The Three C’s

Let me just say that as an English teacher, it drives me nuts that I have to write “C’s” when it’s not possessive.  English needs some new rules added.

In the process of reflecting on my own work, observing others’, and thinking a lot about “the secret” to good teaching, it occurred to me that there’s really one thing that we’re all shooting for up there in front of our classrooms:  student engagement.

There are a lot of different ways teachers make sure students are engaged.  Some let their personalities shine.  They use humor, sarcasm, jokes, stories about their time working in the carnival, whatever–there are teachers who are just so entertaining that students can’t help but be engaged.  Some let the lessons speak for themselves.  Students who are asked to evaluate, analyze, be creative, and break the mold of what usually occurs in classrooms will listen up and wonder, “What are we going to do today?”  Some just try to bully students into being engaged.  That usually stops working around 7th grade.

But what about the rest of us who are trying anything and everything to get students engaged?  What can we learn from studying the “naturals?”  I think it comes down to what I call the “three c’s”: Clarity, Continuity, and Concurrency.

Clarity is about one question:  Is the teacher clear about exactly what his students should do?  If a teacher doesn’t know why he’s doing an activity, you can bet that the kids won’t, either.  If there’s no objective in mind, whatever learning occurs will be accidental, haphazard, unpredictable.  Classrooms without clear expectations for behavior, attitude, and achievement will have kids mired in mediocrity, at best.

Continuity is about putting it all together– one of the most important things a teacher does is make coherence out of complicated, difficult subject matter.  A teacher showing continuity begins class with an opening deisgned to pique interest not only for that day’s lesson, but as part of a think-back to the day before.  At the end of a class, she does the opposite– make sure students understand all that was done that day, and link it to what’s coming the next day.  And most importantly, she doesn’t move on if her students didn’t get it!  A teacher with engaged students will also be consistent in policies— if you’re wishy-washy from one day to the next about how things go down in your classroom, guessing your mood will be distracting.  Good teachers are also continuous learners— you can’t be finished learning when you’re done your master’s or a workshop or a seminar.

Concurrency is maybe the most mercurial of the three because it describes something that’s tricky to articulate: “With-it-ness.”  We all know people who are “out of it” and people who are really “with it.”  That’s not unique to teaching.  But there’s more to concurrency than just being “with it.”  Concurrency is about being in the moment, whether we’re talking about in the classroom moment, with our students, engaged in them as we want them to be engaged with us… it’s also about being in the moment with the world, and being aware of what’s going on out there– the issues and problems students in your community have, the digital tools they constantly use as fluently as we drive our cars, the unique structure of their social lives and how different it is than that of kids just 10 years ago– and certainly how different it is than most of their teachers’ K-12 years.  Being concurrent means being in touch— in touch with the individuals, the human beings in front of us, the community in which they live, and the world in which they’re situated.  Concurrency gives you credibility– everyone, especially kids, knows who’s with it and who’s out of it.

Clarity, Continuity, and Concurrency isn’t a magic incantation, and they’re not habits that spring up overnight.  But I hope they’re a guide for any teacher looking to get their students engaged– because student engagement, more than anything else, leads to “magic” in the classroom.


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Sit Down and Play the Drums

“You have to run before you can walk.”

This is good common sense to a lot of people. It’s good common sense in a lot of cases, too. If you’re a toddler, then yes, you’re going to walk first. If you’re learning to drive, learn to drive in a parking lot before flying down I-95 at rush hour. But with learning, there’s a lot to be said for a different adage: “Run! It’s fun! Learn how to walk later!”

Robert Duke shares a great story about teaching kids to play drums. It’s something I can relate to, having learned to drum at a young age– unfortunately for me, it was by using the practice pad he mentions @ 56:00 mark. This video is worth the watch. If you fast forward to the section from 54:00 to 1:02:00, you’ll catch up on Duke’s story about “getting to the good stuff first” in education.

If you didn’t watch the whole video, Duke talks about getting students to fall “in love” with a discipline by introducing them to the good stuff first– the kinds of things that make our subjects fun.  Too often, we as teachers think that we need to start with the essential elements of a discipline, the kind of drudgery that people in relevant jobs do because they have to– it’s part of the job.  Science students are taught the metric system, English students are taught the parts of speech, music students are taught scales.  These building blocks are important for mastery, for sure– but how many well-meaning teachers have driven kids away from loving a subject because they began with the drudgery, the painstaking fundamentals, and the things that need to be practiced and done over and over until you get to have any fun conducting experiments, writing stories, or playing a song?

Duke’s point is that instead, we need to hook students with the fun, then show them the elements they need to perfect their discipline.  And even then, remember to infuse the joy of doing the discipline into it– witness the history teacher who has students research the history of their house or their family first, before introducing the details of the transition from farm life to city life in the 20th century.

I immediately related to this when I watched this video.  As a musician, I’ve taught myself to play several instruments.  Without realizing I was doing it, this is the way I made myself learn– when I learned guitar, I figured out three chords and played along to “Sweet Home Alabama” before I even thought about practicing finger exercises.  I taught myself violin– one of the most technically demanding instruments, I’ve found, and after figuring out how to hold the bow, I learned a few easy fiddle tunes.  They were fun to play, so I that’s what I did.  Later, when I was “hooked” on the fun, I wanted to play scales– so I could learn more and better songs.  And it wasn’t drudgery anymore.  It made me imagine a kid loving the experience of Skyping someone in Montreal for French class, then wanting to learn French grammar and spelling so he could speak better and write better to his friend.

No one wants to play an instrument so he or she can play really great scales– it’s so that you can play a song.  But that same student might tune out and stop playing because scales are what his teacher tells her she must learn before she can experience the joy of playing a song.  Any teacher can take his or her subject and apply that same lesson– figure out what in your discipline is fun, and then let your students sit down and play drums.

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Don’t let perfect get in the way of good…

A lot of teachers are control freaks.  I can be.  It used to be worse.  As a new teacher,  I felt like everything had to go exactly as planned.  I think it’s because I saw a good number of teachers– soon-to-be-ex-teachers, it turned out– melt under the pressure of being in charge of the classroom.  A young teacher starts out with the best intentions, plans his lessons, gets talking, gives an assignment, then they’re finished– a full 10 minutes before they were supposed to be.  Next thing you know, someone’s video recording a paper fight on a cell phone and posting it to Youtube, two kids are fighting, and somehow, someone has a small, floofy dog on her desk, and he’s yapping furiously.  And a book is on fire.

It’s easy to cling to a carefully-scripted lesson in which every lead-in, every “anticipatory set,” every activity, conversation, assessment, and conclusion is scripted and laid out according to an airtight plan.  That kind of planning makes teachers feel secure.  Any administrator who walks in will see a teacher in complete control.  Kids’ heads will be attentively bowed, obediently doing what the teacher tells them.  The kids will know that Mr. Johnson “means business” and “don’t play.”   And Mr. Johnson will understandably assume that he did a good job.

Except that the only thing the kids in this room are learning is to do exactly  what Mr. Johnson tells them.  As long as there’s a Mr. Johnson, they’ll be fine.  They’ll probably hate it, they won’t know why they’re doing it, they won’t be passionate about it, but by God, they’ll know how to follow orders.  But that’s likely to be it.  No thinking, no imagining, no dreaming, no aspiring, no creating.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to have an orderly classroom.  No one’s going to learn  if there’s chaos.  But sacrificing a little control doesn’t always lead to riot.

What if Mr. Johnson instead challenged kids with a perplexing question, then asked them to figure out a way to solve the question, using him, the internet, and each other as resources?  He could circulate around the room, posting hints, answering questions, leading a discussion, and validating effort.  The students would talk, pull out their phones, look things up on Google, call down to the teachers’ workroom, text their uncle who “does this for a living,” and, most importantly, figure out ways to solve the problem Mr. Johnson posted– solve it in their own way and via their own path.

But I get it– it won’t go this perfectly.  Someone will stumble onto a site that sells Viagra and everyone will laugh, another teacher will scold them for having their phone out in class, a parent will complain that school wasn’t like this when he or she was a kid.  But if you’re not afraid to let it be messy, it will still be better than the alternative– learning to do exactly what Mr. Johnson says to do, never mind the reasons, or the passion, or the deep knowledge, or the understanding.

As a teacher, I try not to let perfect get in the way of good.  Nothing is perfect, as everyone knows.  Teachers, especially, know this.  It’s when we can’t see past the illusion of the perfect lesson, the perfect outcome, the perfect student, that we miss the potential for the great and abundant good that greets us every time we walk into our classroom.

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There are moments as a teacher when I feel… a little incompetent.   You wouldn’t know it from looking at my class, I don’t think.  The kids sit there, they do what I ask, they raise their hands, they ask questions, they do well on tests.  But if you looked in my head, you’d see one nagging little thought that I can’t seem to answer like I want to:

Why don’t any of them really care about this?

They care, a little, because I want them to and they like me for the most part, or want a good grade, or want to avoid the hassle of doing poorly in class, or because they’ve been programmed to respond to a teacher.  But hardly any of them really care, and the ones that do, a lot of times, I don’t think it was because of me.

Dan Meyer’s video on perplexity in education might be part of the solution to that nagging question.

In it, Dan tells us to “perplex” our students, or, as I take it, present situations to them where they have to wrestle with possible answers, consider different approaches, or maybe even figure out the question to begin with.  And it doesn’t have to be something you already know; maybe the best way to perplex your students is to perplex yourself.  That’s authentic modeling of thinking– witness the teacher grappling with the issues with which his or her students are asked to grapple.  And maybe that’s why a lot of students don’t really care– they’re not stimulated enough.  It’s not about rigor, really– plenty of textbook chapters are rigorous.  It’s about giving students a reason to engage in rigorous learning, because doing that, after all, is hard– it’s rigorous.

But you don’t need to search for complex, nuanced, existential, space-age questions in order to engage your students beyond the limits of your average textbook or worksheet.  Really, I think that all they need is what amounts to a little field research or a treasure hunt for teachable moments.  What’s more engaging for a quick grammar review– exercises numbered 1-10 or this picture along with the question, “What’s wrong here?”

We could get into a lot with this picture:  Should they have spelled out “12?”  Why the apostrophe?  Is it less or fewer?  What was he doing in Wal-Mart in the first place?

At any rate, this is about meeting students where they live– that is, in the world.  There’s so much in traditional school that exists in some crazy, esoteric vacuum that you never set foot in again after you throw your mortarboard into the air over the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”  Unless you become a teacher, of course.  Polynomials?  A thesis sentence?  The Lend-Lease Act?  These things all describe ideas, things, or concepts that are part of the real, actual, non-school world.  So why does so much of our teaching ignore that world?

Meyer advises us all to use mobile technology to capture teachable, “perplexing” moments in the real world.  I’ve seen the power of this– the picture above generated not only some quick lessons about grammar but a great discussion over why some people don’t like Wal-Mart, what messages are implicit in store advertising, and how “big box” stores rely on globalization.  I could easily have gotten into geography (Where are the Wal-Marts around here?), math (What seems to be their average distance from each other?) and art (Is something as simple as a bouncing smiley face effective as a logo?)  And that’s before students could write– using proper apostrophes and less-vs.-fewer rules, of course– about something generated from any of the above discussions.

Teachers who bring the real world to their students and invite it into their classrooms won’t have to answer the question, “What does this have to do with our lives?”  The answer will be obvious, because the lesson will be situated in the real world.  And the reality of the empowerment of learning will emerge.  Try it, and let me know how and what you kinds of tools you use to engage in what I call “fieldwork hunts for teachable moments.” I hope you see a difference in 12 classes or less fewer.

Check out Dan Meyer here, on TED, as well.

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