One Man Book Club – It Won’t Be Easy

Bookshelf
These are just the books I’ve spent cash on. Include my Valpo Library selections and the shelf is five times as wide. I probably read too much.

“When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. And when you are a teacher, every book is a ‘teacher book'”.

-Me

There are a lot of Teacher Books out there. I know, “a lot” is a precise technical term. But I teach, and I read, and I follow a lot of teachers on Twitter who read, and who post about what they are reading. So my sample is a little skewed, I admit. But as each summer begins I see a parade of posts featuring photos of stacks of books, captioned “my summer reading!” or some variation thereof.

Which is cool. A lot of us are trying to get better year by year, to meet the challenges of a career that will eat you alive if you are standing still. And there are a lot of excellent teachers out there willing to share what they know. If that advice comes from a trusted source (A woman I saw keynote a conference, a guy I interact with on Twitter), all the better. And, truth be told, a lot of us are searching for “that thing” that will turn everything around next year. Make us awesome.

A tweet rolled through my TL not long ago, boosted by Michelle Baldwin. It reminded me of a story I heard about Lance Armstrong. After retiring from competitive cycling, he entered the 2006 New York Marathon. Already the fittest endurance athlete on the planet, he figured he could conquer this challenge without specialized training. The story goes that 3-time NYC Marathon winner Alberto Salazar was part of a team pacing Armstrong and warned him to set a reasonable goal pace, that 26.2 miles would tax him in completely new ways. Armstrong took this under advisement, and went on to just do his thing. He finished in an impressive 2:59:36. And suffered a stress fracture in his leg.

Here’s a thread detailing the teacher-summer equivalent advice:

I can dig that. The Happy Medium is a glorious place. With that in mind, here’s my summer reading (so far):

 

 


 

Especially now that we are all connected, I am trying to be ever more aware of how much time I spend scrolling my timeline. When I see it becoming a giant time suck, I disconnect, close my laptop, put my phone somewhere across the room where I won’t be tempted to check it every 6 minutes, and grab a book.

I’ve been known to get lost in a book. In a good way. Mrs. Dull is always amazed (and not always in a good way) when I power thru 250 pages in a day.

You Just Got It Yesterday
See?

So upon multiple Twitter recommendations I’ve been reading “It Won’t Be Easy” by Tom Rademacher. And, true to form, it showed up on a Sunday during Mass, and by Sunday night I was on like page 105. Not because it was filled with trite motivational phrases, but because it was filled with what teaching is really like.

It Wont Be Easy Page
“You might suck at this”. But for real, this page is teaching in a nutshell.

“Mr. Rad”, as he’s known to his kids, is up front about his ups and downs. The time his students taunted him over his phone being stolen from his desk (“You’re not getting your phone back. Nobody cares about your $h!t!”) and the times his students dazzled him with the awesomeness that only high school students have.

He’s honest about the fact that he is occasionally an insufferable jerk and that he is not always really very good at this whole teaching thing, despite being named Minnesota’s 2014 Teacher Of The Year.

And Rademacher confesses some unpopular opinions:

  • We actually aren’t underpaid, comparatively.
  • Summers off are part of the deal, and it’s OK to admit that you dig that.
  • Even if you actually work during the summer.
  • Teachers knew how to play “The Game Of School” when they were students, too.
  • God help us all if his book ever becomes “assigned reading” in some college course.

And one opinion that is easy to nod your head to when you’re sitting in the sun with a cold drink, reading a teacher book… and really hard to actually do once you are standing in a room with 25 teenagers:

  • How we treat our students matters. A lot. If we would just shut up and listen, especially when they are telling us something we don’t know about, we just might learn something.

I cringed a lot reading “It Won’t Be Easy”. I said over and over to myself, “What an ass!”

About myself.

I think I’ve done every ignorant thing Rademacher rats himself out for. And those things were not any cooler when I dd them. I’m glad a Teacher Of The Year sucks at this job as bad as I do sometimes.

He tells of squelching his students’ voice in class, when he had claimed that his room was a safe space for them. Of treating his Black and White kids differently. Of calling students out in class in front of their peers. Of using his power over kids to get compliance. Of selectively enforcing rules. All the stuff I’ve done. That we’ve all done. Except…

Except Rademacher goes into great detail how he learned from every one of these situations. Usually because he caught himself being a jerk. Often because his students felt comfortable enough to call him out on it. And because his students were smart enough and brave enough to be able to school him on it.

And how he humbled himself enough to shut up and listen.

Oooooh, that part is hard.

Over time, I knew I got better at handling myself in challenging classroom situations. I know the PBIS Team at Gavit worked hard to create a climate where we all supported our students, where we didn’t seek to exert power over them but to get them to seek ownership over their own behavior in the building. Sometimes with awesome results.

I know I eventually reached the point where I silently checked myself before interacting with a student: “This thing I’m about to say, would I say the same thing if I was addressing a white student?” “Is this kid’s skin color affecting my perception of what actually happened?” “Would I treat a male student the same as the female student in front of me?” “What if somebody said these words I’m about to say to my kid?”

Is that good? It’s required in the places where I taught for the first 13 years of my career. Is it enough? No. Is it a good start? Yeah. Truth be told, I think every teacher in the School City of Hammond should read this book. Every teacher in the Valparaiso Community Schools, too.

I’m not perfect at it. Give me 20 more years and I still won’t be. I won’t grow out of my smart-assery before I retire. But I think I’ve made some strides. Rademacher’s book serves as a timely reminder that it’s important to keep working. It Won’t Be Easy. But as he says, our kids deserve it.

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We Belong

You don’t belong.

Sports teams use it as motivation. (“Nobody believed in us!”)

It’s been fodder for a million Hollywood movies, from Karate Kid (“Love your car, Mrs. LaRusso!”) to Kung Fu Panda.

If you’ve been around the teaching game for a while, you’ve been told: our kids crave connections. They need relationships. No learning can happen until you connect with your kids. They need to know they belong.

I can relate.


 

Image result for Da Region 219 nwi tattoos
Image via nwi.com (source)

Up here in the Region, we’ve got a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. To the point where we fight over which parts of this area qualify to carry the title “Region”.

We’re not Chicago, even though we border the City of Chicago, in the County of Cook, in the State of Illinois.

And we’re definitely not “Indiana“. Best way to prove you’re not “Region” is to wear a “Colts” anything.

So, we don’t belong.

(We wear that like a badge of honor, by the way.)


Indiana Summer of eLearning

For the last 6 years the Indiana Department of Education has put on a series of conferences during June and July known as the “Summer of e-Learning“. My former district, the largest district in Northwest Indiana, and the 11th largest in the state, started thinking it should be able to host one of the 22 conferences last year.

The state had a plan. I’ll paraphrase: You guys are a pretty big district (13,860 students in 2016). Host a conference just for your district. Get your feet wet. Find your keynoters and presenters. Get a facility. Then check back with us. Let us know.

So they did.

After 370 attendees, nationally-recognized speakers, presenters from within the SCH and beyond descended upon Hammond the Monday after school let out, well, what could the IDOE say?

Fast-forward to the Summer of 2017: We’re in the Big Leagues. (And yeah, I know… “we”? I work in a different district now. Teaching in Hammond is the family business. Old habits are hard to break. Sue me.)

Buddy Berry & Christine Pinto keynoted. Almost 600 teachers and administrators registered.

Everybody got something they can use RIGHTNOW.

Alisha Foor and her team put on a whale of a show. Crushed it behind the scenes during 12 months of planning, and knocked it out of the park during two days of awesome learning and sharing experiences.

Yeah. We belong.


 

When I taught in Vegas, my Midwestern-ness stuck out like, well, a flashing neon sign. (“Mr. Dull, why do you wear a sweatshirt and shorts?”) When I taught in the HMD, maybe I was “from there”, but I lived out with the cows and the corn. Now in an exurban district, where everybody’s “from here”, even though I live in the city, I’m still kind of an outsider. I found that out when people here weren’t heartbroken over the Stracks bankruptcy. (Seriously, like I had a tear in my eye when I lined up for lunch today and saw a big tray of Stracks chicken on the table.)

So maybe I don’t belong either.


 

I’ve been stalking hanging out online with a group of math teachers that call themselves the MTBoS (Math-Twitter-Blog-o-sphere). I steal all their best teaching ideas, follow them on twitter and at their blogs, and just in general fanboy a tiny bit too much.

But what can I say, they changed my outlook and strategy on teaching, and probably saved my career.

(No really, that was my presentation title at South Shore e-Learn).

But really, they’ve got superior firepower from the neck up. Way out of my league. I can use their stuff, but I could never make their stuff.

I don’t belong.

But this morning, with a donut balanced on my travel mug/water bottle, and my laptop, well, on my lap, settling for in for the keynote, I open twitter and see this in my mentions:

Shah MTBoS Tweet

(I had posted this in a twitter chat I occasionally hang out in, in response to a question. The #MTBoS hashtag gave it a signal boost).

And, squee.

Here’s the blog page, with about a million other presos linked there. But for reals, for about 20 seconds there, Sam Shah made me feel like a million bucks. Like…

I belonged.


 

If you’ve never seen Christine Pinto, she looks like she’s about 12. Weighs 80 pounds soaking wet. She doesn’t have a commanding stage presence. But she is a lowkey powerhouse. If you listen… oh boy. You’ll learn. One of her main points in her preso is:

And guys, that’s the takeaway from today. We belong. Our kids belong. And it’s our job to give them an opportunity to prove it. In Hammond, they walk their talk. Two of the most powerful sessions I attended were led by students. Buddy Berry’s freshman daughter knocked ’em dead with “A Techy Teens Tools For Teachers”.

But my last session of the conference… oh man:

A 3rd-grader taught about 30 of us how to use Animoto to make book trailers. Had a Google Classroom and a slide deck and everything. Yeah.

She belongs.

I belong.

All of us, on a Tuesday and Wednesday of summer break, when we should have all been laying on a beach somewhere, instead, the Island Of Misfit Toys, we’re all inside an urban high school, learning, together, getting better, for our kids. Kids we won’t see, probably, for like 8 more weeks. Doesn’t matter.

We belong.

Everywhere I’m Not

Sam at Sunset
I know that look.

Mrs. Dull and my youngest caught a sunset at the beach while I was attending graduation last Friday. We shared a cup of coffee before I headed out for a weekend calling hoops on Saturday morning, and she told me a story.

My 13-year-old son is all SoCal‘d out these days – he grows out his hair when school is done, so he’s got a little surfer-boy flow under his beanie, eyes hidden behind shades.

Mrs. Dull noticed that the look kind of suits him, and mentioned that to him as they watched the sun dip under the horizon.

He smiled.

She told me, over strong beans, that she thought he would thrive out there. Vegas, specifically. That the vibe there suits his personality.

Yeah, I can see that. And, truthfully: The draw to the West is strong sometimes.

When we  lived there, all I wanted was to be back here. When we visited back there last summer, not gonna lie… I felt a little tug.

 

 


We plan to retire to a little beach town in Michigan, and we visit there often. When we sit on the beach at St. Joe, or share pizza and schooners with the windows open and the lake breeze blowing on our face at Silver Beach Pizza, it’s the only place I want to be, forever, watching a glorious sunset every night, or standing in awe as the waves of an angry lake pummel the lighthouse and pier.

But I imagine if we lived walking distance from the beach, there’d be nights I’d think “Oh great, another sunset. Whatevs. Do we have to go? Can’t we just stay inside and watch TV?” Like Dave Ramsey says, lobster gets to taste like soap if you eat it every day.

Rod Dreher writes of a lesson he learned on a trip to Europe as a high school student:

“The other big thing I learned on that trip was that life could be something else, something other than what I had been given. I met my Dutch pen pal Miriam in her town in the south of Holland. Valkenswaard was its name. I had dreamed of Valkenswaard as everything my own town was not. What I discovered was that kids in Valkenswaard dreamed of America as everything their town was not. It was, in truth, an unhappy surprise to discover that Valkenswaard was a real place and not a fantasy village. I laugh to think about it today, at 50, but back then, I needed to believe in Valkenswaard like I needed to believe in Carnaby Street and Dexys Midnight Runners and After The Fire and all of it. If only I could possess it, and be a part of it, I would finally belong.

Well, no. That’s not how it works. There are some places that are better than others, but the thing I learned was that you can’t escape from yourself. This is unfortunate. But there it is.”


When I started back to school for a teaching degree, one of my first professors introduced us to the concept of The Four Square Blocks: for kids who grow up in the city, that space is their world. For a variety of reasons, you just don’t cross the boundaries of your four square blocks.

Then I started teaching in a city. After that, in another, smaller city bordering Chicago. The parents moved their kids across the state line, hoping for… something better for their family. To the kids, living in Indiana (even just a few miles away from their old neighborhood) meant permanently tossing aside whatever street cred they had back home.

My Chicago kids spent a lot of energy putting up a front. The unspoken message was: you Indiana people think you’re hard, but you wouldn’t last a minute in my neighborhood.

Everybody wants to be somewhere else…

Meanwhile, at my new school this year, this was the number one most popular fashion accessory.

Image result for california hoodie
All the Cali Flag hoodies. Everywhere. (source)

Maybe it’s just a fashion trend. Maybe it’s a sign of longing to get out. Midwest kids will always be pulled to Endless Summer. The midwest brain drain is pretty well documented. My school sends kids to Notre Dame, and the Ivies, and to the top engineering schools in the country. What should we tell them? “No, you can’t go”? There’s a whole world out there, filled with challenging problems in need of answers. As the writer George Ade said: “A lot of smart young people have come out of Indiana. The smarter they are, the faster they come out.”

At the same time, the Golden State continues to see more people moving to other states than move in from other states – Cali natives are being drawn to far-off lands where taxes and housing prices and schools and everything must be so much better. Hell, we moved back here from Vegas (just before the housing bubble popped, Deo Gratia).

Everybody wants something better. Me, you, my kids. Everybody. And maybe it’s out there. Sometimes it’s worth it to pick up the phone and find out. (I did). To pack the U-Haul and roll the dice. (Did that too). The trick is, not to fall prey to the fantasy that streets are paved with gold. You can be just as miserable in Florida as you are in Indiana. Maybe more so.

Something better.

Hmmm….

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Douglas Coughlin, Logical Negativist. (source)

Always listen to your bartender.

What We Learned

14 years, in the books.

As the years go on, the last day of school is always a bit anti-climactic. It is melancholy, for sure. But that’s true everywhere. You might have seen this one floating around a few years ago from up in The Mitten:

Gonna miss my kids, and those moments of awesomeness when a lesson all comes together or they discover something cool and get excited about math. I’m not gonna miss setting my alarm and programming the coffeemaker for the next 10 weeks or so. But the “woohoo” of turning in my keys and walking out the door is gone. Compared to the first few years, it is less an “event” and more a “point in time”.

Either way, it is a moment ripe with opportunities for reflection. Especially now that I’ve just finished my first year at a new school.


 

After school, waiting for my ride, I bumped into my department chair, who is leaving the classroom to go into administration. We had an opportunity for small talk, and he hit the bullseye with the first question:

“So, how did it go here during Year One?”

My stock answer to every who has asked that question since August is: Smooth.

But Nick is a good guy, and deserves more than a stock answer.

“It was good. Pretty much what I expected. Getting used to everything new. Building out a course in Canvas ate up a lot of time, but that will pay off next year and beyond”.

Then: “the department is a powerhouse, man”.

He said: “Yeah, we push each other pretty hard.”

And I said: “Yeah, I felt that. In a good way.”

I ate lunch every day with a group of four other math teachers. I heard them collaborate and troubleshoot on the fly between bites of brown-bag sandwiches. I heard a 25-year veteran asking for help from her subject area teaching partner. I saw a young teacher ask to come in and observe his colleagues in the department. I heard teachers gently push a colleague who could do better.

Everybody’s got everybody’s back. But nobody lets anybody else slack off, either.


So, Mr. Reflective Teacher, what did you learn this year?

  1. City or suburbs, kids are pretty much kids.
  2. They got kids that hate math in the green leafy suburbs too.
  3. If math class is just about math, those kids will hate it intensely.
  4. So, children must play.
  5. Living where you teach and seeing your kids outside of school is cool.
  6. Changing the culture is not a one-day process.
  7. The kids that don’t want to change will fight you for 180 days if they have to.
  8. I’m still more stubborn than they are.
  9. There’s only 30 hours in a day.
  10. Perfection is an unattainable goal.
  11. Having a planning partner is a gift.
  12. Having an hour a week to plan with your team is like finding a little gold nugget.
  13. Having a Lunch Bunch to ask questions/bounce ideas off/talk elections with is imperative to mental health.
  14. Having a copier that staples automatically saved me probably 24 full hours of my life over the course of the year.
  15. Having six classes in four classrooms on two floors, never the same room for back-to-back classes meant I got my steps in for sure every day.
  16. I got fat anyway.
  17. We’re going 1:1 next year.
  18. I’m thinking of a million ways my kids can use Web tools to knock down walls, or at least to look at and think about math in a different way.
  19. Like this guy.
  20. I’m also trying to find a way to use MyMathLab to support my students who need extra practice.
  21. I know that makes their laptop a $300 worksheet, at least for that night. Sue me.
  22. Give kids a chance to do incredible things and they will. Or at least they’ll try.
  23. Give kids a chance to jump thru the right hoops and put the right squiggles on a piece of paper for a letter that will keeps their parents off their back or get them in the right school, and they’ll do that too.
  24. I can retire in 10 years.
  25. I don’t want to.
  26. I won’t be able to, anyway.
  27. Teachers report back to school in 63 days.
  28. I’ll be ready.
  29. But first, sunsets.
  30. This is really, really, really true:
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Image via takepart.com.

Probably.