An Interview with Doug Robertson, Author of "He's the Weird Teacher"

Troy Starr, Learning Counsel Writer

The Learning Counsel had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Doug Robertson, 5th grade teacher, author, blogger and educational champion extraordinaire. In our interview we discussed his book, “He’s the Weird Teacher”, cool things happening in his classes, and how he is using digital tools to help facilitate student achievement in a Blended Learning environment.


Starr: Your book “He’s the Weird Teacher” has gotten a lot of praise and attention. What inspired you to get out there and write?

Robertson: I’ve always wanted to write a book so that was part of it. I was always a frustrated author. But I also had a student teacher the year that I wrote the book which helped me see that the things that I do in my classroom were not unique to me. You never really know when you’re teaching if it’s just me that’s doing it, does this actually work? It’s really hard to tell. Having a student teacher helped me see that, “No, what I’m doing is actually working and is transferrable.” I wanted to show that to people and share how I was thinking about teaching, so I wrote the book.

I really didn’t expect that many people to read it. When I sat down to write the book, I figured that my best friend would tell me that he read it and that would be about it. But I was fine with that because I had things I wanted to share.

Starr: I’ve been reading on your blog and it looks like your students created some amazing arcade games out  cardboard in the classroom. Where did you get the idea for this?

Robertson: There’s a YouTube video called Caine’s Arcade that is a few years older now. The video is about this kid who over the summer created a cardboard arcade in his dad’s garage. They invited people and it became this internet sensation.

We always do it the week before Christmas because that’s a bonkers week as far as school goes. The kids can smell holiday break. We were having a holiday party on Friday that week but after I started the cardboard arcade they stopped asking about the party because they were so involved building this thing and it became, “Are we going to open on Friday? Are we going to invite other classes?” And they were exited about the stuff we were doing and less focused on the holiday break. It was pretty fun. I’ve done that the last few years.

Starr: That’s awesome. Sounds like a wild success. Do you ever play computer games in the classroom?

Robertson: Sometimes when we can. We are 1-to-1 so I’ve got Chromebooks for every kid, so we will occasionally.

Starr: How do you feel about Kahoot?

Robertson: I have a hard time evangelizing for any particular tech tool because they all have their own specific uses. Twitter likes to make everything seem like the most wonderful thing ever and I have a hard time getting there with a lot of stuff. But Kahoot is pretty cool if you use it right. It’s still an online test but it’s a game so the kids like it.  

Starr: Are there any other digital tools that you utilize in the classroom?

Robertson: I use the heck out of all of Google Suite. Everything we do runs off all the Google apps. The kids have Drive accounts and they have Gmail accounts and all that stuff, so we use a ton of slides and Docs and Drive and they make Google sites. We could use Weebly or one of the others, but I don’t know why we would go outside of the ecosystem if it’s all right there for us. So, we use a lot of that stuff as the primary tech tools that we’ll be using and then we bounce around to whatever I find.

One of the biggest complaints I have right now with the Chromebooks and in general with tech tools for kids is there is not a good online video editing program that exists. WeVideo is about the only thing and it is really expensive. We used to be able to use YouTube’s editing software and that was awesome. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked great. But YouTube has gotten rid of that and that’s a bummer. So, I don’t really have a way for my kids to edit videos because we don’t all have iMovie.

Starr: The Learning Counsel has a social site for educators called KnowStory. This site is centered around Learning Groups where education professionals can discuss hot topics in education. If you were going to head one of these groups what is a topic that you think is at the core of what’s really important right now in education?

Robertson: I think a lot of the conversations that we need to be having in education right now, a lot of them boil down to the idea of balance. Like what I was saying a few minutes ago, we in education have a tendency to get very, very excited about things and then things go very extreme, at least in conversation. I don’t know if that happens so much in the classroom. For example, if someone has an idea for a Starbucks designed classroom and all of a sudden, the whole classroom is Starbucks designed and all of these things are focused this way. It’s like one person reads a book about a pirate and then all of a sudden there is a giant pirate ship on the side of their classroom and everyone is dressing up like pirates and basically, we go way too far.

So, if I was going to lead a discussion like that, a lot of it is finding the middle ground between all the things we want to do and then all of the hoops we jump through because thought leaders like to pretend that there aren’t things that teachers have to do because that’s part of the job. Like “Just don’t do it”, “Ok, I just won’t grade anymore. That’s a great idea, I just won’t. I’ll tell my principal and refer her to you.”

One of my challenges right now is I’m constantly trying to find a balance between my impulse to let my kids be making and be really creative. We are going to read this story and then we’re going to sing and it’s going to show me how you understood the story and understood the characters. But on the other hand they need to learn how to write an essay. So, I need to teach them step-by-step, this is how you write an essay and all your essays are going to look similar even though they are not going to be exactly the same. So, it’s this real push and pull between the project-based learning and the more traditional classroom and how do I find ways to mesh those two most effectively.

It’s the same with technology. I want to use all the technology. But sometimes, cutting out something and pasting it to something else is the best way to do it. Actually using your hands instead of computers. The when and where and why of all those things working together are the conversations that I really like.

What digital functionalities can you see being beneficial for students Personalized Learning experiences within a Blended Learning environment?

We need to be able to trust the technology that the kids are using is actually personalized rather than simply algorithmic. Let’s say my kids are leveled in reading. They are using this reading program that says that it levels for the kids. Sometimes when I look at that it feels a lot like when I go on and it’s like, “Hey you really liked this album, so you will probably like this album too.” And then I’m comparing what my kids are learning to how I’m being sold and making those things feel very similar kind of feels icky. Like, this isn’t actually personalized, it’s just an algorithm and it’s checking boxes. I know that’s how computers work but it somehow feels less personalized. It feels a little bit more removed.

It’s being sold as personalized because the kid does x, y and z and so the program does this. But that’s not really reacting to everything that’s happening with the student which is when the teachers need to be able to step into the program and say, “Ok, I know you computers think the student should be doing this but they actually should be doing this and I can fix that and change that.” As a teacher, the idea that a machine will feel like an authentic learning tool is a little creepy because that means it doesn’t need me as much and I feel we are always going to need the human touch. You are always going to need someone who can look at the student and say, “They didn’t do well on this test and I have the numbers to prove that. But, they also had gotten beat up at recess. So, I know why they didn’t do well on this test and it has nothing to do with the test.”

Doug Robertson is truly a Rockstar teacher and is putting a lot of thought and energy into making sure he is providing the best possible learning experiences for his students. If you would like to learn more about Doug you can find him on Twitter, check out his blog, or dive in to one of his books.

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