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Posted by on in Teaching with Rigor

escape hatch

A common theme I get asked about during my workshops is student motivation, or student effort.

No matter what management techniques or systems you have in your classroom to maintain behavior, instilling a culture of working hard, or "grit" as some like to call it, is probably one of the most difficult things you can accomplish as a teacher.

A huge problem with traditional teacher-lead instruction is that the cycle of learning is "closed". You instruct, assess, grade, and move on. Students who don't want to do the work, simply don't try, turn in half empty papers, or don't study and fail. In the student's mind, it is easier to fail than to work hard for a short time and succeed (especially if they are used to this cycle and failing within it.)

By just stamping a grade on my students' papers, I was providing them with what I call an "Escape Hatch". For some students, it becomes normal to simply fail and "escape" hard work, so that is what they were inevitably doing in my classroom.

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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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