Teaching, Pirates, and Blackberries

Photo by Thomas Pix

This week I read the book Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess. So, I know it was a great book because it got me thinking and has KEPT me thinking! Today, as I was following one of my passions (puttering around aimlessly among the living things in my yard) I was really thinking about what I had read and how it relates to my teaching. As I was doing all this thinking I noticed there were some very FAT wild blackberries growing next to my compost bin. These are here every summer and I usually pick a few, but since I was away last week it was like they just suddenly had exploded! I went inside and grabbed a bowl and set out to picking them. As I was picking that area clean, I looked up and saw on the other side of the compost bin, pinned between a white pine and a fence were some of the fattest, blackest, juiciest berries I have ever seen! I REALLY wanted those berries! But there was no way I could reach them. My arms weren’t long enough. The compost was kind of stinky and buggy. There were too many picky berry canes and pine branches. But I decided the berries were mine and I was going to find a way to have them!

So, I found a long board and made a platform on the compost bin. I stood on it, the plastic bin buckling a bit. I was picturing my conversation with the emergency room staff. As I was picking those berries I saw a few more just a little bit out of my reach. Suddenly they looked like the BEST berries! I wanted them.

This all got me to thinking that my experience picking berries was a lot like teaching and learning. A few observations:

1. If someone had told me to go out and pick blackberries I probably would have balked at it. But I saw them and I wanted them. I liked the idea that I could get something amazing from my OWN yard. I could have just gone to the grocery store and picked up some adequate berries. But I was motivated because it was something I had decided for myself was important.

2. I noticed that on each little bunch of berries there were several berries at all different stages of development. Usually one or two were totally ready to be picked, a couple were ok but would be better in a couple of days, and then there were lots of pinkish or even greener berries. Occasionally I would hit on a wonderful bunch of several ripe berries that would make picking super easy. Aren’t our classrooms kind of like that? How would we approach teaching differently if we saw our students like those bunches of berries? All are going to eventually make it, but they go at different paces. Of course a few might get plucked up by a bird…

3. When you really want something, sometimes you have to work at it. I had to improvise a bit today with those berries. I got scratched, got some mosquito bites, and squished a few with poor picking technique. I attempted to injure myself by climbing into a precarious spot, I realized going THROUGH the pines wouldn’t work and had to turn around, and I ultimately did end up trespassing a little. But in the end, I got really satisfying results! It was work but worth it!

4. Sometimes the best opportunities are in unexpected places. My compost bin is pretty gross on any given day. I am not at all good about turning it or putting any kind of thought into the ratios of the types of items going into it. It sometimes smells, and usually has a fair amount of flies and mosquitoes around it. But the best berries weren’t in the sunny open spots, or along the fence row dividing my yard from the corn field. The best berries of all were in a really gross place. Don’t be afraid to be a little edgy to get to the juiciest learning. This year in my class we did a Harlem Shake (and I was asked nicely to remove it from the internet by my boss), we had swordfights in class, we learned about living in a municipal garbage dump, studied dancing Mexican cowboys with outrageously long pointy boots, and we had an entire unit based on the supernatural. I had a kid whose job it was to yell out “Qué asco!” (How disgusting!) at any moment he deemed appropriate. I had a girl who was a self-appointed queen who wore a crown, and sat on a throne made of five chairs stacked together. At first glance some of this stuff might seem a little weird, but I guarantee you the kids will remember that stuff. Don’t be afraid of the compost bin.

5. Tomorrow there will be more opportunities. Not every day is a great day. In fact most days are  just ok. Mostly pleasant and enjoyable but not shout from the rooftops amazing. I get a fresh chance the next day to go in and facilitate some learning. And tomorrow afternoon there will be more fresh ripe juicy berries for me to collect!

6. Excuses are just excuses. You can find away around problems. There were a LOT of reasons to just forget about the stupid berries. Namely my health and safety! But I’m fine! And I have a nice quart of blackberries to show for my efforts! Dave Burgess talked about the “6 words.” (Buy the book and find out what they are!) When I am presenting workshops, I hear a lot of people make similar excuses for why they can’t use TPRS in their world language classes (usually in a private conversation at lunch, or during a break). I hear “I don’t have the personality to pull this off.” or “I don’t think my students would get into this.” or “This just seems like it would get tiring.” You know what is tiring? Teaching for 35 years and not enjoying your job! You don’t know if you can do something until you try, and doing something awesome OK is better than doing something mediocre really well, right?

So, please, get yourself a delicious snack (I recommend blackberries), read Teach Like a Pirate, and start getting your mojo ready for the upcoming school year! I hope to see some of you next week in San Diego at the iFLT conference!

P.S. I can lend my Kindle copy of Teach Like a Pirate to one person free for 14 days. If you would like to borrow my Kindle copy and you PROMISE you will read it, please e-mail me (placidok at gmail dot com) and it is yours. I will lend it to the first person to e-mail me about it. 🙂 CLAIMED!


The Unconference Unyelp Review #edcampdetroit

So, this blog post has been running through my head for a few weeks now, ever since I attended my very first EdCamp in Detroit. I tweeted a little bit about it, but I felt I needed to put my thoughts in writing. Sometimes I am not exactly sure how I feel about something until I have written about it!

I was really excited about this “unconference” experience. I am generally a person who really loves conferences, and since this was billed as even better, I was pumped! Plus I looked at it as a way to connect more with some local teachers.

I’d like to just list some of my impressions…

The whole thing was free, including parking! Excellent!

Bathrooms were not functioning on our floor. Signage needed!

Very awesome spread of Panera bagels and Starbucks coffee. Nice!

I wish I had known that the first 2 hours were simply waiting for people to sign up for presentation slots and milling around. I would have slept in! Newbies!

As my colleague and I sat waiting for the unconference to begin, two different people approached us, told us a little about what was going on, and generally made sure we felt comfortable and included. That was really nice!

Many of the session slots filled up quite quickly. They added another room. I like the flexibility in that.

For supposedly being an “unconference” it seemed strangely a lot like a conference.

Many presenters clearly had their presentations all mapped out. They had catchy titles for their sessions. I even saw a couple of powerpoints. I mean, I don’t care, but then don’t act like this is a revolutionary conference.

Although everyone was very nice, a few people seemed to be a little overbearing in their domination of the conversations. I get it, you are a good teacher. But how about you be quiet and listen for a few minutes? Stop trying to formulate your next point while the other person is speaking. It is a conversation, not a debate.

People here seemed very clique-y. There was definitely an “in crowd.” Maybe I am just jealous. And if you are going to sit in a session and have a running conversation with your friends, how about you take it to the café across the street? That behavior is rude, even at an unconference.

Vote with your feet wasn’t working. Most people were NOT voting with their feet. And I looked around and I could see that people WANTED to but were holding back. In one session, the presenter (and I definitely DO mean presenter–straight-up lecture format) spent quite a lengthy time standing right next to the door on the side of the room. I felt trapped! In 2 other sessions the furniture was packed in the room and there were a lot of people, meaning it would have been completely awkward/impossible to get up and leave.

There seemed to be a lot of “yay us!” cheerleading. Repeated accolades about how wonderful we all are for giving up our Saturday, and how revolutionary we are. Ok, I like myself too. Now let’s stop talking about it.

There seemed to be a lot of “conventional wisdom” here. “Hand raising? Psht! That’s so old school. What kind of Nazi makes kids raise hands?”  “Using the same lesson plans again? Whatevs. My kids explore organically.” “Teacher talk is so 1960s. My kids have no idea what my voice sounds like. If I need to speak, my Voki does it for me!” Ok, I am being a little snotty, but seriously some people seemed a little dismissive of those who weren’t teched-out flippers with free-range students!

Basically, I think EdCamp is a step in the right direction, but could be better. I was not blown away by it, and I do not think it is vastly superior to the experiences I’ve had at “regular” conferences. In fact, I have had many much better experiences at regular conferences.

I’d like to thank @michellek107 for sharing some great reading with me on this subject!



MiWLA Handouts and Links

Rejoinder List  we dicussed in Carol Gaab’s workshop on Friday

Transforming the World Language Classroom With Formative Assessment 1:00-4:30 pm University 1

Formative Assessment MiWLA 2011

Angry Birds Article

Robo en la noche Choice Board Projects

Formative Assessment Teacher Tools

Reading Comprehension Assessment

Writing Rubric

Cute “Secret Message” Activity

Formative Assessment Card Sorting Activity (if you are a coach feel free to borrow and use!)

Online Resources for Maximum Learning Impact  2:30-3:20 pm Ballroom F


Leave your impressions of these resources here! http://willyou.typewith.me/p/miwla

MiWLA Conference October 20-21

Are you coming to MiWLA this year?  I will be presenting a 3 hour workshop on using formative assessment in the world language classroom on Thursday afternoon, and I will be presenting a 50 minute session on online resources on Friday afternoon.

Also, don’t miss Carol Gaab’s 2 workshops on TPRS and other comprehensible input-based teaching methods/techniques on both Thursday and Friday.  Carol’s website is www.tprstorytelling.com.

Hope to see you there!

Cognitive Coaching

Today I finished up a 2-year training seminar consisting of 8 full days with the directors of the Center for Cognitive Coaching, Jane Ellison and Carolee Hayes.  It was an intense learning process, one where you go home with your head hurting a bit at the end of the day.  The purpose of Cognitive Coaching is to have conversations with other people that mediate their thinking and push them toward new thinking.

This training was provided by the Michigan Department of Ed as part of their Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators Initiative in coordination with Measured Progress.  As a trained coach, along with seven others from my district, the goal is to be able to coach our teaching colleagues to be more reflective, efficient practitioners and problem-solvers.

Having been cognitively coached myself several times, I never fail to be amazed at the power of these techniques.  You feel as though the coach has just solved your problem when in reality they guided your thinking through paraphrasing your own words, asking questions carefully crafted to probe your states of mind, and watching carefully for the physical manifestations (facial expressions, body language, breathing, voice tone and volume, etc) of cognitive shift.

Cognitive shift is what most people refer to as an “Ah-ha” or “lightbulb moment.” We all have those from time-to-time, but with a trained cognitive coach you can reach those moments more quickly and less painfully!

Helpful links – TPRS Publishing’s Cancún Multicultural Conference