Category Archives: Work

Yelling at the Ocean

During a staff collaboration, our department head showed us a TED talk by Eduardo Briceño that discussed the reason why people’s skills at their profession tended to plateau in skill despite large amounts of time being invested into their improvement.  Specifically, he said that the average person has two zones:

  • In the Learning Zone, people are relaxed and situations are very low-stakes.  The emphasis is on becoming better.
  • In the Performance Zone, the emphasis is on execution and evaluation, and the stakes are higher.

Briceño then stated that the problem is that most people almost always place themselves in the Performance Zone, and are seldom in the Learning Zone.  This is apparently impressed upon us at a young age: we are taught that school is evaluative through grades, and are often punished or docked for mistakes, enforcing the principle that mistakes are bad.  Furthermore, because the Performance Zone is one of judgment, not of improvement, the mistakes made are not used to improve any skills.

The first thing that came to mind when Briceño discussed a low-stakes situation Learning Zone was my time playing soccer.  More than any teacher making me spell and write repeatedly, my time playing soccer – especially with my father – taught me the importance of practice.

When I started playing soccer, I was typically awful.  However, about two or three years into playing the game, my skill level spiked suddenly.  This was not just due to maturity, or finally understanding the sport.  My kicks were powerful for my age, and I was able to aim the ball precisely – almost with x, y, and z-axis precision.  I was able to trap almost any ball flying toward me at my feet with a technique involving my shin.  These skills made me a valuable asset to my team, despite my lack of precise ball control as a dribbler.

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Demosthenes projecting his voice over the ocean.

As I reflect now, Briceño’s words color my experience with a new significance.  His example of the Learning Zone was made clearer by his reference to the orator Demosthenes, who practiced posture by suspending a sword blade above his shoulder, who spoke against the ocean on the beach to perfect his projection, and who put rocks in his mouth to master enunciation.  Individual skills were perfected and honed in ways that far surpassed the difficulty of what he was practicing for – but the situations were low stakes.  Nobody would know if he failed during these exercises but himself.

Soccer practice ran similarly.  No matter how much we begged for a scrimmage (essentially a simulation of an actual game), both my coach and my father would instead focus on drills, which were little tasks that perfected individual skills in preparation for the game.

“There’s no point in a scrimmage if you have no skill.” said my dad to me once in the car.  Essentially, using a soccer game to practice for a soccer game was limited in usefulness because it was a performance zone.  Drills were specialized in practice: We practiced dribbling.  We did sprints and liners to practice changing direction.  We did the Give-and-Go.  We juggled the ball with our feet.

When I reflect now, I realize that the things I spent the most time practicing with my dad (mostly because we couldn’t really run around) were my kick (shooting the ball with my father as the goaltender – he was better than any elementary kid would be) and my trap (my dad would always expect me to trap the ball – no self-respecting soccer player would do otherwise if a trap was possible.)

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Soccer practice was low-stakes but higher in difficulty.  If I missed a goal (you know, because my goaltender was a full-grown adult), I just had to try again.  Every time I missed a trap, I just had to run and get the ball.  There was no punishment. I practiced for way more hours than I ever played in a game.  I realize now that my father kept me in the Learning Zone.  Every time I tried to shoot a ball past my father, I was Demosthenes yelling at the ocean.  The drills that I performed faithfully improved my skills.  Accordingly, the drills that I performed less diligently – like running laps, dribbling, and ball-handling – did little to help me.

My skill plateaued eventually – and again, that’s easy to explain.  As I got older, I was shorter than a lot of my teammates.  When they did better than I did in practice, I was disheartened, instead of focusing on myself.  I practiced less with my father, and soon I only heard his feedback from watching my games.  Without realizing it, I had transformed my practice time into a Performance Zone.

Many parents make this same mistake with their child’s education.  Low grades are punished, average performance ignored, with only high performance receiving acknowledgment. – implicitly teaching that mistakes are bad.  If mistakes are bad, then everything is high-stakes, which makes school a Performance Zone, not a Learning Zone.

In addition, the social imperative mirrors this as well. For some reason, teenagers care what their peers think, to the point that their worst nightmare is to be caught in a vulnerable position.  The fear of becoming a social pariah as a consequence is about as high as stakes get, with teens tossing and dodging labels like “snitch” and “slut” in their day-to-day lives.  If you worry about what other people think, how can you be safe enough to make mistakes?

I’ve talked before about how we need to be uncomfortable.  In order to do that and get to sword-suspending and ocean-yelling, we need to identify our Performance Zones and our Learning Zones and treat them as such.  This is also why hobbies are a good idea: you can use the skills they give you in their assorted Learning Zones with your Performance Zone.  For example, rapping has been a low-stakes way of building confidence when speaking and demanding attention, which is something crucial when teaching teenagers.  It also expands my vocabulary and refines my pronunciation.  Blogging helps me with my writing skills and with expressing my thoughts in words, which is definitely an imperative for an ELA professional.

The concept of the Learning Zone is the rebuttal we’ve been looking for to the tired claim that you “don’t use what you learn in school anyway.”  Yes, you do!  Of course, problems aren’t like they were in school.  A school is a Learning Zone.  School tasks are drills.  School is yelling at the ocean.  Real life replaces the ocean with real people and raises the stakes – because now the waves can hear you or destroy you, and your words matter.

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Tech Tips: Dual Monitors

Over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself repeating some of the same advice time after time, and I thought I’d put together a sort of collection of these common pieces of wisdom to refer to in the future.  Technology can be daunting, especially because sometimes overcoming the learning curve is an obstacle that can prevent it from being as useful as it’s supposed to be.  Cut my grading time in half, you say?  Sounds great.  Oh, you mean after 3 hours of bumbling my way through your software? A lot of teachers would just stick to their own methods.  I’ve tried to be braver about this in order to cut through some of that stigma and amass a plethora of knowledge regarding tech that can actually save time and actually make life easier.  Essentially, this will be a list of tech tips that are worth the learning curve.

Using Dual Monitors

Holy toledo, I made this one first because it saves so much frustration.  Half the reason people still print things out – like emails, memos, and even lesson plans – is because it’s so darn cumbersome to switch from window to window for reference.  Sure, you could arrange your windows side by side, but then you’re cutting your monitor real estate in half, and for many teachers, that makes us endlessly frustrated as we alt-tab, ctrl-tab our way through different windows and tabs.  So we print things out and hold the paper or list or whatever as we go through our grading and planning.

Using an extra monitor can seem daunting because it just looks like too much trouble. You have to plug it in, then connect it to your computer, and then fiddle with the display settings… ugh!

Do it when you know you’re going to spend some real time on your work, not for a quick email check.  I cannot convey enough how some of the most mundane, time-wasting things that you don’t even think about are solved by having two monitors.  In most cases, you only need to use one monitor because most teachers have laptops.  Once you set the monitor as an extension, you’ll feel so good with Google Classroom on one screen, Schoolloop on the other… or your powerpoint on one screen, your reference materials on the other… or even a parent’s email on one screen with their student’s work on the other.

Now you can drag the picture from the browser over to your powerpoint instead of alt-clicking and switching tabs.  It has changed the way I grade, the way I teach, and the way I plan.  I will never go back.  If you take your laptop from place to place, and the plugging/unplugging game starts to get to you, consider getting another device as a dedicated workstation.

I have a home computer that I use as a workstation and it has two monitors.  I use it for planning and grading.  I can do most of my planning and grading in about two work sessions per week – including essays!

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Notice also that my monitors are in portrait mode – a must for teachers, especially ELA!

My school laptop is now only for school and is plugged into the projector there, which extends my desktop and also outputs that extension to a second monitor.  The result?  On the left screen, my laptop, I can put up attendance, etc.  Anything I want the kids to see, I can drag to the right screen, and look at it without turning my back on my kids to look at the projector.

picscreens.png For on-the-go purposes, I usually just grab a Chromebook from the cart rather than my plugged-in laptop.

If you have an idea for a Teacher Tech Tip, or you have a problem that you hope I can solve with technology, go ahead and leave a comment or hit up my Twitter handle @TheEnglishPhan.

Why Teachers Need Hip Hop Education in the Classroom

Note: The following post was featured on the Classcraft Blog, and is simply reproduced here. You can see where it was originally published by clicking here.

Hip Hop Ed has become an ever-growing popular movement today, especially due to its cultural relevance and its tendency to promote—through its connection with students—an increased social and political awareness in an academic setting.

Simply put, Hip Hop Education is the use of hip hop culture, especially rap songs and lyrics, as classroom content— both in the creation of material to learn and in the delivery of existing material. #HipHopEd even thrives on Twitter weekly, with the movement inspiring teachers and students alike.

Speaking students’ language

From the 1970s to today, there is no denying the pervasiveness of hip hop in today’s youth culture. While it has been present and even popular for decades, with hip hop figures represented among different generations, hip hop culture has always—even as it has aged and matured—had an association with the youth of today. This in itself is an anomaly; how can something be about and in response to historical events, political climates, and even living conditions without dating itself?

The answer lies in hip hop music’s close connection to hip hop culture and in its ability to maintain a strong connection with its practitioners and fan base despite any shifts in technique, medium, or content. At the center of hip hop culture is something universal and integral to human nature: oral tradition. It’s a medium of catharsis and expression coming together and being spat out in the exact way it is meant, there to be admired for what makes it art—and especially for what makes it “ugly” to some listeners.

This steady relation to youth is a no-brainer as a way to connect with young students. It’s important not only to art but also history and even contemporary life. Most importantly, hip hop in education is a powerful way to teach students the skills they need to help themselves, at school and at home.

It’s about mutual respect

The academic world tends to recoil in response to any connection to hip hop culture. It’s uneducated, one might think; it’s not socially appropriate and promotes destructive behavior. In an essay accusing hip hop of destroying the “potential of black youth,” Jeffrey Hicks states that “hip-hop culture deadens the drive toward civility and legitimizes backwardness.” However, using hip hop in the classroom doesn’t mean I am turning a blind eye to all of the things that can make its presence in the classroom uncomfortable (although I do disagree with this “evil” portrayal). In fact, you should use hip hop especially if you’re not comfortable with it!

First of all, actions speak louder than words. Using hip hop in the classroom is an action that has a huge effect on what students receive from you. They see you reaching into a world that they are familiar with instead of pulling them into your world. They see you playing and engaging with them instead of retreating in fear. Not only may you accidentally show them another thing to value about your curriculum, but even the mere attempt to connect is so visible that it can’t be ignored. Whether you mean it to or not, you are showing respect for something that is theirs in your classroom.

Every teacher knows and acknowledges that there are actions, items, and concepts that are inappropriate for a classroom setting. What this can sometimes manifest as, however, is an environment in firm denial of the existence of anything “inappropriate.” The class becomes a “safe space” but then morphs into a bubble of disrespect, teaching students to look down on any other environment not mirroring the same ideals. If you instead show them the relevance of what they’re learning in the context of the culture they themselves appropriate, you are doing something incredibly important by example.

Hip hop forces discussion about race, poverty, identity, family, hate, and the Man—all of which are things students worry about daily when they’re supposed to be thinking about your step-by-step tutorial on Shakespearean sonnets. You have an opportunity with hip hop to acknowledge pain, hate, anger, and injustice instead of denying it and further losing respect from students, who go home to these real issues and face them instead of your homework. You can show them through hip hop staples (rhyme, repetition, storytelling, catharsis, reflection) how to handle these issues and even use them to navigate another discomfort: your academic world.

Another thing that lends hip hop culture well to a classroom atmosphere is its intolerance for silence. Hip hop is about taking life’s problems and putting them “on blast,” whether it’s coming up with solutions or even just spreading awareness of the issue. Subscribers to hip hop may profess that “snitches get stitches,” but the truth is that hip hop culture is about snitching on life and the world.

Incorporating hip hop into your teaching

By reflecting this “take the good, eschew the bad” ideology with your handling of hip hop, you are modeling how to take what life gives, incorporate what is useful, and filter the rest. You are showing students that the proper response to adversity is not flight, despair, or dismissal—it is action, discussion, and collaboration, all ideals heavily promoted in hip hop culture and in academia alike.

You aren’t encouraging mindless adoption of hip hop ideals, as Hicks suggests, resulting in young people “applying for a job with unsightly cornrows, baggy clothing, and using less-than-acceptable English.” Discussion of hip hop culture as a connection or even a medium for learning is not the same as adoption of hip hop culture.

So teach a verse that helps them remember the quadratic formula, but also includes how much you hate remembering it. Have them make a diss track against whoever they think is responsible for the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Anger is healthy but should never be coupled with indifference; this distinction is important in discouraging destructive action versus angry expression.

In 2016, I created a unit that focused on the human reaction to times of trauma, something that a depressingly high number of students are familiar with. Framing an examination of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, students had to compare the way O’Brien and his self-named character within the story dealt with trauma, both in the depiction of himself and in the actual creation of the stories. By the end of the semester, students were examining methods of catharsis for their own lives.

After that final project, I had students reflecting on assignments who, instead of responding with the first semester’s “I learned how to read and write better,” now wrote things like, “I learned how poetry could help me cope with my sister’s death.” I was emotionally drained, but one thing was for sure: There were some students that had needed the hip hop presence in my class to know that they could answer problems themselves.

For all of its ugliness, I felt I had brought them something through hip hop that they hadn’t gotten before and might not have had the chance to learn otherwise. I realized I had given them something integral to living and coping with life—all this through an English class.

Fear as a call to action

If you are worried that the chance to express oneself will result in a wild classroom of students, then don’t you have a responsibility to go through the process of expression with them, offering constructive guidance so they don’t unleash that energy recklessly?

In other words: If you don’t teach them how to handle their own lives and cultures despite their fear, then you end up passing on something to be fearful of. What does it say if a student can handle school but not life? Why do we not want to show students where their own cultural identity fits into all this?

Hip Hop Education is a chance to engage students not only with your classwork, but with their own lives. My students had a reason to study metaphors, and they had reasons to look at how Tim O’Brien dealt with the death of his friend Kiowa—because through hip hop, these elements of English curriculum were now yielding secrets that provided clues to their own problems.

I found that hip hop didn’t just make my students care about the content; it gave me new reasons to care about it, too.

 

You Don’t Like Sleep.

Sleep is a beautiful thing.  Sleep helps you lose weight, grow taller, heighten your senses, process memories, dump old memories – you get all that for SLEEPING, an activity that, in theory, takes little to no effort, and only requires you to take the time to do it.

When I was young, I squandered the opportunities to sleep as often as I could.  Well, according to my memory anyway; apparently, when I was a baby I was a very good napper.  I didn’t do any of that crib-climbing stuff that I watched my little brother do with fascination.  In fact, at one point, my mom said she put me on a mattress on the ground – no restraints, fences, nothing – and I made no attempt to escape whatsoever.  What a loser.  My brother in that same situation for one parent-imposed naptime was crawling out of there like Gollum.

But intellectually, I fought naptimes, and I stayed up late doing homework, IMing, gaming, binge-watching Netflix and staying up with my insomniac brother.  Over time, I kind of forgot what it was like to have a full, complete sleep.  Sometimes I noted that I was too tired to sleep.  Yep, in moments of extreme tiredness, my body would do things not conducive to sleeping.  My body was too sleepy to figure out how to sleep – short of collapsing in exhaustion when I finally hit zero.

It was actually my wife who pushed me to go to bed on time during my first two or so years of teaching.  I still remember what it was like that first morning after an eight hours sleep.  I had super powers!  My food didn’t drag me down, my senses were loading up my brain with information, my work got done so fast with my usual planning that I had all this extra time, too!  Life was… better!  Who wouldn’t do this?!

Now, sleep is one of the only things that lacks in my life.  Lack of sleep makes it hard to lose weight, work, and even spend time with my wife – which, because I’m suffering from lack of sleep, makes it so I have to make up for all of this by… you got it: NOT sleeping – which made it WORSE.  Yes, learn this lesson now.  Right my wrongs.  Not sleeping will make you so bad at being awake that you won’t get a chance to sleep.

So now I see these young teenagers every day at my work, and on the surface of it, it looks like they’re smarter than I was.  “I love sleep!” they’ll say.  Yet, day after day, students will wander into my classroom with half-lidded eyes and profess to long nights of Netflix, gaming and Snapchatting.  I thought you loved sleep?

When I love something, I prioritize it.  I make time for it.  That’s not what’s happening when my students are thinking about sleep.  They are doing things that aren’t sleep, and putting it off further and further, and only thinking of it wistfully because they’re bad at being awake.  “I can’t wait till spring break so I can just get some sleep,” which means that they can do all of their night time stuff and oversleep with no consequences.

So maybe it’s time to be precise: Do you love sleep, or do you hate waking up?

If it’s the latter, would you hate waking up so much if you just got some sleep?

How I Infuse Joy into My Teaching Day.

Life can seem difficult as a teacher; we have notoriously difficult jobs, and that can bring us to put our own morale aside. Students can pick up on this quick, however, so it’s just as important to keep your enthusiasm up as it is to maintain the enthusiasm of your class. Here are some things that I do to keep the beast at bay and bring maximum happiness into my career.

1. Journal Questions

Journal Questions are often a missed opportunity to connect with students… and to have a little fun.  The first 5 minutes of class are for answering the journal prompt – then the second 5 minutes are for sharing, with Fridays for Friday Freewrites.  The important rule that I like to apply to make it fun for me is that I share last.  The students like these questions because they get to share themselves – and find a little bit out about their teacher.  Questions like “What do you believe happens after death?” and “Describe your daily routine as a vending machine.” keep kids engaged.

2. #Custom #Gamification

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Tools like the awesome Classcraft can be tailor-made for your class.  In Classcraft, there’s this feature called the Random Event.  The first thing I did with it was I went through them and added custom events based on information I knew about my students.  I have events based on TV characters, characters from the books we read… no limits!

3. A Change of Scenery

I use a projector in my class to help the students follow along when we read or to model how to do some of the assignments.  One thing I like to do is change the desktop wallpaper every week or so.  Students appreciate the change – and they love when they can connect with something like what show you’re watching lately or a trip you went on based on whatever image you use. You can also use pictures from the news if you want to start a conversation that way.

4. Take risks.

You may have gotten so experienced that you are loath to reinvent the wheel by trying anything new. One thing I’ve learned though is that if you dread it, the kids will dread it. If something is going to be painful, take your own time and remake it. Tell the kids what you did! “I was going to have us read Medea, but then I realized we’d all have more fun with The Merchant of Venice!” Students seem to like when I go out on a limb for them.

 5. Character Study

Sometimes I teach with different voices or accents. This can be taken to an extreme; what if you taught a science lesson as Charles Darwin? What if Atticus Finch ran today’s discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird? You don’t necessarily have to be an awesome actor for this; you just have to commit. Don’t break character for a moment, wear the right clothing… and of course, if someone uses your real name, act confused, but tell them that they sound like a really good-looking person.

These ideas can breathe new life into your work – and provide the morale boost you need to get through the day. Most importantly, they can teach and model for the students how being in the professional world doesn’t necessarily entail a moratorium on happiness; all it can take sometimes is the right combination of factors for your passion to ignite theirs.

 

The Art of the Answer

Hopefully, most adults already know the information that I’m about to share.  I know for a fact that most teenagers fresh out of high school do not.  Therefore, if you are in college, I’m about to give you a huge boost over all of your peers.  This may help you professionally, but it will DEFINITELY save your personal relationships, mostly because the fix is so subtle that most people only notice the effects and not the cause, meaning you get the credit but still maintain your mystery.

If someone you respect – perhaps even like – says something that you didn’t hear or don’t understand, you have been presented with an immediate test of maturity and adulthood.

Person: “Hey Steve! Can you poejopfwfkoepqk…”

Steve: “What?”

Steve has failed the test.  Hard.  “What?” is an innocent question that teenagers are used to asking – and that’s because teenagers don’t know anything.  A young adult will condition himself to answer differently.

“Yeah,” you might think, “but you’re a stuffy English teacher.  I don’t need to use your rules in my personal, casual life.”

You don’t know this because most people don’t know this unless they think about it, which they don’t: “What” and “Huh” as one-word questions both induce maximum rage.  Think about the last time you explained something and someone answered, “What?”

In fact, think about the last time you called someone’s name and they answered, “What?”

Have I proven my point yet?

“What” at the wrong time can derail a conversation and ruin an interaction before you can even begin to think about why it happened.  That’s because “What” or “huh” imply any of these 4 things.

  1. “Uh… what?” You’re stupid.  Your mind is too simple to comprehend what was being said.
  2. “… what?” You aren’t paying attention.  Disrespect.
  3. “What?” You don’t care.  Disrespect.
  4. “What?!” (What.) You’re spitting attitude. Disrespect.

None of these 4 things are good for your personal relationships – especially if they already know you aren’t stupid.

“Huh” is even worse than “What” because it makes you make a stupid face while you say it.

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“Huh” is the reason your parents still think you can’t handle your business.

“Huh” is the reason you being on your phone counts as you being “on the phone all the time” instead of just the one time you were using it in front of them.

“Huh” is the reason nobody thinks you can multi-task.

Try this experiment.  The next time someone calls your name, answer with “How can I help you?”  The next time someone says something that you don’t hear, answer with “I heard something about ____ but I didn’t hear all of it.” or even “Could you repeat the last sentence you said?  I think I misheard you.”

You’ll avert so many arguments that you’re used to having.

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This lesson needs to be taught in schools.  I told my students about this, and one of my students asked, “Why?”

I told her that she didn’t know it yet, but she actually hated people who say it.  “You won’t find this out until you move in with someone and ask them something from the kitchen while he’s in the living room.”

Parenthood will also bring this issue up really fast.  My parents weren’t having it.  “Yes, Mom!” was the answer demanded, and had I more courage I would have met this demand with goose-stepping and the obligatory salute to these fascist dictators.

We weren’t really good about saying that until we were older, but if you wanted to get on my parents’ beatdown list all you had to do was say “What?” when they called your name.  If it was for something bad, you were automatically in trouble for it regardless of the explanation, and if it was for something good, it was immediately canceled.

“HOAN!”

“What?”

“Never mind, you can eat tomorrow.”

Even armed with the explicit knowledge of exactly how our parents wanted us to answer them, we were awful at avoiding our parents’ wrath for this particular offense.

Avoid my mistakes, children.  Be better.  Right my wrongs.