Podstock: The Revolution Is Here

I went to Podstock thinking that I was in the midst of flipping my classroom and that this was the best way to make engagement happen. I was planning to continue a slow transition to project-based learning and manage a transition to standards-based grading. I thought I was having a little revolution of my own. I warned my principal about the support I’d need in helping students and parents understand what I was doing. I was rehearsing complicated little speeches and reviewing research.

So much for that.

If I expect to end up being a project-based math teacher using standards-based grading, then why would I spend all that time and effort being something else? I was baiting and switching myself: I was scared.

I’m still … well, is “scared” the right word? I’m a little shocked at myself.

Here’s the story of my own little Podstock revelation, as I see it here at the end of Day Two (sorry, Day One was too busy to blog, but …  oh, you’ll see):

My principal has been on me since I began working with her to watch Dan Meyer’s TED Talk. Yesterday morning as I geared up for the first official day of Podstock, I watched it in my hotel room. Then I went to Podstock and saw my dream student. Mark Klassen, nascent filmmaker and consummate independent and self-motivated learner, presented his story to us.

Mark found his passion early: filmmaking. He has been pursuing, haggling, negotiating, persevering, and learning about filmmaking since he was eleven. He’s worked on sets, held boom mikes, shot his own clips, produced television commercials and promotional videos, and now he’s given his first keynote address to a symposium of teachers. He’s nineteen.

He’s shot on location in Uganda, and he donated the fee for his speech at Podstock to the organization he shot for in Uganda — an awesome example of Christians living charity and service employing the key value of subsidiarity.

Mark spoke of his work at keeping what he called “good grades.” It warmed my heart to hear a young man speak of “70s and 80s and 90s” as good grades — his parents, teachers, and community deserve a great deal of credit for keeping standards high in an age of grade inflation and for helping at least this excellent young person understand that achievement means something even when the grade isn’t an “A” or even a “B.”

I could post a book about Mark based on the keynote address and the question-and-answer session that followed. He’s amazing, he’s humble, he’s driven, and he understands that the world is there for him: he doesn’t feel the pressure of being there for the world — he wants to help on his own account because it’s the right thing to do. Mark is extraordinary.

You’ll note that I haven’t spent much time reflecting on Dan Meyer’s TED Talk. To understand that you need to understand a little about how I learn: I remember everything I hear, and I have always been good at subconsciously “chewing” on that content as other information comes in: usually I get a nice stream of easy-to-digest stuff that I can manage simultaneously at both times. Not this time: it wasn’t that it was hard to accept or understand, it is that there was so much substance and authenticity to the reception. I had gone from an old crystal radio with one ear-phone to HDTV with six-speaker surround sound in theater seating. The reception was really really good and the signal was, as Mark would say, “super-super” strong.

That video hit home in a number of ways, not least because I have sworn off textbooks this year altogether. My subconscious was circling the uncomfortable conclusion that just dumping textbooks wasn’t going to be enough. My subconscious had not “swallowed” the TED Talk when Mark’s Podstock keynote presentation and the subsequent question-and-answer session began striking stirring chord after resounding tympanic volley.

Then, I met the most dangerous man on the Podstock team: Kevin Honeycutt. I say I met him: we have exchanged maybe twenty words and strum-synched and hollered our way through “Doo Wah Diddy” or whatever the name of that song is in front of a bunch of semi-inebriated fellow teachers. I don’t know the guy personally, but he has connected with me. Not a foul-tip connection or a sharp ground ball: that mass of rubber, cork, stitches, and leather has not yet begun its descent. Remember: Dan Meyer’s TED Talk hit home and hit hard but was easily stored in subconscious; Mark Klassen’s story turned a full intellectual “mouth” into dangerously overloaded mental “chipmunk cheeks.” Then Kevin Honeycutt made me Tweet Amen after Hallelujah and then he made me cry.

you're missing a heck of a photo if you can't see this

Rockin’ out with Kevin Honeycutt and Ron Madison of Flint, MI on the iPad drumkit at the Podstock digital jam with Tweetwood Mac

Kevin’s talk was “Launch Me” and I’m guessing — I haven’t done the full research on Kevin yet — that it was a skim (if one can skim such deep and moving content) of a more comprehensive “Launch Me” training that he does. The talk linked his experiences as an at-risk student meeting expectations, as a sudden academic turn-around phenomenon, as a teacher, as a social media phenomenon, and as a speaker and inspirer of thousands. He communicates well, and I don’t mean he’s slick or even polished — but he obviously has done plenty of speaking and practicing. Kevin spoke from the heart and my heart was touched. What no one realized — not even me — was that my heart and my brain and all my subconscious processing centers were on overload.

No, I didn’t have to go to the hospital. I went to lunch. I visited the (you must go there if you are ever in Wichita) Donut Whole (banana chocolate chip cake — don’t take a bite until you are safely on your way to somewhere you must go immediately). I forgot my phone in our school’s van and had to leave the GameON session to retrieve it, and then, suddenly, I had to take an afternoon nap, something I rarely do. When it was over, a lot of other ideas that have been bubbling under the surface had come together with the overwhelming input of the morning session, and … well, I’m not going to flip my classroom after all. I supposed you could say I’m going to turn it inside out instead. That’s my current phrasing for it, and usually I produce those a few days or weeks before the full background emerges — but I doubt those words will change. I’m just idly wondering how I’ll describe it linguistically. In images, sounds, and even some emotions, I already have a pretty clear idea what it will be like. Sorry, you may have to wait for the full explanation until it begins to happen and the events begin to unfold in ways that support prediction.

What’s going to happen in my classes this year? Only a few things are certain: the rest I will discover with joy or face down with great determination — probably both — as they happen. It is certain that my students will strive to meet the new Common Core Standards. It is certain that I will answer questions with questions. It is certain that I will use standards-based grading and authentic assessment. It is certain that I will use data and technology more than I ever have.

What will the projects be? The students and I will work that out as we go.

What will our pace be? We’ll get there: some projects may have to be smaller bites than others — but if somebody comes up with an feasible on-task doozy we will not shy from it.

What will I use to judge student work for grades? We — my students and I — will negotiate reasonable grades based on the standards, which we will all know in advance.

What will motivate them? The opportunity to self-direct and to apply mathematics to things that interest them — novelties, hobbies, or possible careers.

I don’t know what bright objects and sudden movements irresistibly control their movements, so I can’t dictate content if I want engagement. I have to share control with my students.

I wish I could say that I never knew I needed to do some or even all of this before Podstock — but I’ve been advised, cajoled, and guided in this direction since I began to have principals that tried to make me better. That is not a criticism of the other principals, by the way: in some situations the principals were beset by community issues or greater problems, a reality that probably hurts a lot of teachers’ development.

I have a final resolution, and I’m just brash enough to put it out there for everyone to see. This story is going to emerge in bits and pieces on this blog, on Twitter, and perhaps elsewhere throughout the year, in manageable chunks that illuminate the story of the year in the context of my teaching career to this point. I’m going to tell both stories gradually and reflectively from now until Podstock 2014 — and then, at Podstock 2014, I’m going to tell the whole story in a way that illuminates other teachers’ stories to themselves.

I don’t want to say I’m not special, because in a sense we all are. I don’t want to say I’m super — but people have said it and I have learned to accept a compliment (I really, really struggled with that, probably because I knew I wasn’t what I could be — I’m still not, but I’m about to much, much closer). I’m willing to bet that we have all heard the advice and guidance I have resisted these last nine years. There are a bunch of teachers out there — and surely some will be at Podstock next year — who are or very nearly are where I was three days ago.

I’m going to walk up to them as they stand at the precipice and convince them to jump in. It’s only fair. Mark Klassen and Kevin Honeycutt shoved me over that precipice, and I deserved it, and I’m grateful for it, and the only way to repay them meaningfully within my power is to take up that cause. Kevin hinted that he’s about done, and Mark’s got films to make. It’s not that a person’s time to step up never comes, but that a person can let it pass when it arrives. I have stood at the beginning of this thrill ride for so long, going over and over in my mind what it would take to navigate the ride and land on my feet.

I can’t plan what can’t be mapped or controlled, and it doesn’t matter whether I land on my feet. I have said this to my students countless times throughout my career: now I’m going to live it. When the ride is over, if I’m not on my feet, I will stand up get back after it. My students have waited long enough for me to lead them into learning that is authentic, deep, intellectually challenging, irresistibly engaging, and unpredictable. I have failed to introduce them to life. No more.

How were they ever going to find such a rewarding way to live and learn if I didn’t show it to them? This is my professional vocation: this is what teaching is supposed to be — and it’s going to be crazy and awesome and fun and scary and … man, do I have to wait until the middle of August to start?

Do you want to experience a fantastic story, folks? Stay tuned … before this one is over, no matter how long it takes or how hard it gets, this is going to be one. I simply won’t quit until it is.

Ora et labora ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus.