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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor

In late July, I had the opportunity to participate in the AASA digital consortium summer meet up. The consortium visited two superb districts (Leyden High School District 212 and Deerfield Public School District 109) as well as one Titan in its own class (the Chicago office of Google). 

The symposium started with an overview of the Leyden school district. A diverse, blue collar town, Leyden has a little bit of everything to offer. What was most impressive was the fact that Leyden truly understood the necessity to prepare young adults to be adults in the workforce.  Not that they weren't preparing for college prep too, but it's always fantastic to see what schools are doing for the student going into the workforce. 

Tours like this always start with "the nickel tour" (tour of the building),  which was immaculate. The building itself was over 70 years old, but you would never think it. I later found out that the entire maintenance team are non-outsourced employees, which we all know leads to high quality work and investment in work. When I say immaculate, I could have eaten my lunch off of the floor.

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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor

Grade 3 Concert Oct 28 2013 009 Wiki 5

Twenty years ago, Arlene Croce, writing in the New Yorker, declared that she felt that Bill T. Jones' work exploring his own AIDS diagnosis and the terminal illnesses of his performers made his work "undiscussable" - beyond the reach of criticism. She coined the term "victim art" and vented her frustration at the way she felt manipulated by art that seemed more about issues than it was about aesthetics.  Now, I don't agree with Croce, but I'm finding myself this morning sympathizing with her frustration.

I'm frustrated because I'm struggling with another type of performance that we do treat as undiscussable, performances we don't dare to critique, not because the performers are victims but because they're just so darn cute.  I'm talking about performances that are so far away from Bill T. Jones as to hardly be in the same universe.  I'm talking about the school concert.

I have been part of school concerts as a music teacher, classroom teacher, director, and parent.  I've spent long hours rehearsing kids for all sorts of shows, some good, some bad, some cringe-worthy.  I've toiled in the trenches of recorders, boomwhackers, and box steps.  I know how much work it is to put on one of these shows, even the worst of them.

So, I'm reluctant to criticize, really I am.  But, I just can't hold it in any more.  We need to take a hard look at this ritual and ask ourselves some big questions.  Like, why in the world are we doing this? What's the value? What's the point?

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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor


“Life is not a matter of chance... it is a matter of choice.” ― Ka

Should we leave our students' learning up to chance? The answer seems simple enough right? But its application isn’t automatic. It is a conscious choice we must make as educators.

I have a confession to make. I have been a high school teacher for 13 years and this is the first year that I started writing down and consciously going over the learning objectives at the beginning of every class with my chemistry students. I mean, I always told my students what they were about to learn each day, and I even remember using the required SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To) format in the lesson plans I submitted to the administration weekly when I taught science in Chicago Public Schools. However, I did not ever consider or realize that simply telling my students what I was about to teach wasn’t enough.

Now I know that “just saying it” is not enough.

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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor
High School students have seldom come in contact with absurdist theater, but can really get a lot out of it. Since it seeks to explore many philosophical questions they ask about life everyday.
High School students have seldom come in contact with absurdist theater, but can really get a lot out of it. Since it seeks to explore many philosophical questions they ask about life everyday.

So we've just finished Hamlet and at the beginning, students struggled (they usually do when encountering Shakespeare), but ultimately appreciated Shakespeare's ability to create a character of depth and a play that makes inaction complicated and worthy of their time.

As we move away from the traditional, we will now embark upon the world of absurdist theater created eloquently by Tom Stoppard in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an adaptation of sorts of Shakespeare's classic. Taking the point of view of lesser characters and showing the story from their perspective offering depth and greater understanding of the comedy in Hamlet.

Unfortunately, the humor of absurdity can be lost on students if they aren't properly prepared.

Here are some easy tips for teaching something that's so complex, it looks easy on the surface.

  • Preteach the ideas of absurdist theater and existentialism by providing easy to understand non-fiction articles that can be scaffolded and jigsawed in class.
  • Provide specific features that the students can look for while they read that make the play absurdist (some examples from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are: the play refers to itself and the audience often, dialogue is "strange" and many thoughts are left unfinished)
  • Identify the big questions the play seeks to answer. For example, how much control do we have over our lives or are we guided by destiny?
  • Read aloud with students, in the beginning, helping them by explaining the humor -
  • Try to avoid proscribed meaning - explore the idea that there are many ways to understand what they read, none being more "right" than another.
  • Unlike Shakespeare, the language is deceptively easy, make sure you show and explain the layers and nuance in the diction.
  • Define anything that can be misunderstood ahead of time and in the context of the reading when it comes up. Make kids write it down when you go over it.
  • Show them the movie, so they can place the humor in its context (I usually show the movie after we are done reading) - Ask them to take notes on what they notice when they watch that they missed while they read. Discuss what they notice.
  • Offer students the opportunity to grapple with the big questions offered by the text, practicing using evidence, but also employing their own philosophical views
  • Anchor ideas in by comparing and contrasting to other drama students have read (in our case Shakespeare's Hamlet)
  • Let students work in pairs to examine the text closely using double entry journals
  • Create a project that explores the style of writing and the philosophy that drives the unit - I have students write a 1 Act play in either play's format and/or style HamletRosencrantzandGildensternassignment
  • Provide students a model and/or exemplar that really addresses the core of your expectations: LaertesAbroad-1Actplay
  • Give students opportunity to revise and conference in order really show what they know about the genre
  • Create opportunities for multiple interpretations and discussions.
  • Develop a lit circle for other absurdist authors like Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter

How have you taught absurdist theater? Let's collaborate. Share you ideas and challenges.

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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor

As part of my Summer reading activities I was tasked with viewing The Future of STEM Education, presented by Dr. Roni Ellington at the 2013 Baltimore TEDx, and writing a reflection based on the four parts of inclusive framework.  

1. Empower students to pursue hard subjects even as such subjects become more difficult over time. (Or: addition is easy, but calculus is hard.)

Acknowledging that all students have the ability to reach lofty goals, even if their academic standing may state otherwise. Many times kids are slammed into the class their test score dictates even if it means they may be passionate and intelligent in something unrelated. In the process of doing what is "right" by trying to lift them up sometimes school eliminates opportunities for students. I had a similar experience as Dr. Ellington growing up. As a student who struggled with wanting to diagram sentences learning grammar I was always placed in the low English classes, which always prevented me from taking the more complex Social Studies classes. Ninth grade I was labeled as "low" and the game was over ... I think I became the king of "Not Working to Ability" Kids deserve to be challenged ... they want to be challenged.

2. Teachers must see themselves as “vehicles for students’ lives to change.” Ellington, who grew up in Washington, D.C., didn’t take an interest in math until teachers pushed her to take more rigorous courses.

Teachers are more than content deliverers. It is easy for teachers to just focus on what the data states and in the process not inspire the kids to be more than a test score ... more than what they have been labeled. Many times all kids need is a push or something that at least interests them to motivate them to do better. As a Social Studies teacher and former AP US History teacher I have seen many kids disqualified from taking the APUSH class because they had low reading test scores, but yet they still wanted to be challenged by the AP class. I am proud that I fought for them to be included in the class some passed the AP test, but the passing of the AP test was not the most important thing ... challenging the kids on a higher level than they were accustomed was and it made all the difference in the world. 

3. Look for the “social and cultural capital” that already exists in impoverished communities.
Just because you are poor does not mean you do not have value. 
Too often we buy into the hype we see in the media about "those" kids. Kids from the "bad" neighborhood who come from "that" type of lifestyle ... the ones we have to spend extra time with because the data states we must bring up their test scores so our score grade will go up. These kids are smart. However, many have not had the opportunity to find their passion and sadly, many of them may never find it as they have been slammed into their least favorite classes because test scores have dictated they be there. We have to look for the leaders ... the kids who are just looking for a spark to set them on fire. Look beyond their test score ... their street address because every kid has the potential to be great ... we just have to release it from the confines of the box in which they have been placed.

4. Think outside the book: how could robotics, for instance, be an avenue through which students can gain interest in STEM subjects?

Books are a guide NOT necessarily a set of directions. I am not sure why education does this, but we can take the greatest most exciting thing and ruin it for the kids by over standardizing the subject. We kill the creativity in Art classes by grading kids creativity and artistic skill and we do the same thing in Robotics classes. I have always been at a school with a "Robotics" class ... i put that in parenthesis because it should be called "Reading Directions" class because that is all they did. The kids read directions to use the parts they were given to build the robot that was in the picture. How is this innovative? How does this give the kids the ability to think outside the box? I stopped asking the kids long ago when the battle bot competition was going to be held or when their robot would deliver a soda to me. Kids are not passionate about following directions ... they are passionate about building and creating something bigger than what is in the text book. They see something or they learn something and they try to connect it to something bigger, but yet we do do not allow them to take the next step because it is not in the book. We MUST learn X and Y before you can get to Z, but what if I do not need Y or Z to get to discovering something that has not been labeled yet?

The Future of STEM education as presented by Dr. Ellington creates a great path in which to follow, but I think it will take some daring schools to take a stand for what needs to be done. STEM is supposed to expand the mind and have the kids innovating and creating as they build upon the skills learned in class. They should be using their knowledge NOT just following the instructions n a piece of paper and receiving a grade based on how well they followed the instructions. I like to think that the kids can think ... "If I can do this and this then I should be able to make it do this." The kids need to have the opportunity to take learning to the next level without being restricted by test scores, teacher expectations, or standards ... sometimes teachers need to get out of the way.



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