see what happens. If something breaks don’t push that button next time. And if you figure it out (we even have a song “figure it out”) don’t be stingy, show someone else. If you can’t figure it out, ask someone who did.

I find myself sitting in the corner of the room many days just watching and smiling. Its busy. Its noisy. And its a bit messy. Often times every student is working on something different, no two screens look alike. Its awesome. Lately kids have been asking if they can do a project over because “mine came out boo boo. I need to fix this and that.” In years past they would have just said it was “good enough.” But my favorite comment so far this year was the girl who said “Hey Mr. Hall, come over here. Its time you learned how to do this too. Sit down right here, I am going to teach you how.”

Mom’s on the phone

mobile phones
mobile phones (Photo credit: phossil)

This year our school district changed a policy concerning cell phones used by students. While there seems to be some contradictions, my understanding is that it is ok for students to have and use cell phones on campus, as long as they do not disrupt instruction. While some teachers are still taking phones from kids I decided to try something new. I gave them an assignment and encouraged them to use their phones to do it. Then I told them it was ok to use their phones as long as they were not just texting, Instagraming, Facebooking, or what have you. I promised them I would not give them grief about their phones, if they kept it professional.

So far it has worked out well. Almost everyone has a phone, iPod, or tablet out and plugged in. They have their ear buds in while they are working, they take them out when I need to talk to the class. They take pictures of things they need to remember. They step outside to make audio recordings, and they compare apps for given tasks. And yes, they text. Every now and then I will see someone talking on the phone.  I tell myself it is ok. I asked a student who she was talking to on the phone. She said “My mom called.”

Yesterday I asked a girl if she thought she might be texting too much. She didn’t argue with me at all. She said “You’re right.” She turned to her friend next to her, handed her phone to the friend and said “put this in your bag and give it back to me after class.” No argument. No disruption. No referral. No calling campus security to search for a phone. Just kids doing their work. It looked and sounded a lot like a bunch of adults working in an office. I like this policy much better.

Giving Feedback

Google Bike by Mhall209 CC Some rights reserved

I have committed this year to do a better job of providing timely feedback for my students. I know that timely feedback is what makes or breaks a learning experience. When I was a child learning to ride a bike, I knew immediately when I made a mistake. I knew because I crashed and it hurt. I knew when I was doing it right because I didn’t crash, and it was fun. When I read about using games in the classroom I find that they are valuable because the feedback is immediate; the student doesn’t need to wait to get their paper back to see how they did. They know right away; they got points, they lost points, or they got game over. And that, so the theory goes, is why games are so engaging.

The problem is the classes I have are not games. Or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to make them games. (Maybe I should learn to code…hmm.) I still am having kids “do things” and turn them in. And that is where the catch is. Right now there are 76 “things” in my cue awaiting feedback, or as my kids prefer, waiting to be graded. Some of those things are videos, some images, some websites, some short essays. To make the problem worse, I don’t penalize for late work (why I do this is another post) and students can redo work as many times as they like to get the grade they want. All this makes my inbox a mess. Some of the work is new and timely, other pieces are things that a student didn’t turn in a couple weeks ago, and still others are things I have already seen a time or two before.

So my challenge today is to figure out a way to tame the inbox so that kids get their feedback no later than the next day. They need to know when they are doing well and when they fall off the bike.

Pro Points


I was working on an assignment today for the school culture class I am taking as part of the Admin Credential program at Teachers College of San Joaquin. I was supposed to be writing  a vision statement. Researching that brought me to the web site of Minarets High School in O’neals, California. Minarets is one of those schools that appears to be doing it right. I see them doing amazing things in amazing ways. I thought I would find their vision statement and “borrow” it. You know, use it for inspiration. I was disappointed. I couldn’t find their vision statement. I did find this though. A grading policy that really got me thinking about my own grading policy. 

I really struggle with my grading policy. I change it every year. I want to to measure and reflect what my students are able to do, not how well they sit in their chairs for an hour, or find the right answers in the text book. I also want them to be able to see where they are at, grade wise, all the time. I hope to someday have this figured out, but I know I am not there yet.

One of the things that stood out to me in the Minarets policy was the way they reward quality work that is done early:

One of the most important lessons for life: Being done ahead of time. You can’t be good at something if it’s always last minute.”

My students need this lesson. So I decided I need to adopt “Pro Points.” My new Pro Points policy is here. I will be springing this on the students on Monday. Now I need to get back to that vision statement I was doing.