Chocolate Scramble

191I don’t ordinarily distribute candy to students as an incentive, but when I am introducing Animal Farm to 9th graders, I need to acquaint them with the concepts of communism and capitalism.

To do this, I engage them in a simulation activity I learned from an amazing social studies teacher. In this simulation, Hershey’s kisses equal money. But I don’t tell the students that until later. I just come in one day and start inexplicably throwing chocolate around.

If the principal came into my room for a 10-minute walk-though just as I was throwing the Hershey’s kisses up into the air and saying “Go for it,” he might well wonder what I was up to. In light of the scramble that ensues—kids bolting from their chairs, dropping to the floor, reaching, stretching, even covering the chocolate pieces with their bodies—I could just hope that he knows me well enough to believe there’s method in my madness.

Capitalism, I could tell him, and maybe he’d see that kids diving under tables and greedily scooping up kisses by the armful resembles the drive to amass a fortune. Maybe he’d see the girl with the big heart slip a few pieces of chocolate to someone who has none and recognize the philanthropic impulse. Maybe he’d see the kids who are seated at the back of the room or trapped behind furniture and realize they represent the disadvantaged in our society. “Not fair!” he’d hear a few kids cry—and see them sit there, mad.

If he came in later, when I was redistributing the chocolate evenly, would he see the gratitude of those who had nothing, suddenly having something?  Or would he see the complaisance of those who hadn’t been willing to scramble, smiling smugly when they got some chocolate anyway?  Would he see the frustration of the ones who put had effort into the game, no longer having so much?  “Not fair!” he’d hear them cry. Or would he think I was just offering up candy that day and making sure—in good teacher fashion—that it was shared equally, that everyone got the same amount?

He might come in later when a discussion about these two economic systems was underway. Would he wonder why the kids weren’t naming the systems? I wouldn’t stop to explain that I hadn’t yet labeled them: If I had, the students’ discussion would be informed by what they already knew or had heard somewhere. In this simulation, the scrambling represents the American system, capitalism: The students might not be able—or willing—to point out its flaws. The other system is one they’ve already, by age 14, come to regard negatively. They might not be able—or willing—to discuss communism without bias.

But this way, with chocolate as the symbol and no names named, the students conclude that neither system is perfect.

And then I name them, the systems (and reveal the learning objective for the day, hidden from the kids until now so as not to spoil the discovery aspect of this lesson): Students will understand and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of two economic systems—capitalism and communism.

Looking at the activity as a vocabulary exercise, what better way to make meanings permanent than with a physical activity? For learning words, the research tells us that kinesthetic connections create the strongest memory bonds of all.

Or, if I think about it as a strategy for stimulating higher level thinking, the discussion is really a comparison/contrast exercise—We know that one of the best ways to understand one thing is to juxtapose it with another and examine the points of similarity and difference. So it’s analytical.

And as a stategy to build familiarity prior to reading a text, which is what an English teacher also needs to do, the simulation works perfectly. Suddenly the excesses of Mr. Jones of Manor Farm are made real, and the intent of the rebellious animals—to share equally in the work and the profits of the farm—are understandable.

But of course, what begins idealistically in Orwell’s classic deteriorates rapidly. The introduction of Napoleon and Snowball turns Animal Farm into another thing altogether.

“Not fair!’ the students cry when the milk and apples are reserved for the pigs. “Not fair!” when the pigs begin sleeping in beds. “Not fair!” when confessions are forced and animals executed. More than “Not fair!” when Boxer is sent to the knacker’s. Kids sometimes cry tears, not just foul, when they realize, with the betrayal of Boxer, the depth of Napoleon’s deceit. At the end of the book, when the pigs are walking on their hind legs and carrying whips in their hooves, when the other animals see Napoleon and Pilkington playing poker and raising toasts to each other, the pigs and the men around the poker table indistinguishable from each other, the destruction of Animal Farm is complete.

And now, a third term—totalitarianism—presented visually with the image of Napoleon, drunk with power and playing cards with Pilkington. The stage is set for another analysis task: tracing what happened at Animal Farm, step-by-step, in order to see exactly how the animals were deceived. And then for another: drawing the allegorical connection between what happens on Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.

What goes on in a classroom is so much more complex than what meets the eye. Throwing chocolate around, indeed!

It’s ideas that teachers send flying through the air—and lessons like “Chocolate Scramble” that land them in students’ minds.

PS: That amazing social studies teacher? My daughter. Thanks, Elizabeth. This simulation worked for me for years–and when I left the classroom, I passed it along to my colleagues. Isn’t that what teachers do? Share the wealth?

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What’s the Point?

Last year, I began experimenting with learning objectives. I wrote them on the whiteboard every day all semester long. (I first blogged about this topic last February in a post entitled The Last First Day of School.)

The experiment started because my district began requiring teachers to post their learning objectives every day. The objectives, it was explained, should be clear, concise statements, written in kid-friendly language, of the learning goal for any given day in each class.

I wrote objectives all the way to the end of the year. In fact, I even took photographs of my whiteboards so I could use the examples when I was working (this year) as an instructional coach. I wrote some dreadful learning objectives and some good ones, some long ones and some short, most of them for the one day and a few that extended for several days.

Here is what I learned:

1. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

For example, distinguishing between the activity and the learning objective sometimes tests one’s own understanding of the lesson. Consider a few simple objectives first:

Using examples from Huckleberry Finn, students will identify and explain three kinds of irony. Specific. Concrete. It’s easy to write because it’s at the recall/comprehension level on Bloom’s Taxonomy. What did we do in class? Students already had the definitions of three kinds of irony. I gave them a sheet full of examples and they had to match a type of irony with an example. The tricky part was explaining to me why an example was a certain kind of irony. Comprehension.

Or this one even: Students will understand how a sentence outline sequences information and clarifies the relationships between and among ideas in the outline. [Kid-friendly language, by the way, would have that reading this way: Students will understand how sentence outlines work.] I started by showing the students a topic outline that one of them had submitted to me for feedback. I had no idea what the student was going to say about any of the topics in the outline and no clue how one idea related to another. So, to show them how a sentence outline would have communicated the student’s ideas more clearly, I xeroxed and then cut a sentence outline into strips of paper, gave each table a set of strips, and asked the students to reassemble the outline by following the internal logic of the sentences. This one is also at the comprehension level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

But what about something more abstract, something at the analysis level? What if the assignment is to read, say, Chapter 11 in To Kill a Mockingbird? If I write Students will read Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, then what I am writing is the assignment. If I write, Students will discuss Chapter 11 of To Kill a Mockingbird, then I am describing the day’s activity. I need to write something like this: Students will understand how Atticus’ definition of courage is the standard he will have to live up to. Or, if that is too explicit and gives away the discussion, Students will identify the key idea in Chapter 11 and be able to explain how it sets up a standard for behavior. Or whatever you or I, the teacher, want to emphasize. In other words, I have to think through the discussion and figure out what I want the students to take away from it.

I started to think of the learning objective as a purpose statement, or the point of the activity, and that made articulating the objective easier. It also took me longer then because it required more thought on my part.

2. The activity is the means to an end, not the end in itself.

Well, most of the time. In truth, sometimes the activity itself is the point. Write a bibliography. Park a car. Practice the music for the school concert. Dribble a basketball. In all of these activities, perfecting one’s performance is the goal. The student learns by doing: application level on Bloom’s. The clue to these is the “how to.” When you start writing The student will learn how to…, you know you’ve got a performance. The student will learn to dribble a basketball. Purpose and activity.

3. Sometimes, students shouldn’t see the objective ahead of time.

Science teachers especially have taught me that you don’t always want the objective up on the board at the beginning of the class period. In inquiry learning, they tell me, students figure things out for themselves. I, with my biases about constructivist learning, certainly appreciate that! Given our mandate about posting objectives, what can the teacher do in cases like these? My advice has been to write the objective on the board, but cover it up—or put it at the end of the PowerPoint presentation on the lesson—or write it in the plan book. Somehow, have it there so that the principal can find it if he (or she) comes in. Have it there so that, at the end, the students can check their perception of what the day’s learning was all about. As one teacher suggested to me, put it under the pull-down map. Just remember to pull the map up at the end of the lesson.

4. The learning objective is really there for the kids.

We make the mistake of assuming that kids get the point of a lesson. We know why we have them do whatever we have them do. We know what they should take away from the day’s activity. But do they? We can’t be sure even if we tell them. But stating the purpose in writing goes a long way toward assuring that understanding. Of course, the objective has to be written in letters large enough for students to read from across the room, and it does need to be written in kid-friendly language. The teacher also has to make the connection to the objective: Point it out, refer to it, match it to subsequent quiz questions. We know we have to alert students to assignments that are written on the board. Objectives are no different.

I am still learning about learning objectives, but so far, here’s my response to the multiple choice question I posed in February:

So on with the experiment. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if A) I can keep it up, B) the principal finds it helpful, C) the kids benefit from the explicit statement of the goal, D) it continues to be a challenge to me to focus my thoughts and articulate them, E) all of the above.

The answer is E.

Last Lesson: Love Lesson

The climax came on Thursday with the Unsung Heroes celebration in our school library. A packed room, our heroes all there, each of them introduced by the students, who were keyed up and jittery, naturally nervous to speak in public. Sheet cakes, flowers, and picture boards decorated the room. Reporters stood at attention and interviewed the students after the program; cameras followed their every move. An audience of parents and grandparents, friends, school administrators, and at least 50 other students (most of whom had completed the Unsung Hero project themselves, last year and the year before) congratulated them. Lots of attention. Lots of emotion.

It would be natural for Friday to be falling action, for the students to feel the let-down that comes when something they’ve worked on for so long has come to an end. For me, too, Friday was likely to be falling action. But I have learned that the best way to handle emotional turbulence is to hold steady—in this case, to stay focused on a goal.

Of course we debriefed for a few minutes when the 9th graders came to class, but it wasn’t long before their comments became repetitive. I brought them back to Romeo and Juliet, which we had been reading before we took time out to plan for the party. Specifically, we came back to the structure of Shakespeare’s sonnets. My purpose statement—the learning objective—was on the whiteboard: Identify these terms (rhyme scheme, quatrain, heroic couplet, turn, meter, scan, iambic pentameter) and explain the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet.

The students turned their attention from chatter to task.

So let’s review first, I said. What’s a sonnet?

The predictable, imprecise answer: A 14-line poem about love.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

I gave pairs of students 14 strips of paper—Sonnet 18, cut apart and jumbled up. Their task was to reconstruct the sonnet according to the rhyme scheme: abab cdcd efef gg. Of course, they already knew what quatrains and couplets are, and by discovering the sonnets embedded in Romeo and Juliet, they’d already learned Shakespeare’s typical rhyme scheme. So finding the rhymes was easy. But then they were stuck. The three quatrains were out of order. At that point, I intervened.

There’s an internal structure, too, I said, a specific logic to the sonnet. A sonnet doesn’t sprawl, loose to the page. It’s very precisely organized. Shakespeare’s sonnets work like this: Condition stated (the first quatrain); Condition Expanded (the second); Reversal, signaled by the Turn (the third); Summation. Find the turn, I directed—the word that signals a shift in thought. Ah: But. Now paraphrase the lines, summarize the quatrains. Then you’ll be able to put them in order.

You are more beautiful—and your loveliness more permanent—than a summer day, and summer itself does not last long.
As the beauty of a summer day can be diminished by heat or clouds, so the beauty in everything eventually fades.
But, not you. Your beauty will not be lost nor will you die because my poetry will capture you for eternity.
As long as life persists and people read this poem, you will be immortal.

You’ve got it! But that’s not all. There are 14 lines—now count the syllables in each line. Ten. Yes, ten in every line–arranged in iambic pentameter.

What’s that?

The ENO board—the interactive whiteboard—made it easy to mark the syllables, to show them what meter is, what scansion means: unaccented, accented; unaccented accented: 5 times per line. Now read it aloud, exaggerating the accented syllables. (I modeled—imagine that!—and they joined in.)

It’s rap!

Yes! Same rhythm, but now read it the way that Shakespeare would. Draw out some syllables, elevate the pitch on others, emphasize some words, minimize others: Sheer poetry.

So what’s a Shakespearean sonnet? A 14-line poem about love, written in iambic pentameter with an abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme, composed of three quatrains and a couplet, arranged to reveal a progression of thought in which the poet states a condition, expands upon it, turns (or reverses) the thought in line 9, and sums up the idea in a concluding heroic couplet.

And then, as if on cue, the bell rang.

We’ll have falling action all next week, too, as we do what normally happens in the denouement. We’ll tie up loose ends and review for final exams. Students will wangle for points, and some will panic, a bit too late to do much good. But this was the last instructional day, my last day to introduce new material and structure a lesson to learn it. That the topic today was the sonnet is an irony that hasn’t escaped me—for teaching has been what I have loved to do since I was a child playing school. I, as much as the kids, could have been overwhelmed by emotion today, but holding steady, keeping myself focused on the objective—keeping the kids focused on a purpose—produced in the end what I wanted—what I needed—for an ending: a lesson that was a love poem all by itself.

Discipline Lessons I

Many years ago, when I was living in Connecticut, an educational psychology professor at Yale, who was conducting some of the early teacher effectiveness studies, hired me to observe and evaluate teachers in a New Haven public high school, one that had been the scene of violence the previous spring. I was in all kinds of classrooms, watched all manner of teachers, and learned very quickly that effectiveness isn’t the exclusive property of any particular teaching style (though some approaches have more potential for deadliness than others).

Tasked with observing the interaction between classroom control and teacher effectiveness, I saw that students in the classrooms of effective teachers—whether they were traditional lecturers or innovative strategists—were deeply engaged in the learning process. Sometimes it was the sheer complexity or elegance of the content that kept the students’ attention, sometimes it was the specific techniques the teacher employed, and sometimes it was simply the teacher’s charisma.

But the effective teachers had control, even when the students were running the show, as in the case of one young English teacher whose students were conducting a mock trial, a culminating project for a novel they had read. She sat on the sidelines, but she was following the action intently, completely focused on the proceedings and on her students’ interactions.

In every case, it seemed to me, the teachers’ control came from a clear set of objectives, high performance expectations, and personal confidence, not from a rigid set of rules and imposed penalties.

Years later, when I was required by my school district to write up my classroom policies and procedures—all the rules and the corresponding penalties—I complied with the request but told the students, orally and in writing, that the whole thing really boiled down to two concepts: Do Your Best and Respect Other People.

Of course, achieving effectiveness isn’t as simple as that sounds.

It starts with confidence.

My student teacher this past spring stood in front of her first class—9th grade—looking, frankly, terrified. The students, mostly boys, none of them “bad,” but all of them squirrely, wouldn’t sit still, talked when she talked, fidgeted with their papers and pens and books (if they’d brought them to class), dropped books on the floor, looked out the window—in short, did everything but sit tall in their seats and pay attention to the teacher. For her part, my student teacher wasn’t signaling that she ought to be paid attention to. Her voice was high, and when she spoke, she tripped along at record speed. She moved all over the place while she spoke to the students, and she constantly looked at me for reassurance or help. Her directions were vague and alarmist: “Don’t do that!” Exactly what the students shouldn’t do wasn’t clear.

In truth, she reminded me of myself in my very first teaching position.

Over the years I learned some tricks—the hard way—and was happy to pass them on to her. Things like:

• Lower your voice; don’t raise it. Students will have to be quiet to hear.
• Stand still when you talk to them—they’ll have only one place to look.
• Make your directions explicit: “Keep your hands on top of your desk and your feet on the floor under it.”
• Deal with disruptions immediately and in private. Most students who disrupt are really seeking attention. If you reprimand them in front of others, they have the audience they seek and will use it to cast you as the villain. Bend down and tell the student quietly what you expect. Even something as simple as changing a student’s seat can and should be done privately.
• Don’t engage in public debates about the purpose of a correction or the rightness or wrongness of one. It is what it is. Turn to the topic at hand. A student who wants to argue can certainly talk to you—after class.
• Don’t be afraid to call parents if a student has been disruptive. The failure isn’t yours: It’s the student’s. Most parents will be your allies, but they can’t help you out if they don’t know what’s going on. So what if the lesson wasn’t as good as it should have been? So what if your directions weren’t clear? Those aren’t reasons to tolerate disrespectful behavior. Parents won’t ask about the fine points of your instruction. They’ll ask what Johnny or Sally needs to do. Tell them.

Simple things like this, I learned by trial and error. Every one of these scenarios has happened to me—and it was discouraging at the beginning of my career to have to learn what to do, one agonizing crisis at a time. But every time I successfully handled a situation, my confidence increased. Eventually, I wasn’t afraid of my own shadow and wore my authority comfortably.

But it was a bumpy road to that confidence, so my sympathies were with my student teacher. Luckily, she was a quick learner and soon had the classroom under her control. She grew in confidence daily, and before long, she was ready to concentrate on other components of effective teaching. For her, too, discipline became as “simple” as Do Your Best and Respect Other People.

The Last “First Day of School”

Some people would say I am nuts. First off, I was too caught up in the mechanics of the first day of school of the second semester—taking the roll, issuing books, assigning seats, previewing the semester, and explaining the rules (Two: “Do your Best” and “Respect Other People”) and what they mean and why they are important—to think about how this was the last “first day of school” I’ll ever experience. (Next year, I’ll be a full-time Instructional Coach.) Then, for the students who had been in my class first semester, I was busy going over the final exam and introducing the work of the week: revising an essay they had turned in at the end of last quarter. I hardly had time to catch my breath between the classes.

I’m on a new schedule, too, so my body was adjusting not only to bells again after the long, languid hours of Christmas vacation, where what I was doing could flow from one hour into the next, but to standing on my feet from 7:30 until 11:08 without a break. I had an hour and a half then to respond to email, eat my lunch, check the front office for incoming mail, and get ready for the last push, my final class from 12:40 to 1:35. And then I was done. Done! I’ve never had a last hour “prep” in my entire teaching career (37 and ½ years). I think I’m going to like this…but time will tell if I will be able to stand the standing.

So here’s the “nuts” part. I spent the last hour of the day writing purpose sentences on the whiteboard. For each class, in kid-friendly language, a statement of what we are learning tomorrow. Kids ought to know what the focus each day is upon and what’s so important about it. So say the current education gurus and the administrators in my District Office.

I absolutely agree. (Unless, of course, you’re doing an activity where stating the point ahead of time would kill the learning activity—but that’s a subject for another day.)

In these 37 ½ years, I’ve written lesson plans that I’ve submitted in advance to the principal and lesson plans that I’ve kept for myself. I’ve kept a daily assignment list on the board so kids could see what was coming up. I’ve issued calendars (Thanks, Publisher) for entire semesters on the first day (I did that today, in fact, in two out of three of my classes). Sometimes—especially in later years—I’ve kept personal curriculum maps on my desk, flow charts of what I’d done and what I need to do, and sometimes I’ve just run by the seat of my pants. I mean, I have been doing this for so long that I’ve memorized my own speeches and know by instinct what comes next and what’s after that and what the ultimate destination is. I’ve even managed to use this last (non-) method and keep more or less on schedule. I don’t think my students have suffered; I think that at any given moment they know what we are learning and why we are learning it. I often start class by saying “My goal for today—or for this week—is…” I think they know.

But of course, I don’t know.

I assume it.

But today I wrote purpose statements on the whiteboard during that last period of the day when I was, for the first time ever, “done” at 1:35. I’m experimenting. In response to the mandate for a better evaluation system for teachers, our district is initiating walk-through observations by administrators. My question was this: How will the principal know what I am trying to accomplish? The answer: It should be written on the board, plainly, in kid-friendly language, not just for the administrator, but for the students—so they will know for sure what the learning target (new jargon word in education) is for the day.

So I did it.

Doing so forced me not just to focus my thoughts, but to articulate them.

On the second day of school, I’m giving the students in my senior composition class the multiple choice part of the final exam. Purpose: to assess prior knowledge for each student. Why? So I know what I need to emphasize in my instruction and so that, at the end of the semester, they can see their growth for themselves—at least in this area. It’s a writing class, so the skill set they’ll acquire extends far beyond multiple choice answers to questions about grammar, usage, and mechanics. The purpose sentence for the next day was easy, though: “To determine what you already know and what you need to learn,” I wrote (kid-friendly language).

For the next class, there are really four learning targets: 1) Kids will collaboratively (a whole lot of skills to be taught there!), 2) write a clear, concise, coherent, and correct summary (Deconstruct that if you will!) of three pages in the textbook. (That’s the content part.) 3) They’ll access two separate but complementary sets of instructions on the internet (What? Read and follow directions? What am I thinking?) and 4) submit their responses to me using the Dropbox on our district’s electronic system (new process for some). I put the whole thing on the board. I mean, I want them to understand that there can be multiple goals for any one assignment or activity.

And the third class? This is my freshman Honors class, the students who will be writing essays for inclusion in a book they’ll publish by May. They wrote comparison/contrast essays at the end of last semester. Now I want them to improve upon those essays. Some had weak introductions; others fell down in the conclusion. Some need to reorder their supports, some omitted a thesis or wrote a weak one, some need more support for their supports, some need less plot summary and more selective detail. We’ll have a lesson on introductions first, using as models some of their own paragraphs (I’ve already picked out the ones that I’ll ask the kids to project onto the ENO Board for others to see.) Then we’ll work on conclusions. That’s probably the day after next. Everyone can benefit from seeing exemplary models, but I’ll devote half the period to working with students individually to improve what’s specific to their particular papers.

I wasn’t sure what to write for this class. There’s so much going on. In the end I wrote “Revise comparison/contrast essays to include a strong introduction (and I listed the components of that) and work in class on individual areas for improvement.”

My purpose statements took up half my board space! (I print big.)

So who experiments with teaching strategies on the last first day of school? Me. Because I believe that teaching well is a work in progress. No one is so good she can’t be better. No one does everything right and everything perfectly 100% of the time. We all have room to grow. And if we didn’t, whew! It would be an easy job and our kids would be achieving at levels unparalleled in the world. And we know that neither of those things is true.

So on with the experiment. Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if A) I can keep it up, B) the principal finds it helpful, C) the kids benefit from the explicit statement of the goal, D) it continues to be a challenge to me to focus my thoughts and articulate them, E) all of the above.