Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
"What if you could design a classroom and curriculum that was centered around the needs of you- the student?"
This is the question I am posing to my sociology students this week. While we are learning about Functionalist, Conflict, and Interactionist perspectives of education, the students will be designing a physical model classroom, and a curriculum/instructional style that they feel would best suit modern students.
When I introduced the lesson today, a student asked to share the following video:
This instantly started the brainstorming, so I asked the students to tell me one thing they would change about education/school- and it had to be a positive change, not a "Stop doing this" change. This is the result.
Looking at the list, I think you can boil the students' perspective down to these areas: Choice, Courses and Structures.
Freedom, options, and individual pacing all connect to Choice. Students want to choose how to navigate the content- they want more choice over depth of dive and order of content. They also want more freedom to take care of personal responsibilities- "why do we need permission to go the bathroom" was their specific question. But in the discussion, students shared they wanted to own their learning more, from content to seating choice to how they interact with the content.
Students wanted more course offerings. They wondered why four years of English were required, but no options for Creative Writing existed. More choice in foreign languages and more career based courses also came up. I particularly liked the idea of more variety in how you got your four core subjects coursework done. What if you did a World War II course for your World History Credit? Creative Writing for your English IV? Students seem to want more courses with relevance and application.
The final, and largest, group was all about the structure of school. From the time spent there, to the activities you engage in to the physical and social environment, students want changes to structure. Several mentioned block schedules, or "College Style" as one student called it. Flipped courses where you spent half the time at school came up, as did individual pacing, which goes back to that personal responsibility piece. Environments with flexible seating and softer lighting were mentioned, but the real structure they talked about was the social structure. They wanted more classes where students interacted with each other, even taught each other. Student led discussions and even student led reviews were concepts they embraced.
If you are reading the above topics, you now doubt have a similar view to me. Some things look awesome and immediately applicable. Some things look great, but are cost/personnel prohibitive. Some things...well, they need work. But that is the point. Students are now going to start work on their models and lessons, designing their "perfect class."
One student pointed out that the video only stated what was wrong- but did not offer solutions. She said this is the problem with so much today, we point out problems, but never offer solutions.
I smiled, then said:
"That's what you are going to do now."
Come back next week when I post the students' projects, and see how they did!
I get bored.
All my life, I've preferred to break new ground, to try new things. Except for food. I stick to the same food at every restaurant. But as far as career and general adult pursuits, I do not like to retread.
I am a bit of a rambling soul.
When I became a teacher, this restless spirit did not go away. But for the first three years of my classroom experience, I got to teach at least one new content area each year. Last year I got to teach three new areas and one old (totals up to six preps) and I loved it.
But this year, I had all old classes to teach. Without a moment's hesitation, my thoughts was "I can really play around with HOW I teach my content! Finally!"
Through a series of events well documented on this blog already, I got the chance to be completely innovative with my room and my delivery and my assessments.
I am so thankful I have had this chance. It has helped me see that my restless soul has just been a vehicle for innovation, and it could be for others. If you get restless, or bored easily, maybe you are an
Memories: nostalgia or reflection ?
I like nostalgia as much as the next person. I've even got a nostalgia playlist on my phone (lots of 90's and classic rock. A little Alabama and Garth Brooks. The Friends theme.). Nostalgia makes me smile, but it pulls me backwards.
When I look at my practices as a teacher, I recognize the good, but look for how it could be better. This year, I looked at the notes on my sports and media unit in sociology and thought- "Why am I not being active with a unit about activity?" So I hosted an Olympics to open discussion of how competition affects groups.
As teachers, we must reflect, which implies we look backward to move forward- not stay in the past.
Energized: Job completion or new challenge?
When I finish a job, I revel in it. I appreciate and enjoy that it's done. But when I start to think about a new project- I cannot stop thinking- and talking (ask my wife) about it. When I began the project that has become the CREATE classroom, it consumed my thoughts and discussions. And I never got tired. Innovators are energized by breaking new ground. Which leads to-
Ideas: borrow or create?
When I started teaching, I got material from several other teachers. Great material.
But it was not mine.
After just a few weeks, I was hungry to create. I wanted to find new ways to present the information that suited my voice and my students' needs. Even now, I must confess, when other teachers tell me I need to look at what other teachers are doing- it is not with a mind to steal their ideas, but to re-engineer or completely take a tangent.
I definitely need to learn from other teachers, but I rarely copy their recipe exactly. I have observed teachers do great lessons, but my take away was not the lesson, but the one little comment they or a student made. That inspires me.
I do not want to re-tread the ground well worn by my peers, but to blaze new trails that branch off paths of other pioneers.
That, my friends, is my mantra as a restless soul, an innovator.
You may use this mantra if you choose.
But it since you are an innovator, be restless. Get bored and find something different.
Blaze that new trail.
So, I'm sharing about my CREATE classroom with a group of teachers. There are smiles, nods of agreement, even questions about application. Then...
"So, what do you teach?"
"Psychology, Sociology, and Debate."
"Ah..." and then disengagement.
I read from their faces that my class is "just a debate class."
This scene has played out numerous times over the last few months.
I have really struggled with writing this because it runs the risk of sounding like I'm whining.
And please do not see this as a condemnation of teachers who have responded this way. Many of us- yes us, because I've done it too- don't even realize we do it.
Educators need to stop treating Fine Arts, CATE, and Social Sciences (Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology) like they are not as important as the core classes. I am not talking about admins or school boards, I am talking about classroom teachers.
No, we are not tested. Yes, we do have students CHOOSE to take our courses as opposed to being required to take the core courses. Yes, our content is easier to make relevant to students.
But they are no less important, no less vital to the educational growth of our students.
When you say, "Its just a _____ class," you do damage. And you most likely do not even realize it.
You Put Down Legitimate Curriculum
These courses are legitimate, approved courses. Debate may be an elective, but students are learning valuable communication skills. A Construction course is teaching students skills they can make a living with- and many students will. When you assume that the techniques and activities won't translate- for instance student facilitated discussion- to a math or science class, you deny a sound education practice. Dan Meyer has talked in great detail about how to have student led discussion in a math class. Student engagement is common in these Just ____Classes, and do we not want engagement in all our classes? So why not maybe try to learn from this curriculum?
You Put Down Legitimate Teachers
These teachers work hard. They have to teach students skills that are not easily quantified by formulas and equations, or even hard archeological historical facts. How does one measure a good argument? A creative piece of art? A delicious plate of culinary work?
Teachers would never outright say- "Your class is just a fun class," but the actions reveal the attitude. And the implication is that fun classes mean the teachers do not have to work as hard, or deal with as much rigor. This is not true. It is difficult to cut a straight line, or get a clean weld- and requires a skilled and patient teacher to find that success.
You Put Down a Student's Passion and Success
It may be "just a class" to you, but it is a student's favorite class. Maybe the only class they demonstrate proficiency in. This class MATTERS to them. It is important to them, and may be a future career for them. I have students come to me all the time, excited that they saw something in the news that correlated with our class discussion, and I hear from parents frequently that their kids are sharing what they did in these classes. They are engaged and excited about content, and that makes the content legitimate.
When teachers give me the "that's just a fun class" look, I find myself justifying my own classes. I point to other subjects that do similar things to prove that it is not just stuff that works in debate or psychology.
I demean my own classes.
I am guilty of this as well. But I believe in my content, and I believe it will help shape students far beyond the classroom, just like math, science, English, social studies and foreign language. Each class in a school's schedule fills a vital role in the life of the campus. My actions, however, do not show that belief. So from now on, I am planning to respond with this:
My class is just a great class to teach.
This post is not about teachers or students or administrators or school business or finance or parents.
It is about Iguanas and Snakes.
Watch the video above before continuing on.
You will thank me.
I have not been that emotionally invested and drawn into a scene since I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for the first time about thirty years ago. This video is inspiring and cringe-worthy at the same time, and I think is an excellent modern day Aesop's Fable of determination.
I have lots of questions: Did the iguana choose to go to the beach from Hell or did it fall down there? Why so many snakes? If iguanas can cognitively process things, what was going through its mind? Why, when being still seemed to work, did it try to run?
Why did it not give up?
Choice or Circumstance?
I do not know if the iguana (I'll call him Iggy) thought, "Let me see what I can take?" or if he just stumbled into the fight of his life. If he chose it, he is not unlike students and even teachers who over-commit. . We think, ah, what is one more club sponsorship or obligation, or AP class. Then, before we know it-
SNAKES! SNAKES EVERYWHERE!
We try to work through it one thing at a time, but then they gang up on us. Multiple deadlines all fall on the same day or there simply isn't enough time to do it all and have a personal life. But we committed, we are in this fight. To give up and walk away is defeat. Not the same level of defeat Iggy would have experienced, mind you, but substantial failure for sure.
SNAKES! SNAKES EVERYWHERE!
I hate snakes. So, I was wary of clicking the link when I saw just one in the teaser image. But then they came from EVERYWHERE. No matter where Iggy turned, there they were. Sometimes it was just one he was dancing away from, sometimes a multitude. But the thing is, it just takes one snake to end this video in a very different way.
When we get overwhelmed, it is easy to think that the sheer numbers is what will get us, but often, it is not the many, but the one thing we neglect that takes us down. Busy with work and school, we can miss the needs our family is crying out for to be met. And down we go. The problem with multitasking can be that all the things we are juggling are important, so we need to watch them all.
This is when we have something Iggy does not- support. Find someone- peer, leader family member, teammate- who can watch out for the snakes you do not see and keep you from going down.
Whatcha thinking? or If I Stand Still He Won't See Me---RUN!
Why did Iggy run? The snake was not going to see him if he didn't move, according the announcer guy. But the snake got close, and Iggy bolted.
Iggy was clearly going on instinct, but if he could think like we do- what was he thinking? Probably nothing more than just "SURVIVE!"
We like to think we humans are complex creatures, but when we fall into a den of snakes, we too are on instinct. Our thoughts are not complex, they are survival- we are in our brain stem. So, when you- or your student or peer- are in this mode, realize that we are not thinking rationally, we are thinking about getting to that next breath of life.
And don't take what we say or do so personally.
Never, Ever Surrender.
I'll admit. When Iggy went down in that tangle of snakes, I audibly said, "Well, that didn't end well." I knew he was done. I knew what happens when snakes do that- the victim is done. But for whatever reason, Iggy kept moving. If he knew about the above quote, our iguana hero would no doubt have had this thought playing through his mind. I know Iggy was tired, and he could have just surrendered.
But he didn't.
Our students will go down in tangles of their own proverbial snakes- and so will we. If we are embracing growth mindset, we will challenge our students and ourselves to never give up. "To look death in the eye and say 'Whatever, man.'" ( Thanks Hurley from Lost.) You better believe I am showing this video to my classes today, because I want my students to overcome failures and learn from them. To be stronger, to be tougher, to be resilient, and like Iggy at the end, get back to what matters.
Our enemies are not always literally snakes, but busy-ness, loneliness, fear, weariness. Sometimes they are other people. I want to be an innovator, but sometimes, the voices of the old way chase me down and attempt to smother me. I want to be like Iggy.
I want to survive and carry on.
OK, so maybe this blog really is about you and me.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.