Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dumb Things Are Important


I think you're pretty neat. Thank you for stopping by.

So dumb things... If you wanna take the title as a complaint, you'll have a lot of ammunition to prove your point. In the education world, there are a lot of dumb rules and contradictory policies from the classroom level all the way up to the education policy makers. The problem, for me with this line of thinking is it's not what I do well. I mean, yeah, I can complain, and I can point fingers, but I'm not good at railing against things effectively. I'm much better at talking about the things that make me happy. When I start focusing on the negatives too much, I tend to swerve headfirst into them, and then I miss all of the good stuff. This doesn't stop me from cursing things that are terrible, it's just that I don't know how to fix the bad, so I focus on making the good.

And for me, just as much as the things that we all know are good, I believe that there's a lot of really great Dumb stuff that makes life so much better. Because this is my space to go all, "Blah blah blah," about education, this is about how important it is to do Dumb stuff in the classroom.

To keep everyone together, I'm using Dumb to describe things that seem pointless, are often silly, sometimes distracting, and occasionally a waste of time. A lot of people can certainly get behind silly, but pointless doesn't usually have buyers in the education marketplace. Distractions and wastes of time are things that we're supposed to minimize and ferret out.

But maybe they're not?

Every day, when I take attendance, I play a game with the student names. I pick something (this is not a specific rule or plan, it's always spontaneous) to modify their names. Initially, this was something I did to amuse myself while doing a dull, daily task, but the kids enjoy it, too. Some days I rename them as animals (or vegetables, fruits, cars, countries) with the same first letter as their name. I've flipped the gender of their names, called them out like a basketball announcer, used bad foreign accents to pronounce their names, pronounced their names backward, given them royal titles, I try to vary this a lot so it doesn't get boring. When I'm having trouble thinking of something, I call them out by their middle names.

As a practice, you could say that there's a purpose here - it's creating fun, it's making the kids laugh, it's creating a positive mood, but other than that, there's nothing. And that's the beautiful thing about being deliberately Dumb - it clears the palate. It's game playing that stretches out our brains while acting as a release valve from all of the super important stuff we're supposed to be doing.

Steven Universe
I recently bought an afro wig - not as a practice of cultutral appropriation, that's tacky and insensitive - but because I was looking into putting together a Steven Universe Halloween costume. Unfortunately, when I tried it on, it looked stupid on me. So of course, I did the only thing you should do with such an item. No, I didn't take it back to Target, I stuffed it with old t-shirts, and used zip ties to close it up. A little hot glue, some googly eyes, and now we have a classroom friend named Reynaldo who hides in a different spot each day. I'm sure that I could have my students write stories about Reynaldo (where does he come from, what does he do when we're not there, what does he eat (fingers! stay away from his mouth!)), there's no real point. He's fun. It's a dumb game to play. Where's Reynaldo today? Did anyone find Reynaldo yet?

Andrew wrote about Reynaldo on his Seesaw Journal
Okay, again, maybe there is a purpose here. Shared experiences create culture. Building memories together - especially silly ones - creates bonds between people that last a lifetime. We look back at the times in life when we laughed. Mapping out your life and relationships with memories of laughter is a powerful and positive way to reflect. Okay, so maybe I'm helping my students with that, and maybe I'm even showing them how to create those parts in their own lives. But seriously, we're just being Dumb!

Another thing that Dumb play does for kids is to free them to be more open, more confident that they're in a safe space. On Friday, when we clicked 'Today's Event,' in Classcraft, it said that the player (student) with the lowest XP got to choose a song  for the Gamemaster (me) to sing. This had some really cool aspects to it. First of all, the student with the lowest number of Experience Points is the kid who's struggling to play the game of our classroom the most. Maybe it's someone who doesn't have a good record of taking up opportunity, maybe it's someone who's always a little behind. Either way, it's a cool way of drawing in a student who could be doing better. Next, having a kid pick the song is great because our music overlap isn't strong. I'm in my early forties, they're eight. Chances are that it's gonna be a song I've never heard before. The song that got picked was Fight Song (which I'd heard enough watching the Democratic Convention this summer). That led to the best part of all - Fight Song, an anthem of empowerment - doesn't fit with my voice at all. I'm not a very skillful singer to begin with, but I knew I couldn't nail it without being a buffoon. Opportunities for buffoonery are important for teachers. They humanize you. They teach your kids that respect works better when it comes from liking and caring about someone than when it's just fulfilling an expectation based on hierarchy. They teach students that it's okay to look silly if you're all in on the joke. Also - they give the kids a chance to laugh their butts off, and that's really important.

The last thing I want to share is Stupid Homework. On Friday afternoons, we brainstorm until we come up with something that sounds really stupid. That Really Stupid Thing becomes their homework. We've only done it twice, but so far, we've had a good time. The first one happened organically. I was joking around with them at dismissal, and said that we had homework for the weekend (Awwwwww). I wanted them to do something stupid that wasn't dangerous and wouldn't get them in trouble. That day's brainstorming session came up with: Put whipped cream or shaving cream around your mouth and run around yelling, "I have rabies!" Do that and send me a video, and I'll give you a ton of gold in Classcraft, I told them. We only got a couple, but it cracked everyone up on Monday. This weekend's stupidity is pretty simple - wear an outfit of mom or dad's clothes and take a picture. It's nothing too extravagant or ridiculous, but it's something that'll make the kids (and hopefully their parents) laugh, and make them excited to come back to school on Monday.

Investing a little time in being Dumb with your students is powerful. It builds culture. It scrubs stress from your classroom. It aids creative thinking. Really, being Dumb intentionally is a game. The rules don't always make sense, but that's okay because the points aren't important. It's not about winning or losing, it's about laughing. And THAT is why Dumb things are important.

Now go be Dumb in your space!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Genius Hour Is Back for the New Year!

After two successful years of cool Genius Hour projects, I let a lot of factors drag me down last year. Sadly, I was never able to get any sort of Genius Hour off the ground. This year, I've returned to being way more active about building a positive, love-based culture in my classroom, and making Genius Hour a priority in that culture is important to me.

On Wednesday, we spent some time thinking about what we care about to kick-start our personal passion projects for the year. Some of my students had done Genius Hour in previous classes. When they saw it on our day's agenda, some were excited. One boy told me he wasn't sure what his project would be, and already had anxiety over it. At this point, I was Captain "Slow Down!" I don't want you even thinking about projects yet, I told them. My big worry if kids are starting with a project is that they'll get bogged down with ideas of what's possible, what's doable, and what's "easy enough" or "too hard." 

We sat down, I told them that I wanted them to sit quietly on the floor for a few minutes. "While you're here," I told them, "I want you to think about the things that totally make you come alive, (don't shout it out!), the things get you so charged that you shut out the world when you thinking about/seeing/learning about them.*" I waited a minute and it was the quietest moment of the week. "Once you've found something, and thought about your feelings for a while, please go to your seat and write or draw on the first page of your Genius Hour notebook about the thing that excites you." A few kids got up. It wasn't a mad rush like it usually is in a third grade classroom. It was still quiet. Kids slowly migrated to their seats. Occasionally, someone piped up with a, "Can I....?" to which the answer was always, "Yes!"

When we reassembled on the carpet, the sharing was a lot of fun, and showed a range of thinking styles. Some of the kids talked about ideas, some of them talked about things, and some talked about people. I don't even want to begin talking about work yet, but you could see the zygotes of some projects already forming. Three moments really stood out to me. The first was a boy who said that Lego excites him. I've had that before, but when he broke down the reasons why Lego is important to him, it was clear that the statement, "Lego excites me," was a thesis that he'd written an alternative paper on, full to the brim with diagrams and support. The second moment was personal, and me putting it down here is absolutely self serving. My shyest girl, the one who I'm always afraid that I'll break her because my outward personality is so big in class, and hers seems so delicate, wrote a list of things that give her life. The third thing was, "and more than anything, my teacher makes me feel alive and excited, my class, too." That bowled me over for a moment, and reminded me how important the trust she's placed in me is. The final one that stuck with me was a sweet, friendly boy who clearly lacks confidence in his voice. He said he didn't want to read it, he was too embarrassed. I asked if I could look at it. He handed it to me, and I was in love. It was too good, I asked if I could please read it. He squirmed, I said, "K, this is too good, can I please read the first sentence? Can I summarize it?" He finally agreed, and I told the kids that he wanted to help schools and kids that don't have as much as ours does. One of the girls gasped and said, "Oh my gosh!" in a tone that put it perfectly, as if to say how can you be shy about such a nice thing? He still was a bit sheepish, but he's gonna come around. A heart that big needs to be fed and encouraged. It's exactly what we need. 

I can't wait to see what the kids learn as they explore ideas, as they learn. I can't wait to see what projects they do. I'm so excited to not only water their gardens, but to show them how to water their own gardens of love and excitement for learning this year.

I modified this introduction from Angela Maiers' fantastic book, Liberating Genius. You could use this book as a fantastic road map if you've never (or never successfully) done Genius Hour with your students. While I don't need it for that, I'll definitely keep it in the glove box as a guidebook.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

In which I jump feet first into Classcraft

Over the summer I attended EdCamp Magic in Orlando, FL. During the door prize section of the day, my pal Amber (@edtechamber - follow her, she's full of good) won a Premium Subscription to Classcraft, a service that she didn't need in her position. So quickly, I adopted the not-as-subtle-as-it-thinks-it-is "share the treats, please?" pose that my dog gets when I open the cupboard. When she asked me if I wanted it, I was all yes.

Classcraft is kind of like Class Dojo meets Dungeons and Dragons. It has more of a story to it, and more of a collaborative feel, as students work together in teams. 

As this school year has started to pick up, my kids and I are really enjoying it so far. Rather than writing in order, and getting all organize-y, I'm just gonna throw out some things that pop into my head as I think about how things have worked in class:
  • One of the things I like is that like Class Dojo, we've been able to tailor consequences and rewards to our class needs. The kids brainstormed what they wanted to count to make class run smoothly. Student voice works nicely with Classcraft
  • The team structure allows encourages students to help each other. They gain experience points for being helpful. Additionally, when you get into trouble, a student on your team can help you out of trouble. This gets you back on track, builds strong team bonds, and gives experience points to your helpful teammate (so they can level up faster). 
  • Another compulsion to be helpful: If one of your teammates causes enough problems to lose all of their hit points, they "fall in battle." The offending teammate has to complete a task to refresh their hit points, but additionally, everyone on the team loses ten hit points. 
  • One of the add ons that I've used with Classcraft is in the consequence section. When you fall in battle, you may have to memorize and recite a poem for the class, you may be asked to bring a treat in (I stress that singing, dancing, or joke telling count as treats just as much as cookies or candy), or you may be asked to copy a text. If the student has to copy a text, they get our school's mission statement to copy. It's not terribly long, and there's choice here: I allow students to choose how many times to recopy it. I award ten refreshed hit points for each time the student has recopied the mission. 
  • Random Events: One thing in the game that kids love (and love to hate!) is the presence of random events. If I tell them it's time for a random event, some get all happy, while others moan, "Noooooooo!" I press the button, and we learn that all healers just got 200 experience points (a cheer goes up!), or all the warriors just lost 20 hit points (sad faces and moans!). Every time, some kids ask for another, and others, again, say, "No, no, no!" The engagement is awesome.
  • One piece of classroom management I've always had trouble with is noise. I'm pretty easy going most of the time, but when it gets too noisy and I need it quiet for a moment, I have difficulty reining it in. With Classcraft, I've added in some outside sound effects and danger to warn them of noise. I found a dungeon soundboard online (shoutout, Tabletop Audio!). When it gets a little too noisy, I hit the Growl button (volume on LOUD), my eyes get really big, and I say, "Oh no, I think we're traveling past some Orcs (or dragons, or some other beasties)!" and the kids quiet down. If that doesn't work, I hit the Roar button on the soundboard, and then the Random Team button on Classcraft, "Oh no, the Magical Mountains just got attacked by a band of Orcs!" I roll a die and add on that they each took that much damage. It works, and it's fun, even when we get hit.
  • My kids love getting their work done early. "Can I go on Classcraft?" they like to see how close they are to leveling up, or to using class earned gold to buy new armor. 
  • Because we have the Premium version, I'm able to create Quests to review content, and then we can go on the quest as a class by battling a creature. One thing I'd like to see, though, is the ability to assign the quest to individuals. Wouldn't it be cool to use the quests as online quizzes? Fingers crossed that I just don't understand that function, or that it's coming...
  • There's also a Classroom Content Library that you can add readings to, but I haven't played with that yet. 
I'm sure there's much more I could go on about, but my brain is dwindling from a lack of movement. Clearly, we're loving Classcraft. (My AP said, "My only question, who's having more fun, you or the kids" I smiled and said, "Yes," because we're all enjoying the heck out of it so far!)  Now, if you have cool Classcraft ideas, share them below! If you have questions, share them in comments.