Thursday, May 25, 2017

Socratic Shouting- a post by Steven Dowdle

This post is written by Steven Dowdle. If you have a story of a lesson or project that burned down, fell over, and sunk into the swamp that you want to share because it's funny, because you need to vent, because we can learn from it, or simply because "Can you believe this!?!?" please email me at or shoot a DM to @TheWeirdTeacher.

My class is heavily designed around discussion; it is, after all, called Socratic Seminar. Taking two periods a day to cover both history core and Language Arts curriculum, the high school class is a fusion of both disciplines and very much a sum greater than its parts.
In order to assess how well students have become conversant in deep, worthwhile conversations, I have an end of year final that, on the surface, is quite simple. Step one: Read a common text (in this case, a film) that is replete with profound implications and ideas. Step two: Let the kids loose on it, with some guiding questions from which they can begin.
Again, it's pretty simple. In some ways, it's the quintessence of learning: A question, and those with whom to discuss the question.
Because this is high school and things that "count on my grade" are given more attention and preparation, I model the Socratic Circle throughout the second semester. Today marked the fourth time they've had a common text, guiding questions, and a chance to talk at each other. Every time, we had a pre-write, discussion, post-write, letting the kids have their thoughts, discuss things, then see where they ended up.
For my part, I sit to one side and take careful notes about who's speaking, whether or not they reference the text (written or film, we consider it the text of the conversation regardless), and if they're jotting down notes and thoughts throughout the hour or so they have to chew on the idea. This allows me to see who is speaking a lot, who isn't, but also generate an imperfect-but-it-works grading system.
Today, the students came in for their two-hour final, during which time they watched the last 30 minutes of the film, then were given the remaining 90 minutes to dissect three potential questions. I figured, They can go with thirty minutes on each question and feel pretty satisfied that they pushed well on each idea. While every question has potential for immense exploration, the logical division of time made sense to me. Being smart, capable kids (for the most part), I assumed they'd do a similar assessment: We have about thirty minutes for each question, let's tackle them in order. In short, I thought they'd follow the way I've scaffolded, modeled, and shown them throughout the last school year.
But, hey…we all have to be reminded, every once in awhile, how we feel when we're confronted with that old adage about assuming…
Right out of the gate, the first speakers seemed interested in--for lack of a more polite, less descriptive phrase--vomiting their ideas as quickly as possible. There was a sense of urgency in what was being said, but not a sense of listening. One idea shotgunned, another was quickly loaded into the breach. The class soon closed up the wall with their thoughtful dead, choking any chance for the conversation to progress in their eagerness to speak up, speak out, and neither build upon nor listen to their peers.
Like a firework, this sound and fury quickly burned out, leaving the class with copious amounts of time and ashes where they should have had fertile fields. I'm mixing my metaphors a bit too much, here, but the point is that it took a good twenty or thirty minutes before any semblance of balance came to the class, but by then there was nowhere to go. The best ideas--the ones that were guided by the questions and the text--were glanced off of, while the kids chased less worthwhile or only tangentially connected possibilities.
As can happen, two or three voices dominated the conversation. We've been talking about and training (as it were) to keep this kind of thing to a minimum, but whatever progress we made in our last practices failed. Quiet kids had plenty of time to talk--and some of them actually jumped into the rink, a small success among such intellectual deforestation--but what they brought up was superficially accepted, then the topic shifted to whatever the more outspoken wished to discuss.
In a rare breach of protocol, I spoke up--though it was more of a "comment loud enough to be heard but is obviously only meant for the self" kind of thing--and mumbled, "This is a train wreck."
It was. It has been years since I've been so shocked at the poor work of students. I had, going into this final, great confidence for what the students would be able to put together. Previous sessions had gone well, we'd been conversing (with me as the lead moderator) the whole year long, and some of the students had even done miniature lessons where they conducted the discussion. So what went wrong?
Strangely enough, I think it was the writing. Due to time restraints, we skipped the pre-write step of the experience, which is something that I know I ought not to do. However, thanks to a mismanagement of time, I didn't direct the students to do some preparation. Admittedly, the film wasn't over yet, so some of the greatest points weren't something that they could invest in. Nevertheless, the skipping of that formative moment, I think, made a tangible difference.
I've noticed this when I've been asked to talk to groups and "lead a discussion" about something: Without priming the pump, nothing works the way it ought to. I think of stand-up comedians and live bands. There's a dual reason for opening acts: One is to help the exposure of less known artists, but the larger purpose is to warm up the crowd. The kids didn't get a warm-up act. Thrown in cold, they floundered.
So, lesson learned. THAT didn't work, but I'm hopeful that I can improve the experience.
Next year, of course.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Goodwin's Accidental Lesson Plan

Thank you to Jay Nickerson for taking a risk and submitting this. Remember, this blog lives only because of the community supporting it and believing that sharing our struggles with clarity can be as valuable as sharing our successes. To share, email or share a Doc with

For about six years I’ve had a project that I absolutely adore with my Grade 10 classes working within a theme of Heroism and Facing Adversity. It’s called The Rebel Project. I’ve blogged about it, but essentially, it’s a flashy way for students to present their research about someone who has rebelled, like a Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, who are featured pretty much every year. Students research and write a profile, which gets attached to the back of an art piece incorporating a portrait and quote.

They look really cool, and students enjoy creating them.

Three years ago, my first at my current school, my Grade 10s were about to start The Rebel Project. I had the sheets, I had old examples, I had lists of rebels available if people couldn’t find one on their own. I was prepared for just about everything this project needed, as well as the personality quirks of my class. I had, like we all do, planned for all the possible curveballs this particular class could throw at me.

And it was going really well. It’s an engaging project, especially once they get into the hands-on part. I made a point, as every good teacher does, of positioning myself near the pockets of potential tomfoolery and discontent. There was, as there often is, that pocket of students in the room who don’t need a lot of guidance and input, the ones that you trust are doing the things, and usually do quite well without much instruction from you. This is the part of the classroom from which you don’t foresee any issues arising from.

Which, as we all know too well, isn’t something we should necessarily count on.

The portraits for the art pieces are actually spray painted using stencils that the students cut. That means they have knives, which means keeping a very close eye on a certain part of the population. What this meant, this time, was that a bunch of my students made it to “Spray Day” without much input from me. In fact, a number of them would be done the project once they sprayed their rebel onto their canvases.

Which was awesome until I was outside with kids and spray paint, and watched one of those trustworthy kids pull off his stencil to reveal his finished piece, highlighting his rebel of choice… Adolf Hitler.

I was absolutely flummoxed! I couldn’t believe this was happening. We had talked about what a rebel was, and although it may be true that I never expressly stated that someone like Hitler wasn’t the kind of rebel we’d focus on, here we were.

I spoke to the student involved, and he actually mounted a good defense, based upon his research. He falsely argued that Hitler had actually worked to make things better for the German people. He conceded that when one takes a broader view of history, perhaps Hitler wasn’t a very good choice. It was a good chat, one of those teachable moment chats, where we discussed the bigger picture. Too often, as teachers, we have a tendency to assume that our students know certain things are taken a certain way, and this student had missed that. Perspective is an important thing, and in using a somewhat broad definition of rebel, the student had missed the horrendous impact of Hitler’s actions. Clearly, neither of us were fans of what Hitler did to try to make the changes he wanted to see in the world.

We were at a bit of a crossroads though. With the exception of adding his quote, his project was done – that canvas was painted, the profile was written, and all that needed to be done was the addition of a quote. Mortified that he’d misread things, afraid that he’d have to do everything over, this young man was in a bit of a state. We agreed, however, that he’d put his quote on quickly, so as to meet all project requirements, and he’d be done, and I would be sure not to include his project in any showcasing that we did.

Now, when we do the Rebel Project, we put a lot more work into creating a definition of a rebel. I make sure that I get a list of who’s doing which rebel. One of the goals of the project is to think about the positive impacts and efforts that people have made on society. I am much more vocal about the types of people that we focus on, and we have a lot of discussion about who makes the cut. In fact, the biggest takeaway for me from this was the importance of having these discussions with my students - talking about whether the ends justify the means, and whether great wrongs are done to achieve a “right” that benefits a privileged few. I’ve held on to the Hitler project however, because the shock of seeing that project so close to completion makes an impact.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Assessing Readers A New Way (or maybe not) by Amber McMath

Thank you to Amber McMath for taking a risk and submitting this. Remember, this blog lives only because of the community supporting it and believing that sharing our struggles with clarity can be as valuable as sharing our successes. To share, email or share a Doc with

Amber wrote her story up on her own blog so rather than copy + paste the entire thing here, I'll link to it. I've added a snippet below to whet your appetite.

Rather than fall into the tragic bookstore trap of tests and prizes, I designed the perfect semester exam project. I asked my students to become teachers of comprehension strategies.  After all, you only really know something if you can teach it well.  We put on our teacher hats and designed lesson plans, chose anchor texts, and prepared presentations.  In fact, this very post was supposed to be about how my readers did such fantastic work that we took our show on the road and shared our lessons with the advanced English class down the hall.  I planned to highlight how my brilliant students knocked down the wall between remedial and honors and showed the world that a reader is a reader no matter the label.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Mock Election Edition by Matthew Moulden

Thank you to Matthew Moulden for taking a risk and submitting this. Remember, this blog lives only because of the community supporting it and believing that sharing our struggles with clarity can be as valuable as sharing our successes. To share, email or share a Doc with

I teach AP US Government, a senior level course, in a rural suburban community in Texas. And every year I have run a mock election project for the class. Each year is a different theme - Star Wars, Superheroes, Villians, etc. I do this to avoid partisan politics and conflicts interfering in what is suppose to be a fun and educational project. 
This is a massive undertaking on the kids - it's a PBL thing. The kids must nominate a candidate (while figuring out how that process works), run a campaign for their chosen candidate (commercials, signs, polling, seeking donors, fundraising), and then run the actual vote (determining voting rights, election rules, exit polling). There is a lot to this - it usually becomes a school wide event.

This year - 2016, being an election year, I wanted to go BIG. I wanted it to do more than in a normal year, but 2016 was no normal election. I wanted to show the importance of the President and stress the role of the President in the election as well. So this year I chose the theme of Greatest President of All-Time. Thinking with the Hamilton play that my kids are obsessed with, the historical memes, and just pop culture, this would be a sure way to get people excited. 
It started that way - my kids really got into it at first. Nominations were a dog fight over past presidents, early fundraising was a hit, the first wave of campaign ads were well done. But then things went south quickly. 

2016 was 2016. The election was too much. The kids were tired of taking politics and answering political questions from donors and potential voters, especially tied to the real election (something I did not anticipate at all). 
My master plan of using this fun project to show the importance of the real election even more than it was designed to was too ambitious and my kids ended up just burned out, as did I. 
My plan of using past presidents to show the importance of the role of the President back fired, the kids and school used 2016 politics on historical characters and it didn't end well.
And in the end - the whole project fell flat. 
Kids are usually excited on election day, anxious to make sure their supporters vote, to know the results, to brag on social media that they won.
Not this year. Only a few kids were concerned if they won, must were just glad the whole thing was over and we could move on.

My take away - keep things within their scope. Don't try to over-stuff something (unless it's a burrito then go for it). A project that was hugely successful in the past was ruined by a over zealous teacher and his wanting to make a grand gesture of a process that kids already got from keeping things light and fun. I learned to let my kids be kids and they'll dig and they'll learn.

So while that didn't work in ways I hoped it would, I did learn from my kids and will be better for it. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Some Models Aren't Really Really Ridiculously Good Looking- by Elizabeth Raskin

This week's post is brought to us by Elizabeth Raskin. We all appreciate your honesty and openness. If you have a Well THAT Didn't Go Well story to share please email

This past week my 7th grade class was starting on multiplying rational numbers….which of course’s time to see what they remember from 6th grade. I went back and forth on how to present the I just remind them of the algorithm? Do I do a quick “hey, remember this model” then jump to the algorithm? Do I have them reinvent the algorithm? Due to the fact that I knew they modeled multiplying fractions last year and that we’ve been having some hard core discussions about what our operations mean, I determined that I would just see what they could do.  

I had students working in groups of 3-4 and in the middle of the table was a plethora of manipulatives...a sampling of pretty much everything I have in my cabinets.  I gave each group a note card with a fraction multiplication problem and the following prompt: "Use the stuff at your table to model your multiplication problem as many different ways as you can."  

I'll be honest, I had pretty high expectations of what I'd get. We've been doing What's Your Story every week since the start of school and we've had many conversations about what a fraction of a group could look like.  Unfortunately, this is what most groups did:

Problem: 1/3 x 1/4 = ???
Model: Cuisenaire Rods make great multiplication symbols!

​Problem: 2/3 x 3/4 = 1/2
Model: They obviously know the algorithm, but the model doesn't show any understanding of what we're actually doing to the fractions.

Problem: 3/4 x 2/3 = 3/2
Model: They actually were spot on with their model. They created 2/3 (purple) and then found 3/4 of it (pink). Their error appeared when trying to determine the answer.

​Problem: I think this was 1/2 x 1/4
Model: Again, this group created a correct (and creative) model, but they weren't able to decipher the answer.

​Problem: 2/3 x 1/2 = 2/6
Model: Their model didn't correctly represent the problem, but they inadvertently got the correct answer using a sort-of algorithm.

Well, that didn't work...

I decided to take a step back and discuss as a class what 1/2 x 1/2 means...1/2 of a group of 1/2. I asked each group to show a way to model it. Things went a little better, but I'll be honest...after the first flop, I was feeling defeated...I just wasn't as excited as I was at the beginning of the lesson. I was having that initial internal struggle with myself:
  • Do I spend time solidifying what multiplying fractions means before adding in decimals and negatives?
  • Do I say "screw it" and just remind them, "Hey! Remember that you just multiply across? Yes, the easiest thing you ever have to do with fractions can be completely convoluted and confusing by using these models I'm trying to force on you in order to glean some understanding of what's happening to the numbers???"
  • How soon do I start throwing in mixed numbers?
  • It's almost November and I'm STILL on Unit 1! WTF am I doing???

Long story short, I decide to put the manipulatives away and try our hand at modeling on paper using grids. We did some problems together and with about 5 minutes left in class I gave them a ticket out the door. Results were pretty much what I expected. About 1/3 of them tried to model and failed, 1/3 were able to draw the model and 1/3 didn't even try the model and just multiplied across.

I'd like to say that after that first failure I was able to change things up for the other classes in a way that made things wonderful for them and me...unfortunately, even with the minor changes I made to the lesson (like starting with the 1/2 x 1/2 conversation) the results were pretty much the same. My lower students were getting confused with the model. The higher students were annoyed that I was even asking them to model. It was just, overall, not a great math day.

Ideally, this is the part of the blog where I'd talk about what I'd do I'd adjust my lesson for next year...but at this point my brain isn't ready to process that. Right now I'm trying to think about what went so wrong...what did I do differently from years past to make this lesson flop so hard. If I ever figure it out, I'll let you know.

​Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Success and Joy Turns to Failure and Stress by Sarah Windisch

Post submitted by Sarah Windisch. Thank you for your honesty and for your support of this project.

My greatest success as a teacher, the thing I am most spectacularly proud of, is also my biggest failure.

It’s not the failure I’m proud of - that makes my heart sick. I don’t know whether to rage or cry or keep fixing all the issues creeping up behind me. I don’t know whether to give up on the greatest thing I’ve ever done as a teacher and remember it as the most demeaned I’ve ever been. I can’t decide, because every time I see this project being a success, it’s the most amazing feeling. I can’t imagine a feeling that would compare.

And I don’t want to let that go.

You see, last year, students and I helped a blind student “see.” The jist is that we created vibration-sensitive devices that played a different song at various places in our school, so that when a blind student tapped them with his cane, he could form an audio map and navigate the building more independently. Fourth graders soldered, prototyped, problem solved and created, and they were so proud.

The blind student was so excited to use them. They were working. I was asked to write about them, and certainly agreed, because the devices would be crazy-easy to duplicate and were inexpensive. Other students in other places could benefit from this! We could create video tutorials! We were all on a change-the-world high.

The piece I wrote was picked up by another blog, and then shared on Facebook. (I felt your stomachs drop - you can feel it coming, can’t you?) The next thing I knew, I was in the principal’s office, desperately trying to edit a few words out, calling the editor of the other blog to have the story removed, on the phone with the Superintendent, having a mom submitting a formal ethics complaint to the State Board about me and trying to have my teaching certificate revoked. I’d used her son’s diagnosis descriptively and she didn’t approve.

Everyone picked sides. There was nothing but support from the district office. Other parents wondered who I’d take advantage of next or shared all the ways I was the best teacher in the universe. Some colleagues thought I’d get the recognition I finally deserved, others decided I was an opportunist. Out of all of this, the project sort of became untouchable:

Previously enthusiastic teachers decided they didn’t like having the devices near their classrooms because they were too loud and caused a distraction.

So I adjusted the volume.

The person in charge of charging the devices was so affronted by the way I’d been treated she refused to charge them any more out of spite, not realizing the vengeance she was actually taking was on the student and the project, not the unkind words and those who wielded them.

I just put students in charge of collecting them, charging them, and putting them back out. Carry on.

We’ve met all the roadblocks (Perseverance! Grit! Buzzwords!), but we’re not able to be consistent enough for the project to work the way it needs to. It’s thrilling to see the student hear his way around the building when the devices are up and running, but that’s not frequently enough for him to use it independently - his main outcome of the project. Well, THAT didn’t work.

The students who made the devices beam every time they see or hear them - their pride is evident. I’ve tried to shelter them from all the hurtful words tossed around in the fallout, but again, their parents are all on social media, and I can’t control what they consume or how they interpret it. Well, THAT didn’t work.

And here’s the failure for me: I retreated. I know that’s a wise maneuver sometimes, but it’s rarely one I employ. I was so hurt that something I was so proud of, something so good, was burning down around me that I didn’t fight back like I needed. I was cool and calm, good and professional. I jumped through all the hoops when I should have been shouting and balking. If I’d raised my voice, maybe others would have shouted for me as well. “Look at what they’re doing! Don’t investigate her semantic failings! Hold up this example of altruism!”

I also don’t want to stick my neck out for this student again, and that’s another huge failure for me. He didn’t do anything. But I’m not in a hurry to 3D print him Braille music LEGOs, because I’m terrified of what I might do wrong in the process of trying to be right. That CERTAINLY doesn’t work.

I don’t want this to be a failure. I don’t want to toss this in the trash bin of ideas. It changed the lives and minds of students - they saw, first hand, what they could do to help others. How to look at what was happening near them and think creatively about how to improve it. It’s all the things we aim for as teachers. And in that way, it’s a resounding success.

The way it changed me personally? That comes from how it didn’t work. It’s still bitter, not yet becoming sweet. Someday I want to be able to look at the whole project and let the breathtaking ambition and joy be what I see. But that’s not now. Now all I can think is,

“Well, THAT didn’t work.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sucker Punched with Elisa Pollard

The first real post of Well THAT Didn't Work comes to us from Elisa Pollard. I'd like to thank her for being brave and taking this first jump with us. Remember, if you have a story to share, named or anonymous, email me/share it with me at

Well, THAT didn’t work feels like such a great idea, and I really want to support the blog, but of course, as a “veteran” teacher I NEVER have those days (cough cough) and way back when I did, I have buried those memories deep in my subconscious. Trying to pry them out to share them with you has my confidence huddled in the corner, shivering, snotting, and weeping. (Yes, I absolutely do believe that the best teachers are a wee bit dramatic!)

Some of the earliest mistakes I made were outside the classroom. I was the first teacher to reach a fight in the hallway. Two boys were on the ground, wailing away. I fought my way to them and grabbed the one on top. I had him by both arms (my arms through his elbows). So the other boy popped right off the ground and sucker punched the kid I had hold of. OUCH. So. Yeah, THAT didn’t work.  

Same year, I bopped a kid on the head with the papers I had in my hand from the copier. He was slapping other children in the back of the skull with his hand, hard. I tapped him with folded up papers from behind and said, “Cut it out.”  End of story.  Except it wasn’t. I came into work the next morning. The Assistant Principal met me in the office and told me he would be sitting in on the parent conference at 8am. This child had gone home and told his mama I hit him in the head…. Which, yes, I did. (wince) Cold sweat broke out all over my body as I told my AP exactly what had happened. I had visions of my teaching career ending before it ever really began. He told me to remain calm, and that if this “angry mama” got aggressive or verbally abusive, I was to leave the conference (oh, boy). I didn’t see how I could reasonably argue that I didn’t hit this child in the head, and that just sounded AWFUL.  
Mom showed up with the teen in tow. He was a smug looking little booger. I introduced myself, apologized that we were meeting like this. And then I told her what had happened. She interrupted a few times to ask for confirmation from her son (who looked less smug now). At the end of my telling, she apologized for wasting my time, asked for permission to take her son outside before he went to first block. From the windows, we saw her pop her son on the head while asking him if he thought it was funny to lie on people and to embarrass her like that in front of good people. She didn’t have an umbrella or a large bag, but it would have been stereotypically perfect if she had. Not sure who that didn’t work out for, me or the child?  

Fast forward to the 21st century. (I’ve taught in two different centuries!) Technology does me in on a regular basis. The servers will go down. Links won’t work. Power outages. The endless spinning circle of loading doom. The day the computer started the “updates” and uploaded  at 38% for over an hour while docked to the active board where I anticipated running a lesson. Oh, and the uploading was only the first half. Then the updates had to INSTALL. Yeah, THAT didn’t work.

And then there was the time I tried out the new cute sticky notes on the corkboard link that you share with students as an exit ticket activity. And students used it to post where the party was that weekend and called each other names and edited each other’s posts. I couldn’t refresh quickly enough to see what the snickering was about. It felt like a bad version of whack-a-mole.  

Wait, WHY do we do this anyway? Why do we set ourselves up for public failure and humiliation in front of an audience of adolescents who are some of the snarkiest and unforgiving creatures to walk the planet? (That is the definition of teaching, right?) WHY having lived through that in real time, WHY would I drag it out of the lock box and share it with all of you? No one fails quite so wonderfully as a teacher. Or a writer. Or a writer who is also a teacher. Right?) [ed. note *sobbing*]

So why share? Why? Because those snarky insecure teens feel like failures all the time. They need to see us fail and handle it with grace… or even with less than grace. I might have pulled a hair or two or spun in place like Rumplestiltskin, or rolled my eyes until my scalp hurt. So throw your hands up. Admit defeat. Tomorrow you can try again. No one ever died from a day of down time in the classroom. And the next time you ask students to get out of their comfort zone, they might be a tiny bit more willing to try.