Sub out “teacher” for “villain” and you’ve got my mindset about this job pretty much nailed. Let’s be honest. We all teach the same stuff. Maybe not to the same kids, but still. Why does the guy down the hall get results where I don’t?

It’s the great paradox of my personality. I can be the most optimistic, laid-back guy. But under that “hey-buddy” facade I’m super-competitive. Like, cutthroat.

Also: Very Stubborn.

Probably not my most attractive traits. But they keep me from pulling the covers back over my head and calling AesopOnline most days.

There’s a teacher meme out there that pops up every now and then amongst the smart teachers I follow: The Myth Of The Hero Teacher.

If you’ve seen “Freedom Writers” or “Stand And Deliver” or “Dangerous Minds“, or read “Work Hard, Be Nice” or any of a dozen other books, you know the story. A plucky, determined teacher, young (or not so young), through sheer force of will reaches the unreachable students and proves It Really Can Be Done.

#confessanunpopularopinion: I kind of dug Freedom Writers. I loved Stand And Deliver. And I have read WHBN multiple times, trying to unlock the secrets.

The beef  that leads to the No Heroes position goes like this: The kind of effort that has to be input to get movie-level output is unsustainable.  JP Fugler made that point in the HuffPo this week:

Hollywood hasn’t done us any favors, making our jobs look easy and infinitely rewarding. Sure, there’s conflict and a few obstacles in the typical teacher movie, but anything is possible with 90 minutes and a screenwriter. The problem is what you don’tsee in those films.

You can’t fit the amount of pressure teachers feel, our struggle to individualize content meant for the masses, or our many honest failures into a blockbuster. No one wants to see that movie. Even when a film is loosely based on fact, there isn’t enough room for our fears and frustrations.

Dan Meyer teed up Freedom Writers for portraying a “false dichotomy between teaching and caring” 8 years ago:

The fact that MTV portrays these caring strategies as Erin Gruwell’s means, end, aim, and goal, while relegating grammar, syntax, and vocabulary instruction to a one-line mention, depresses me even weeks later. Because, let’s be clear, in a culture where the consumer is king, we can only blame MTV so much for representing one over the other. This is how the movie-going public and, more to the point, how teachers want our job portrayed. MTV is merely the closest reflective surface.

I wish I could relate, I do, but I’m with Scott Glenn: this is just a job.

“Just a job”. Truth. Yet ultra-competitive me still tells myself it’s a cop-out. That if I did more, worked harder, planned better, read more teacher blogs, coached more and did Natural Helpers, my students would learn.

I’m re-reading Donna Foote’s 2005 book Relentless Pursuit, a tale of a year in the life of four newly-minted Teach For America core members in Watts. To be clear, my school is Disneyland compared to Locke High School, where the book takes place. But the first time I read it, I saw myself in the hallways and classrooms. The discipline issues, the poverty, the racial tensions, the gangs, the struggle to get control of one class to teach one lesson one day… all of it.

You can take or leave TFA – I’m not trying to tell you the story would have been different if the protagonists had been four kids from any university teacher prep program. The bigger point: I find myself drawn back to the book at least once a school year, when I need to be reminded that my classroom is not a special case. That there are thousands of teachers out there, fighting the same fight, on the daily for their kids.

My kids. Our kids.

I don’t really have to go farther than my phone for additional support tho. Teacher twitter has been a revelation for me. I had a little pop-up conversation with two members of my PLN over spring break, a conversation that started with Justin Aion blogging about Engagement.

That’s not a “blame the kids” thing. It’s the truth. It’s why I have to Teach Different.

What I hadn’t considered is that among all the brilliant voices online, with all my #MTBoS people and everybody else, that sometimes those of us teaching in underserved communities really are out there in the wilderness.

I’ve never had anyone tell me they were glad to find me. We ended up tweeting back and forth some names of teachers to follow, including Chevin Stone in my own building. The theme of the convo was, in the words of Mrs. Phillips, “sometimes I need to hear voices of people who don’t teach privileged kids.”


Thing is, I walk the halls of my school. I see my kids in other classes. I know it can be done. And I’m determined to do it. Even if I’m no hero. Just a teacher.

Mr. Incredible


Is that OK?

I Appreciate You

ezgif.com-gif-maker.jpg (540×225)

So the topic turned to PLTW at home one night this week, as we plotted ways to get various combinations of children and adults to various extra-curricular commitments. To allow for some additional intensive ECA/ISTEP prep classes for our 10th graders, I voluntarily gave up my Introduction To Engineering Design course for the second semester to pick up three more sections of Algebra 1. I realized I had missed being this immersed in math. PLTW is cool. Really cool. But I’m a math teacher at heart.

Still, it’s killing me. Literally. I told Mrs. Dull that this semester has taken five years off my life. And it’s only half over.

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You know those “presidents aging in office” photos? Seriously, don’t do a side-by-side of my ID photos. Image via http://www.cbsnews.com/news/do-presidents-age-faster-than-the-rest-of-us-06-12-2011/

When I start re-reading “Relentless Pursuit“,  Donna Foote’s chronicle of a year in the life of four first-year teachers at a high school in Watts, well, that’s an indicator I’m feeling a little like I’m drowning.

I love my kids. And I hate my kids. And I love my kids. But like Eddie Murphy says (extremely NSFW), sometimes I find myself wishing misfortune on them. Nothing serious, just a paper cut and a jar of pickles. Or maybe a locker infested with cockroaches.

My obituary will read: “cause of death: 3rd period class”.

We took a quiz on Friday. I promised my students I would never give them a quiz without doing a review day first. If they miss the review, well, that’s their problem, not mine, but still. We’ve been doing Speed Dating reviews to great success, but every now and then you got to mix things up. Even the good stuff gets old.

Then this:

I opted for a Kahoot review. If you played the trivia game at the bar back in your college days, you know Kahoot.
This particular class checked out long ago. I’m not sure I have any tricks left in the bag to bring them back. I was not optimistic. After our 101qs bellringer and checking homework, I launched Kahoot.

And I hear: “awwww yeah!”

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Image via http://orig10.deviantart.net/a05b/f/2013/150/8/f/wut__by_djpavlusha-d678s0o.jpg

Each student signs in with a code for the game at kahoot.it, and selects a screen name. Teachers can reject inappropriate names, and with this class I feel like it pays to be quick on the draw. So I see them start to pop up on screen:
“A’ight My Babies”
“Hey Now”

The little cherubs are using my catchprases as screen names. AYKM?

At least they are paying attention. Sometimes. Here’s to small victories. And maybe, relationship building.
We have been all-in on PBIS for the last four years in my building. (PBIS = Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports). A small but growing core group of teachers is constantly on the lookout to catch our students doing something good. Not in a condescending way, but just to say thanks for doing what they are supposed to be doing. Our markers of PBIS are Responsible, Respectful, Engaged, and Caring. When students display one or a combination of these behaviors/attitdues, they are given a purple ticket which is entered into a quarterly drawing for a goodie bag and on-stage recognition at a school-wide PBIS assembly.

So I’m walking down the stairs with a stack of copies at the end of the day and I hear an adult call my name from the top of the stairwell. It’s one of our freshman academy teachers who is also on the PBIS committee. She has a story to tell about one of her kids whose usual interaction with adults in the building is negative:

Her: “<student name> today: ‘Hey, here’s my purple ticket. Mr. Dull saw me pick up papers that a kid dropped in the hallway. I’m a rock star’. He must have said it 13 times in 40 minutes. I had to listen to him all class. Dull, You’re a rock star.”

Me: “Yeah, but you reminded me to write purple tickets at the PD the other day.”

*Fist bump*



The day ended with a faculty meeting. We just finished a round of state testing, so our principal felt it made sense for this meeting to be a little more low-key. We started off receiving an individualized note and a scratch-off lottery ticket (I won 5 bucks!).

Didn't have to. Did anyway. It's a small thing, but it's a big thing.
Didn’t have to. Did anyway. It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing.

Then it continued with a poster hunt with each group tweeting out a photo.

She didn’t have to. There’s a lot going on in the building right now. But she did anyway.

Appreciation is definitely a two-way street. Maybe even a five-points intersection. But this day the message from kids, teachers, and administrators (and back) was hard to miss: I appreciate you.


Everything’s On The Table

Aces up. Image via caesars.com

I spent many a weekend night as a young adult hanging with the fellas, drinking beer and playing cards. One of the dads who would occasionally sit in on the games was famous for his table banter as he dealt the cards. His most memorable line, deadpanned as he dealt a pair of aces across the table: “Gentlemen, the price of poker just went up.”

Well, in my building, the price of poker just went up. Time to for me to put my money where my mouth is.

We’ve been moving slowly towards a more tech-rich environment over the last year or so. One high school in our district has already made the leap to 1:1 with Chromebooks, and we have made steps in that direction with some informal PD, and each department having use of a Chromebook cart. There is some grant money available to beef up our infrastructure so we can increase the amount of tech available to support teaching and learning.

So at our last faculty meeting, our principal extended a challenge. She announced that next school year we are moving to an emphasis on more authentic learning opportunities for our students.

“Next year – if you’re gonna be with me, we’re going to move forward on this together.”

She told us she hoped to see our staff move to “blended learning”.

So, what does that mean?

George Couros posted on exactly that question recently:

If you google “What is blended learning?”, you will find the following definition:

Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns at least in part through delivery of content and instruction via digital and online media with some element of student control over time, place, path, or pace.

Right now, I do not think of this blog as “blending my learning” even though it is online and I was in a face-to-face setting earlier. It is just the way I connect and deepen my thinking.  Is Googling something when you are interested really something that we would deem “blended” in 2016?

Why I point this out is not for people to feel bad for using the term “blended learning”. My hope is that we get to a point that having an online component to our classrooms where students have an opportunity to learn with “control over time, place, path, or pace”, just becomes what we see as the norm, not the exception.

That sounds like exactly what we have in mind. Like so much education jargon, maybe “blended learning” has lost a bit of its meaning. Maybe a better term for what we are aiming for is “connected learning”? The ability to bring tech to the party changes everything. Including the culture. It’s a huge leap from “sit here and take these notes and do these practice problems” to “holy crap, this guy‘s students just verified a graph of the dating pool by age in an xkcd strip.”

In my world, students like this are the equivalent of likable Republicans in an Aaron Sorkin drama. Unicorns.

What could this look like? Jonathan Claydon says boring 1:1 can still be pretty cool. Especially when you don’t force the tech where pencil and paper would do as good a job, quicker.

But, he notes in a post titled “Boring 1:1“, about the worst possible thing is to use tech as an electronic multiple-choice worksheet machine.

At a local EdCamp, there was buzz about Google Classroom. But the end result was a lot of people migrating fill-in-the-blank worksheets and debating ways to have students fill in the blanks electronically. Or yet another way to boil math down into computer friendly multiple-choice sets. When asked (I usually just listen at these things), I said it’s the wrong approach entirely. You haven’t thought about whether filling in blanks or skimming through multiple choice was an appropriate assignment in the first place. Ask any college kid putting up with MathXL.

Do we need a #DitchBook club? Maybe a small group in the building gets together to learn how one guy (a one-man department, actually) in a small high school in rural Indiana left the textbook on the shelf and used technology to help his students break down classroom walls.

Or #TLAP? I don’t know. I do know the answer isn’t using thousands of dollars worth of Chromebooks to have our students pretend to do PLATO all day.

I spend part of every Tuesday night at the #connectedtl chat. Or as I like to call it, “My West Coast Teacher Brain”. Here was Question 1 from a few weeks ago, on site-level leadership:

As always, Matt Vaudrey brings the goods:

That’s what I heard at that faculty meeting.

So we have a plan. Good. Having a plan is great, but…

“Once you do that, this tank is going to get filthier and filthier, and the dentist will have no choice but to clean the tank himself. He’ll put us in individual baggies, then we roll out the window, down to the ground, across the street, and into the ocean. It’s foolproof!”

..once the theme is in place, how do we implement concrete strategies?

Here’s how: SCH Tech Day. My district has planned a Tech Day for a couple of weeks after school lets out, with teachers as presenters. I’ve been subtly trying to plant the seeds for an EdCampHMD for a couple of years. I know I had less than zero hand in it becoming reality, but: Now here it is.

Of course, you wanna have a camp , you need presenters.

Tech Liasons filling out the dance card.
Tech Liasons filling out the dance card.

Ooooh! Pick me pick me pick me pickme.

Sharing the #MTBoS love in the HMD.
Sharing the #MTBoS love in the HMD.

Seriously, if  after all this there’s not a a dozen teachers in my building next year crushing seamlessly integrated tech awesomeness with totally bitchin’ authentic student products to show for it, I’ll be sorely disappointed.

Maybe we won’t be IowaBIG (who is), but still. To paraphrase the great Shawn Cornally: We did it, so….

Yep, the price of poker just went up. We’ll see you, and raise…