“Situation Hopeless” vs. “Glorious Opportunity”

4 Oct

I had a really successful week this week with my grade 11 students, and had two take-aways:

1. Sometimes we all need a little creativity to make us more productive analytically

2. I may have to radically shift how I teach.

First, the creativity: My grade 11s are finishing up their first text, The Great Gatsby, and I decided they would do an end-of-unit project rather than an essay. We have two full years to crank out essays and I thought I’d get them in the presentation mode early on, as that is their first IB assessment in December (Individual Oral Presentations), worth 15% of their total IB grade.

So they had a choice of three activities: 1. Designing a book cover for the new edition of the book, complete with visual, effective summary, key quotes, and (living or dead) author blurbs on the back (imagine what Hemingway would have blurbed for his friend Fitzgerald, or even Billy Collins, and you get the idea.) 2. Creating a series of math problems, such as algebraic equations, world problems, or proofs, that represent the characters, story, and overall message. 3. Choosing a song for two of the major characters and a third for either the author or a core theme of the book. In every one of these instances, students had to have some kind of visual (if they had drawn a book cover, then the book cover was their visual), they had to connect their work to a minimum of three key quotes, and they had 5 – 7 minutes to present it to the class.

I was happy that I’d come up with an assignment that offered choice and creativity, but as the presentation day drew closer, I felt nervous. I began to feel that I hadn’t given them enough direction about how best to present, how to be effective.

I thought about some of the best presentations I’ve seen, many of them TED talks, and I wondered if I couldn’t show them a few of the best to give them some “models” of excellence. The trouble was that they were scheduled to give their presentations the next morning in class, and they would come in ready to do so. I figured maybe we could watch a few TED talks after theirs, discuss what was good (or not) about them, and they could learn something about it for their next presentation.

I found a web page that had rounded up the “best” ten Ted talks and I began to watch several of them. Here’s the link: http://www.funkmeyers.com/a-guide-to-the-best-10-ted-talks-ever/  One of them, Benjamin Zander’s, moved me to tears as I sat in my empty classroom (more on this later). It had been a long day spent being very mental (planning, grading, rushing around the school making copies and getting resources from the library), and I felt this great sense of joy and relaxation at watching this inspiring TED talk. I left at the end of the school day feeling energized — a rare feeling.

An hour later, inspiration struck: The students were due to present the next day in class for a grade, their first major assignment of the year. I knew they weren’t ready to do their best. So I changed the plan. Since they were ready to present, I’d let them — but not to the whole class. Instead, they’d present in small groups of three or four while I wandered the groups and checked in on everyone’s presentation at some point. They’d then get feedback from their peers, self-assess their own performance on the rubric, and then follow up by watching five different TED talks for homework. After watching the five, they’d write down their answers to the questions: Who was the best speaker? Who had the best use of media? Whose content was the most interesting regardless of presentation style?

In addition, they’d revise their presentation any way they chose to in preparation for the following class, when they have to present to the entire group — this time for a real grade.

The point here is that I believe my “creative” juices were flowing as a teacher when I decided to change the plan and think a little outside the box specifically because I’d allowed myself some creative and joyful time (watching the TED talks). Sometimes working, working, working is not the most productive way. Not for me, and not for my students. It’s so easy to forget in the crush and the rush that content, curriculum, assessment, grading, calendars, and benchmarks are not the egg yolk, but merely the shell. The real heart of learning is inspiration, engagement, and curiosity. Taking a “break” to watch those TED talks literally changed my mood and made me feel lighter, happier. I know it was no accident that I had a good teaching idea shortly after — my brain felt charged.

Now on to my second point — how I might have to shift entirely my mind frame about how I teach. Watching Zander’s TED talk on classical music (http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/benjamin_zander_on_music_and_passion.html) flicked something on inside me. You can see the talk for yourself, and I highly recommend you do, as it is so utterly pertinent to teachers and their craft. He begins with a joke about two men who go from England to Africa in the early 20th century to see whether there is a market for shoe sales. The first man telegrams back: “Situation hopeless; they don’t wear shoes.” The second sends a separate telegram: “Glorious opportunity — they don’t have any shoes yet.”

His own personal epiphany as a conductor came at age 45 when he realized his job was to “awaken possibility in other people.” As a conductor, he doesn’t make a sound, but he commands an orchestra to make celestial and powerful sounds. He says that the conductor “depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.” And he goes on to say that if his players’ “eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it…it the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question…’Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?'”

I had to ask myself this question, because I think it’s vital for educators as well: Are my students’ eyes “shining”? Am I making them powerful? Am I awakening possibility in them?

The answer is: for some, yes.

But not all.

I think of that one ninth grade boy, the one whose mother berates him and us in meetings about his poor performance, and how utterly checked out he is in my class. It’s as if all the lights are off.

And then, luckily, I got to chaperone a ninth-grade school trip, snorkeling off the coast of Malaysia. The best part about the trip was spending half an hour in the water watching that same boy, lit up like a Christmas tree, as he found sting rays and called us over to see them, as he dove to the bottom and retrieved enormous clam shells, the size of a large turtle, and brought them up to the surface for all to see, as he pointed out sea urchins and sea cucumbers. His eyes were shining.

So, here is an uncomfortable question for us teachers to ask ourselves: Would you want to sit through your own class? Would you be excited to go every day? Would you feel inspired, engaged, and curious at a desk in the back of your own classroom, or preparing for that class’s final assessment?

The answer for me is not yet a clear yes.

But no matter. I’m already scheming, thinking, and revising. I’m considering ways to radically shift the way I teach. Why shouldn’t every class be exciting to come to? Can’t reading, writing, group work, and presentations be exciting? Shouldn’t they be, for goodness sakes?

And even though I feel disappointed to face up to the reality that I may not do the best job I can yet of making my students’ eyes “shine,” I find this situation not a bit hopeless; rather, I see it as a glorious opportunity.


One Response to ““Situation Hopeless” vs. “Glorious Opportunity””

  1. grantwiggins October 4, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Fantastic post, Lex. Reminds me and points out to all the joys of being a teacher. The teachable moment, the smooth adjustment from the kids’ perspective, the use of TED talks – brilliant stuff. Indeed, we are in the talent development business and the opportunity finding and exploiting business. Some people (wrongly) think that UbD advocates being totally focused on planning and sticking rigidly to the plan. On the contrary: purposeful, well-planned units always give rise to serendipity: Chance favors the prepared mind, said Pasteur. in UbD we say: PLAN….to ADJUST… Well done and well written.

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