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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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:
teacher13-itokpjmqqzvn
Image via takepart.com.

Probably.

Do You See The Real Me?

Image via: http://linguistics.ohio.edu/opie/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/respect-your-readers.jpg

I read. A lot. Some might say too much. I’ll snap up a few pages of whatever I’m reading in morning while brushing my teeth, or as a nightcap before turning in for good. And if find something I really like, I’ll return to it again and again. I must have read Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four” fifty times, Gerry Faust’s memoir “The Golden Dream” half that many, and I can pretty much recite “Pierced By A Sword” by Bud MacFarlane Jr. word-for-word. (It’s OK if you’ve never heard of that last one. It’s Catholic fiction, and for a book written 20 years ago, a lot of seems “ripped from the headlines” these days.)

In a note regarding the second edition of “Pierced”, McFarlane states: “I’m a Catholic (and a guy, and a Notre Dame grad, and a New Jersey native) and this book reflects that.” This week I spent a good amount of time wondering how much of my work reflects me – who I am.

Kids can smell fake a mile away. And that’s a relationship killer. I don’t think I could stand in a classroom 180 days a year, 5 classes a day, and be something I’m not. And truth be told, why would I want to put up a front all day, every day?  What’s the gain? Too much work, not enough benefit. So I find myself checking myself often – to make sure I don’t have to worry about somebody pulling back the curtain.

There is a Purdue University regional campus a few blocks from my school, so each school year we host a new class of pre-service teachers for observations. I know there is supposed to be a sharp decline in the number of students in teacher formation programs in Indiana these days, but you couldn’t tell from seeing all the PUC students in our hallways. Seriously: dozens. I’m hosting two students this semester. I told them when they came to see my Algebra 1A classes for students who have previously failed the course (some multiple times), that what they would see wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be real.

I found out a long time ago if I was going to teach that class, I’d have to teach different. I still don’t have it figured out (believe me, when I do, I’m writing a book, getting a web site, going on the speaking tour, the whole schmeer. And maybe hiring some of my teaching besties as consultants.)

So I’ve been on a quest for a while. Last week one of my observers saw Speed Dating as a review for a chapter quiz. Both guys were scheduled to come in on Friday, which I reminded my students would consist of the usual Friday Fun. “What’s Friday Fun?” you ask?

Well, let’s start here:

Guaranteed two or three of them will be going “That’s my jam!” and be up out of their seat dancing for a minute on that second one. Makes my day, every damn time.

Follow that up with a self-reflective activity, via @approx_normal.

Self Assessment EC

So we did the music, and the dancing, and the reflecting, and then we needed to hook ’em for a month-long journey through the joy of linearity. On a Friday. After Hammertime. So I eased my way into an activity lifted from Dan Meyer.

Alg 1A 5.2 Opener – pairs that add to 6

We backed that up Monday with my maiden voyage into the land of Desmos Activity Builder.

I Got Your 6 Screenshot

I’ve been dying to try it out. Gonna have to write about what I saw, I imagine.

Now look. None of this is a screaming cry for attention. I’m not sitting in my upstairs computer lab plotting ways to get my fellow teachers to notice me and think I’m tech-y and cool. Everything I’ve rolled out is designed to make learning happen. Still, my observers… did they see the real me, or am I putting on a dog and pony show? And my students… they’ve got to think this is all pretty bizarre, right? (At least I’m not alone in that regard.)

Personally, I feel like I should be ready and willing to have anyone walk through the door at any time, on any day, and not feel like “Oh God. Busted.”

Image via: http://www.houseofbombini.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Busted.jpg

Regardless: Nothing strikes fear in my heart like the term “unannounced evaluation”. Even though I know what I’m doing is good, even though I’ve been through it all a million times, even though I get in the zone when I’m in the midst of one of those 900 performances a year, I’m still that guy that gets nervous when he gets called to the principal’s office.

Then one day I read this. Yep, a teacher who told her administrator “Come see my craziest class.”

That takes cajones.

So yeah, I don’t worry too much that they (observers of any stripe) might feel like I’m putting on a show. Here I am…