Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#ShareTheMess, Late January Update

I’ve had two of the worst teaching class periods in my career this week for the same class period. I’ve been in the classroom for ten years, and used the outdoors as a classroom with students for two year. This Monday and today, I had two of the worst class periods I’ve ever had.

Things that worked in other classes - a task that sparked discussion, a sharing and building of ideas, engagement in a task: they didn’t work. And I didn’t really do anything to make it better.

I say this not because I am looking for sympathy or ideas. I say it rather because we tend to only share the brilliance or the schemes or the breakthroughs with our larger circles of educator friends.

I’m just as guilty of this as anyone.

Not today though. Today I’m sharing the mess.  

Today, I sucked in one class period. I was horrible for the same class period Monday. Kids off task that I couldn’t refocus. The level of discourse dropped. People weren’t focused on ideas.

And I couldn’t fix it either time.

I’ll start the process of fixing Friday, the next time I see this class. And it’ll get better.

However, we’ve got to remember to share the mess. Because education ain’t always perfect. At least it isn’t in my classroom.

Metaphor for my classroom this week
Spilled dog food by Scott Granneman from flickr

Monday, January 26, 2015

#youredustory, Week 4

Prompt: What is the best thing you do in your classroom/school/district/job?

Early in my career I spent too much time directing my students’ learning. On some days in my classroom, I still do it way too much. This is what many teachers know school to be - and what many students and parents have come to expect from school. 

I think that the best thing that I do in my classroom is to get out of my students’ way. After a couple years of experimenting with class structure, I’ve finally landed on a structure for units that I like. We spend some time as a whole class on a unit hook and working through some shared schema that everyone needs to have in order to understand the unit. Much of this work is literacy rich and focuses on conflicting understandings of what happened in the past: pieces of history that ask you to make judgments or don’t necessarily have a right or easy answer. 

Unit structure in my class

After we get through this part of a unit, I get out of my kids way to make room for their enthusiasm. What in a unit interests them? What do they want to learn more about? Where are there contemporary issues similar to the larger picture of the unit?

Tapping into my students’ curiosity has been enjoyable. It has also taught me a lot: I knew very little about the transgender movement before a student chose to do a project on it. I had never heard of the Third Servile War before two students chose to research this - turns out it was fascinating!

Finally, we come back together as a class to look over some of the larger similarities that exist across what we learned separately. This synthesis has been valuable for my students to see across time periods and see the resonance of ideas outside of the narrowly bounded time of a unit. But what has been more valuable, for me, has been to get out of my students’ way and let their curiosity take control of their learning.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

My 20time Project

This year is my second year doing 20% time. I did a version of 20time two years ago, but I made so many mistakes we’re not going to count it…

Last year, I didn’t do a 20time project. This may or may not have been a mistake - I’m not sure. I was concerned with overseeing student what my students were working on and helping them when they needed it. However, this year I’m in.

Thanks to a great Voxer conversation, Ashley, Amy, and John helped spawn this idea.

It started with this tweet from John a couple weeks ago:

As I discussed asking my kids these questions and prepping a video of their responses, Ashley and Amy started talking about interviewing some of the students in their district as they prep a 1:1 rollout. And then it hit me: why am I not interviewing my students this year about various aspects of school and splicing them together?

As educators, we say we care about what our kids have to say. Well, how careful are we about making sure we know their opinions? I hope that by doing this project, and sharing it with teachers in my PLN, that we become more aware of what our kids want from and think about school.

The first video - which answered John’s questions - is done, and embedded below.

This leaves me here: what questions should I ask my students this year? Got ideas? Things you’d like to hear some ninth graders in the Bay Area talk about? Toss them in the comments!


Tangentially related: Kevin Brookhouser's 20time book showed up in my mailbox yesterday. I'm looking forward to reading it. Check it out here.

Friday, January 23, 2015

From My Students: What Teacher PD Should Focus On

A couple weeks ago, my buddy John Stevens asked this on Twitter:

Great question. I decided I'd actually ask my students what they thought teachers should focus on during our professional development. Here's what they had to say:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Technology Needs Versus Learning

On Monday, I got to participate in an all-day meeting about our district’s five year tech plan. Through the course of the day, I had a couple ideas that crystallized in my head.

Photo is mine
Five year tech plans are fine. They’re necessary. They give some structure to where a district is headed, and about how time, money, and energy should be focused.


It is also completely putting the cart before the horse.

What do classrooms look like now? And compared to that answer, what SHOULD classrooms look like now? What should classrooms look like in five years?

But more importantly, what does learning look like right now, in 2015? What SHOULD learning look like in 2015? What should learning look like in five years, in 2020?

If a large-scale plan around technology is going to be created, these are questions that need to be addressed.

These discussions need to happen at a site level. They need to happen at a district level. Because without that shared vision of what learning is, and should be, now - and in the future! - what is the point of a long term tech plan? If you don’t know what learning looks like, how can you know what tech you will need? Or what furniture you will need? Or really, how can you know just about anything that you might need?

If the understandings of learning are different - and not co-constructed, or even unearthed - any sort of plan around future technology needs will get pulled in about fifteen different directions.

Monday, January 19, 2015

#youredustory, Week 3: How are you, or is your approach, different than your favorite teacher?

Hmm. Another loaded question in week three of #youredustory.

My favorite teachers in high school were both history teachers: Mary Schmidt was my junior year rise of western civ teacher and Jon Friedberg taught my AP US history class my senior year. They were very different styles of teachers, but both excellent in their own way.

Ms Schmidt taught our western civ class at an AP level. Her class was probably the hardest class I took in high school. She regularly used high level vocabulary - I occasionally had no idea what she was talking about - and really pushed her students to think. Additionally, it was in her class that I first came into contact with a different view of history: at some point in the first semester, we read Howard Zinn's chapter on Columbus from A People's History of the United States. That blew my mind: I can't remember reading such a jarring narrative about a historical figure I thought I knew before this. Perhaps most importantly, and probably more than any other class in high school, I wanted to do well in Ms Schmidt's class because I wanted her to see me as an intelligent student.

I hope I challenge my students the way Ms Schmidt did. I hope I force them to build their academic vocabulary in my class. I hope we look at things in history that run counter to the dominant narrative in my class the way we did in her class. I do know that I'm very different from Ms Schmidt in some ways though: I remember her being very serious with us. I can't imagine a singalong to 'I Want It That Way' breaking out in her class like it did in my 7th period a couple weeks ago.

I still have lunch with Mr Friedberg when I'm back in Wisconsin. He encouraged me to apply to Stanford, which is what brought me to the Bay Area initially. He was tasked with getting a bunch of us ready for the AP test in May of our senior year. We did a lot of DBQ (document based question, a staple of the AP test then) writing in his class. He was also a great lecturer. He knew all the funny and a bit controversial facets of American historical figures. I read ahead in his class - read to cover the content of the upcoming lecture before the actual lecture - so I could more completely pay attention to all these tidbits. He also put up with us saying he wore shirts that looked like table cloths and allowed us to compile a list of oft quoted Friedberg-isms.

I know in terms of personality and how I relate to kids, my class is similar to Mr. Friedberg's. Kids pick at me and my idiosyncrasies in a way similar to how I interacted with him. I'm not the storyteller that Friedberg was. Similar to his class, I try to have a systematic approach around writing, like he had.

I think that both of these teachers emphasized aspects of their class around an idea that shows up in my class: there isn't a right or wrong answer - there are varying levels of achievement in justifying your answer. Both were hugely influential in my burgeoning love of history. I can safely say I wouldn't be a history teacher today had I not had these two great teachers.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Laurie Stapleton in this post. I had the privilege of being in a class Laurie taught in grad school. I don't remember what she taught - grad school was a blur, with student teaching all morning and going to class in the afternoon and then trying to be ready for the next day. I do, though, remember that Laurie listened and empathized with her students in a way I've not ever seen another teacher do. I hope my students feel half as heard as I felt in Laurie's class.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Will You Make the World a Better Place?

Photo is mine
Love this question. It is most certainly not messing around.

As always, a bit of context. I’m a straight white male with a Masters degree who lives in the United States. I don’t have any visible physical difficulties. I appear that I could be Christian.

In a nutshell, I am the epitome of privilege in this world.

It is my belief that, given my extreme privilege, if I am not going to try to make the world a better place, who should I count on to do that?

This is why I teach. It’s the best weapon I can think of, given my skill set, to fight for social justice in the world.

This what I believe.


But that’s the short story.

I also think it is my job to maximize the good I can do in the world: again, given my skill set I need to make sure I am affecting the most positive change that I possibly can. That’s why I teach. That’s why I put so much energy into organizing edcamps. That’s why I share what we do in my classroom. That’s why all my curriculum is posted on my class website, there to be taken by anyone that wants it: please use it!


Sometimes I wonder.

I’ve enjoyed the shift within my classroom to a more student-centered place over the last few years. I’ve written already for #youredustory that I am going to try to shift instruction at my site to be more student-centered. However, as a teacher with no official leadership role on my campus, that’s a tough sell.

Sometimes I wonder about making the jump into administration. I’d like to be in a place where I could support teachers to try to make their classrooms more student-centered. I’d like to try to support teachers already doing that. I’d like to ask teachers what risk they plan on taking in a semester, and how I can support them.

Sometimes I wonder if I should try to make a bigger impact beyond a single classroom. I wonder if I could facilitate a school-wide change towards a more student-centered mindset. I wonder if I could change more classrooms than just mine.

I wonder how I can maximize the impact I make on the world.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Show Your Work: The Instagram Hashtag Edition

I just finished reading Show Your Work by Austin Kleon on Sunday. As I was finishing the book, I stumbled across a great example of #showyourwork.

My buddy Kristina - one of the most positive, edcamp-y educators I’m lucky enough to call a friend - started posting pictures on Instagram on January 1 with the hashtag #kp365 on them. I saw that question and started wondering about what it was there for.

I assumed Kristina was doing some sort of photo a day thing, given the 365 on the hashtag. Her initials are KP. Why include them in the hashtag? Did she want an easy way to see all the posts she made for photo a day this year?

Ooh. Maybe she was running an IFTTT recipe that posted pictures she added to Instagram with the #kp365 hashtag to a website! (Totally stole this idea from Jeff Heil, who blew m mind with it at a GAFE Summit 1.5 years ago.)

Then I stopped.

I love mobile photography. Why wasn’t I doing that? That’s an easy IFTTT recipe to set up.

So I’m doing a photo a day this year. I’m posting all my pictures on Instagram with the hashtag #kls365. They are all ending up on a website (that I’ll build out more of at some point).

Best part about all this? I still have no idea why Kristina is using the #kp365 hashtag on her photos. But just by showing her work, she got my wheels turning and made me want to go out and create.

Thanks, Kristina!

One Word for 2015

"Toggle light switch" from Funpikia from Wikimedia 
I just finished reading Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. It was a great book. One of those reads that makes you think after you read it, “Geez, that’s all really logical stuff. Why didn’t I think of that?” I love books like that. I’m always struck the same way by books by Malcolm Gladwell: an idea that’s so intuitive and makes perfect sense.

So, as both my #gtaatx and #youredustory friends are talking about what their one word for 2015, it seems like it would make sense for my one word to be Switch.

Switch (the book) talks about what people can do to make change happen. It looks at the things you can do to ease the difficult process of change from three viewpoints: that of the Elephant, the Rider, and the Path. It does this from a perspective of a leader, but also from the perspective of a person trying to make change without a lot of power.

For me, the word switch resonates for several reasons. I am lucky to get to keep my students for two full years. I’m one semester into that: we just started our second semester together yesterday. In addition to teaching my students (giving them opportunities to learn and sharpen?) some important reading and argumentation skills, I work hard to try to switch my students’ perception of school generally as well as of what history class is and can be.

It seems like this should be an easy thing: I’m working from a position of power - I’m the teacher. However, nine years of schooling before they’ve gotten to me has inculcated an understanding of the game of school as well as how to play it. I battle against that as I try to switch the perception of and expectation for school in my students.*

In addition to trying to switch my students’ perceptions of school, I’m also trying to shift the instruction at my school to be more student-centered. This is a tougher shift, as I’m a teacher without any real authority to ask for a change in instructional practice. This goal has morphed (I believe) into my action plan coming out of the Google Teacher Academy. We’ll see how it goes.

Both switches are worthy, high goals. I look forward to working on these switches as this year - and probably next year as well - unfolds.

*Sidenote: I did have an old student come in today and say a teacher wasn’t really teaching her because they were just lecturing. That made me smile.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Photo by me
Teaching is a taxing profession. Yes, I know I'm preaching to the choir - we all know that. Despite knowing that, there were some times I really struggled last semester. Though the end of first semester went much better, I was still pretty drained come the third week of December.

I was really lucky over break: I got to spend the last couple weeks with friends and family. Somewhat unintentionally, I used this time to really recharge. Yeah, I don't have a ton of responsibilities in life. But I was able to take advantage of doing a few easy things and wipe the slate clean in my brain and therefore indirectly get ready for second semester.

  • I sent zero emails over break that I didn't need to. Occasionally, I had to respond to an email, like helping an advisee who missed all of final exams set up a schedule to take her exams. But I'd look at email about once a day. I clicked Archive a lot. It felt good. 
  • I stayed off Twitter. I responded to tweets that tagged me. Occasionally, when I had a moment, I poked around on Twitter. But I essentially ignored it. Which felt good. The most time I spent on Twitter was checking the setlists for Phish's New Year's run. 
  • I did no lesson planning. Well, I did no lesson planning until I was at the airport on Sunday afternoon and decided I should probably try to throw together some sort of a unit plan for imperialism (the next unit we're covering).
  • I spent time doing nothing. Just reading. Not looking at my phone. (Though I used my phone to take a lot of pictures.) Not watching a football game. Just sitting on a beach and reading. I don't do that enough.
As I floated 35,000 over the Pacific Ocean yesterday, I realized I'm fully ready to go back to school. Yeah, I've got a teacher workday today to get ready. But I'm excited to see my kids Tuesday. The content I cover in the second semester of freshmen year is fun.

It's going to be a great semester.

Sunrise on Haleakala on Maui. A good use of a phone on vacation!