A place to reflect on teaching, life, and popular culture.
Author: Mark Sherman
I teach English and philosophy at Dakota Ridge High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the years I have considered my musings and have written here and there. Over the last few months I have been to conferences and have realized the need to get my thoughts out there and see what is what in the world. And so here we go. The beauty of this medium is the potential for honest conversation. So please join in and let us do what we can to make life better for all those involved.
And as I sit here having evaluated their work, I feel like it went pretty darn well.
The highlight of the assignment was when I passed it out and one of my students raised her hand and said: This is not a TOK assignment! I was giddy that they are beginning to realize what is and is not TOK. As any TOK teacher might acknowledge, half of teaching the class is helping students recognize what is and is not TOK. So I led the class to the reflection essay, which is TOK thinking. With this settled, they got to work on their problem: to explore what they feel is a root cause of mass violence and present a viable solution.
I stepped back and listened in on their conversations and their understandings. Over the course of the project, they had been presenting and sharing articles they found which address issues of concern regarding behavior and our understanding of behavior from the human and natural sciences. From these articles, they made connections with causes of mass violence. As they worked on discerning a root cause to mass violence, they pulled some of these ideas out and began to make necessary, foundational connections to address a root cause of violence.
When it came time to present their findings, their biology teacher and our school resource officer were fully engaged. The students were empowered as they owned the learning. All instruction during the course of the investigation had been done, to a certain degree, by them. All learning was their own. So when they presented, the joy was in their voices and their faces.
But, as noted, this was not the TOK part. My goal was that if they had knowledge they produced using the skills of the human and natural scientist, then their TOK reflection would be that much more meaningful. It would have been had I constructed the knowledge question better and more appropriate to their project. The knowledge question I gave them for reflection was: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior? While it is evident how this question emerges from the inquiry, the question was not effective in making the necessary reflection I had hoped. Regardless, they did well from a TOK perspective, though a few missed the “of” in the question, which fouled up their responses, but some made effective connections with their inquiry into mass violence. Others did well in exploring the knowledge issues of language in understanding behavior. Next time I will focus the question more explicitly to their inquiry.
In the end, I am happy with how the project went. When we return in the fall, they will do something similar with math. They will be reading The Universe and the Teacup and I figure they will follow some line of inquiry whereby they use mathematical thinking to derive a solution to a problem. Though this time I will put the inquiry into their laps. With some guidance.
I meant to send this out last week, regardless, here is a plan I put together for a quick PBL in my TOK. Take a look and feel free to advise me for next go around about what I could do for it.
Many thanks and we are almost there to summer.
Scenario: The US government has called on experts to help the populace better understand acts of mass violence in the US today. As it stands, the government is still struggling to understand root causes as it and the American people usually want immediate fixes; however, the government has come to realize that in order to deal with the situation knee jerk reactions will no longer cut it. As a result, both the government and the American population need to have a better understanding of root causes. Therefore, the government has called upon you to present your findings at a symposium which seeks to address two issues:
What is a root cause to acts of mass violence in the United States
What is a viable solution to deal with that cause?
On May 21, 2018, we will hold a symposium where candidates will present their findings to a committee for review. Presentations will be used to explain your understanding of a (not the) root cause and a (not the) viable solution and how you will go about transmitting this understanding regarding acts of mass violence to the people of the United States.
Ideas to consider for presenting your understanding to the population, but not limited to:
Social media campaign
Whatever your mind wishes…
Issues you might consider as you develop your thinking:
Responsibilities (as a citizen, community)
Social expectations (from society, gender)
The role of language in understanding behavior (human/natural science)
Cultural expectations (shared and personal knowledge)
As you develop your response, use the articles you (should) have been reading last week. There have been some solid understandings regarding this issue that have arisen from many of these articles. To ignore them will provide a very narrow and think understanding.
Following are scoring criteria and guidelines:
The purpose of the presentation on the 21st is to “sell” your project to a government agency who will use whatever your ideas are to help people understand mass violence in America today. You will want to consider the best manner about selling your idea. Issues you will address in your presentation:
The facts behind your thinking
Your understanding of a root cause and a viable solution
Your reasons for the project
How you think it will be effective in helping others to understand the issue with some clarity
How you came to this understanding as a root cause of violence
Presentation evaluated using the following:
There is a clear flow of information
Introduction is engaging and seeks to pull the audience in
Flow of ideas is natural
Clear knowledge and understanding of issues
Use of human and natural sciences
Provides viable solution
Developed explanation of ideas and information
Use of academic support
Consider multiple perspectives
Project evaluated using the following:
Presents the issue in new manner
Provides unique insights
Demonstrates critical analysis and understanding
The project should demonstrate inquiry into the subject
While not overly technical, the project should be convincing and based on research
Reflection (It is in the reflection where TOK will happen) essay (to be completed individually):
Write a 750 word essay that seeks to answer the following knowledge question: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior?
I have been doing this teaching thing for a touch over 22 years now. Weird to think that I have been doing it longer than my students have been alive. I have, in fact, been doing it long enough that I now have students who are the children of some of my students from many years ago. When the first of those kids came along, I almost feinted.
As many of us old farts will attest to, there comes a time when we are asked how we avoid burn out. How have we done this for so many years (with the exception of one semester, my entire career has been at the same school)? While it isn’t easy, it isn’t difficult to avoid burnout either. Some suggestions that have helped me along all these years.
I have noticed that the teachers who burnout the easiest tend to be the either the most passionate or have no place whatsoever in the classroom. To the passionate teachers looking for an out, keep reading. For those teachers who realize you are not suited to the classroom, thank you for having the courage to try. Following are some strategies I have used over the last many years to keep me afloat in this profession.
Strategy #1: Throw away last year’s plans…
The teachers who don’t seem to burnout the easiest are those who do the same thing year after year after year. However, these teachers also tend to be the least exciting. They likely don’t burnout because they have their lessons and grading down pat. These are the teachers who still use the same overheads they used 20 years ago when overhead projectors were high tech. These are the teachers who spend their teacher prep days at the beginning of the year making copies for the entire semester. You know this teacher. You have had this teacher. And like me, you probably entered this gig not wanting to be this teacher. Perhaps you don’t use the same handouts and the like, but you’re feeling some burnout. Get rid of last year’s plans. Start over. Try something different with your classes. You might have the same content, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach the same lessons. Let’s face it, what worked last year, likely won’t work for the students you currently have. Don’t do the same thing year after year after year.
Strategy #2: Change your schedule…
A few years back I was in rut. I was looking at want ads. I was looking at what I could do to get out of the profession. I did the math to see what it would take to retire early. So, rather than do something irrational I walked into the scheduler’s office and told her to take my honors English class off my schedule and replace it with co-taught English. In case you’re wondering, co-taught English is as far on the opposite end of the spectrum of honors as you can get. A good chunk of my career has been in advanced classes. This change has done absolute wonders for my perspective as a teacher. It has re-energized what I do. And, it has impacted how I approach my AP and IB classes. If you’re struggling, and it is possible, change a class in your schedule.
Strategy #3: Work with the new teachers…
A couple of years back my school got an infusion of new teachers. They came in with some new ideas and approaches. Where many of us old farts might look at new teachers and say, “BAH! You kids and your new fangled ideas. You’ll learn!” Don’t say that. Sit with them. Learn from them. Mentor them with an open mind and you just might learn something, too. Felicia entered this crazy world of education four years ago after 20 years in retail, a good chunk of that time in management. I have learned so much from her and other new teachers. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Sometimes it will need a dose of reality, but buy into their enthusiasm. Don’t crush it. Help it come to fruition. There is something quite powerful about reigniting a passion.
Strategy #4: Learn something new…
I am not making this up. One year, close to 17 years ago, when I was almost done with this teaching thing, I wrote the following for my technology goals: I plan on utilizing the light switch so that my students will be better able to read and write. I think about that and I want to vomit. Challenge yourself with focusing on new. New strategies. New technologies. This year I have been working extra time on incorporating PBL in my classes. Trust me, I have messed up more than I have succeeded. But I have had some great success with incorporating these strategies into my classes. Today, in fact, Felicia and I just enrolled in John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course. I have also attended many Google Summits, reading conferences, a variety of IB conferences, some design thinking workshops. As well, I have been working on certification in working with ELL students. But whatever it is, challenge yourself to learn something new. It doesn’t matter, as long as you share your struggles with learning with your students. Let them know it is ok to try something new. To experiment. And to fail and work harder to succeed.
There you go, four strategies to help avoid burnout, none of which make heavy use of alcohol, though that has been considered (all right, it has been used) a few times. Sadly, it is easy for teachers to burnout, especially now, when it seems the world wants our collective noggins on a plate. As well, we are at that point in the year where there are exams coming up and standardized testing season on the back end. The pressure is being felt on so many ends.
Either way, hang in there and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Here’s to learning and teaching. Something I hope we are all passionate about. What are some strategies you use to avoid burning out?
The IB curriculum begins and ends with inquiry. Where AP (which I also teach) focuses so much more on content, IB revolves more around the skills necessary to create knowledge in a given content and understand the concepts of that content. IB doesn’t focus on the answers, rather how one arrives at those answers. Students are asked to think like a historian, a scientist, a linguist. In Theory of Knowledge (TOK), the central concern is developing critical thinking skills as we examine how knowledge is acquired, created, and produced. Because of this, inquiry is the beginning, middle, and end of TOK. So, when we consider PBL in TOK, the “P” is about a problem and the project is about doing something through inquiry with that problem. And all of this in order to understand the concepts of the acquisition, creation, and production of knowledge.
If there are a thousand TOK teachers, there will be one thousand different approaches to TOK. As one of my trainers told the class, make sure the class works to your (the teacher’s) strengths. By which he meant, whatever content I use to teach the skills and concepts of TOK, I need to make sure these are issues and concepts which I can speak to. In addition to the content, there is also the organization of the class that will also vary from teacher to teacher to teacher. As far as I am concerned, I like to open my year examining the four ways of knowing (WOK) I will focus on over the course of the year. These WOK are reason, emotion, sense perception, and language.
And I thought this could be a fun way to have my TOK students demonstrate their understanding of a WOK. So I came up with the inquiry question: How does a knower determine the best WOK to use in acquiring knowledge in an area of knowledge (AOK)? The students were allowed to choose an area of knowledge and make a similar video to the above in order to demonstrate their understandings regarding the question. In addition, the students had to present a definition of the WOK and the role it plays in creating knowledge along with acquiring knowledge.
Here are a couple of samples:
As these are new TOK students, their understandings are not nearly as developed as they could be, but the videos each present minds at work. As I noted in my previous post about PBL in TOK, TOK really happens in the reflection of the activity. And this exercise was no different. For the reflection, the students had to respond to the following from the TOK subject guide:
On the one hand, WOK are the tools that answer the question “how do we know?” and on the other hand they help us answer the question “how do I know?” Discuss this using your two WOK and one AOK.
The essay is where reflection took place and where I was able to see both TOK and IB thinking happening. This served as a wonderful summative assessment in order to determine if the goals for my unit had been reached.
When it comes to TOK (all classes, actually, but TOK especially) there needs to be a deep and close relationship between the student and the concepts of the class (there really is no content to TOK, we have heavy concepts). I hoped that by including a bit more creative expression in the use of these concepts, it might help the students develop a better, more personal understanding with them. As I looked over their reflections and listened to their presentations of their videos, the students do have an effective understanding of the WOK and how these are used, their limitations, and how we as knowers make up for those limitations.
As I reflect on this exercise, there is something I would change. I didn’t have the students do enough work ahead of time to make sure that they were on the right path. I have to remind myself constantly that, though these might be hard working students, they are still teenagers. As such, they will take the quickest path to completing the assignment as possible. I was no different (in fact, I was a lot worse when I was their age). If I want my students to get more out of any PBL, there needs to be more in the lead up by to the presentation. This is where the LAUNCH process and design thinking comes into play.
As I move on, I can see how adding these components will help my students develop that close and personal relationship with the concepts of TOK. How do you use PBL strategies engage your students to develop deeper understanding of concepts?
I teach a couple of classes of at-risk and low performing students. These are students who have been told their whole lives by grades, family, teachers, assessments that they are not smart, that they can’t handle heavy thinking, that they can’t handle independent, critical thought. And while many do float to these expectations (I will forever be indebted to Mike Rose for the verb “to float”. If you have never read his essay, “I just wanna be average,” stop what you’re doing and read it now), many move well beyond them. As Felicia might say, “These kids don’t need to be saved, they just need somebody to believe in them.” I tell you, that woman is smart.
Over the course of last semester, we had done some fun, hands on type of PBL, but I wanted to push their thinking. I went to The Buck Institute’s website (BIE), and I did some searching around Google and Twitter for what could be a fun, intriguing unit. When I found the “Cool with School Rules” project, I had an idea and I developed a unit on ethical decision making with then end goal of examining school rules. I designed the unit around three primary forms of ethics: utilitarian, obligation, and consequential. When I presented the unit to the classes, given this group of kids, they were baffled (one asked if I mixed this class up with my Theory of Knowledge class) about why we would even bother talking about such inane topics. But, several were curious and actively engaged in thought experiments and the like. And many chose not to.
But then, without them knowing that they were going to engage in some PBL, I had the principal come in to class one day. He told them that he had heard we were studying ethics, so he figured they might be the right kids to help him out. As he said, “There are many students in this school who are having a difficult time following rules and just being damn civil to each other.” So he wanted some help in motivating students to be better, behave a bit more civilly, and respect the building and what we are trying to do a bit more. So he asked my classes to help him come up with strategies. He gave us four weeks to come up with something. We would need six.
He left and we got right to work. My students divided the building (hallways, library, bathrooms, cafeteria, gym/weight room/locker rooms), and groups took sections to work on. In the process of completing the assignment for the principal, they had to base a lot of what they did and say in one of their three ethical frameworks.
Using the launch process, the students were able to engage with ethics in some form of concrete reality. As well, we introduced other questions regarding rules and culture and the manner in which these play a role in how people act and behave towards each other and their environment.
The PBL was designed with all of the necessary elements:
We launched the project with the principal coming in and presenting a real, viable issue. After he left, the students spent time brainstorming in small groups what they knew and understood about school rules and why they may or may not follow rules. These conversations were rooted in the ethics we had studied.
From this exploration, the students were able to develop questions. This is a difficult part for many students, these kids are certainly no exception (in their mind to ask a question is to admit you might not know everything, you might be wrong, or you might actually care). However, with the right tools and framework, some of these kids came up with some solid questions.
They spent some time studying more ethical decision making strategies and other ideas that people had done to create a culture where people wanted to be there. And they came up with some answers to their questions. Again, some had well developed answers while many had very thin answers. Regardless, they worked within these ideas and concepts.
From here, they spent time in their assigned areas of the school and took notes and studied the needs of these areas. They also studied what some other schools had done with posting rules in some creative manners. With all of this knowledge, they came up with their ideas for posters and slogans.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my students worked on coming up with ways to engage students to behave and follow rules. The students were reflective in their own struggles with rules and school and applied what they knew of themselves and their friends to what they felt might motivate others.
When the principal came back after six weeks, the students presented their ideas to him. As you might expect with a group of at-risk and low performing students, many didn’t get as much done as they could have, but some did exceedingly well (many students still argue about the “broken windows theory”).
The principal, however, was so impressed with one group that their posters are hanging in bathrooms around the school (these are the pictures presented). They took the approach of making memes to remind students of expectations for the bathrooms.
The beauty of a well executed PBL, as I am beginning to learn, involves so much. In the case with at-risk and low performing students, most need a bit of structured and guided inquiry. This group needs explicit deadlines as at-risk and low performing students tend to struggle with self-direction. They also need explicit rubrics and guidelines. They need all of the requirements of good PBL as outlined by The Buck Institute.
When reflecting on the process when they were done, many students, including two in the group who have their memes hanging, said that for the first time in their 12 years in the education system, they felt their opinion was valued and they were taken seriously. When the principal was in the room listening to their presentations, they felt like he was genuinely interested. Probably because he was. He wasn’t there to grade them. After each presentation he offered his advice and that if they wanted their posters or ideas presented to the school, this is what they would have to do.
According to BIE there needs to be some sort of authentic, public demonstration, because far too often, students present only for the grade book. When the principal was there to listen and to pry and to advise, they realized that this was for real. And for just a moment, there was somebody else in the room who believed in them, which is what they really needed.
Confession: I drive a Subaru Forester. In Colorado this is about as common as a lodgepole pine tree is in our forests. I would be lying if I said I never walked up to another Forester and wondered why my remote wasn’t working to unlock the door. After one last frustrating moment of trying to locate my Subaru in a forest of Subarus (don’t even get me started on trying to find my car in an REI parking lot), I decided mine needed a marker of sorts. Actually, Felicia suggested I should mark it.
Felicia drives a Honda Pilot, which is not as common as a Subaru mind you, but common enough that she has walked up to the wrong car, and has been sitting in her car when another person mistook Felicia’s Pilot for her own. An awkward situation to say the least. So Felicia put a “Sailor Moon” window sticker on her car so as to easily mark it.
This has done wonders for both of us in locating her car in crowded lots. Each time it has been used or each time we would have difficult time locating my car, she would bring it up and tell me I should get a something to mark my car, too. However, I have always had a no sticker policy on my cars, which drove my deceased wife nuts, especially during political season.
But my policy has changed. After a frustrating moment trying to find my car in a forest of Foresters, I decided enough is enough. I spent a few days trying to decide with what to mark my car, and I decided on the symbol for the Horde from World of Warcraft (WOW).
Before explaining why I chose the decal I did, I need to step back for a moment. I do my best to teach my students that writing to reflect is a process we do in order to arrive at a better understanding of a situation of an issue or ourselves. As our students are young, they have so little upon which to reflect. When we ask them to reflect, it is often thin and superficial at best. We have to remember they are still in midst of deciding their truths and their opinions. I think it was Hemingway who said something along the lines that you can’t write about Paris while you’re still in Paris. I still have a difficult time writing about my deceased wife as the experience is still being processed. Don’t get me wrong, I have written a bit here and there, but nothing I am still working on arriving at some truths and realizations since her passing four years ago. In other words, I am still in Paris.
So, when I decided it would a Horde symbol to mark my car, I thought and reflected on what my years of playing WOW did for me as a teacher and as a person. WOW provided me an opportunity to explore myself as a writer and a thinker. One of my former students, Ben Kendrick (he has no idea the debt of gratitude I owe him), would become a mentor for me as a writer. He was an editor for Gamerant, a website dedicated to video games. Over a few drinks at a mutual friend’s wedding, I told him that I played WOW and shared an essay I had written about it. A few months later, he asked me if I wanted to write a weekly column about the game for Gamerant. I took his offer and for a few years, I wrote a weekly column called World of Warcraft Wisdom (hence my Twitter handle).
Those years writing that column shaped me in so many ways as a writer and a thinker. It gave me a platform to explore my thoughts and ideas on culture and the role games play. It helped me hone my skills as a writer. More importantly, it gave me an opportunity to practice what I preach to my students.
There is so much that goes into personal reflection and reflection writing. In so many ways, what makes it difficult for students to find the meaning in their experiences and their views is that they are still in Paris. For many, they hold their opinions and ideas on their sleeves with so little consideration as to where they came from because they are still developing these opinions and ideas. Our students can tell you what they think, but they have a difficult time exploring why they think what they think.
The set up for reflection writing is very important, so much of it comes from the questions we pose as teachers. It’s not enough simply to ask our students to write about a significant experience. I often structure reflection writing through a series of small questions that become larger, open ended questions. After some pre-writing activities and their answers in mind, they are free to put it all together and discern the significance and meaning from whatever it is they are reflecting.
In this essay, for example, consider the questions I have asked and answered about why I chose a World of Warcraft decal to mark my car. From the very simple (When did you play WOW? What side did you play?); to a bit more reflective (How did you get the writing gig? Why did you need a sticker?); to a bit more open ended and thoughtful (Why did you change your no sticker policy, anyway? You’re 49 years old, why the heck are you still identifying with a video game?). And these questions do not even include the meta aspect of this writing!
When I ask my students to write reflective essays after a project or an essay they have written for class, I often use a Google Form to collect their responses and thinking. Each question they answer on the Form gets progressively open ended. The assignment will dictate the questions I have them answer (either for pre-writing or post activity reflection). When they are done and we have conferred on their responses, they are ready to find the meaning of whatever it is that I am asking them to find. They are, in short, ready to arrive at a better, more clear and personal understanding.
When I finally decided that it was time for a decal, I had my choice narrowed down to two decals: the Horde and the Colorado Avalanche hockey team logo. The debate in my head was not too long. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Avs. In the hockey world the Avs are the good guys, everyone else is ok (and then there is the wild (I refuse to capitalize their name), who are just plain wrong). But when I think about what has played a more significant role in shaping who I am today, there was a clear winner. Mind you, I have not played WOW in quite sometime, but I still consider those years writing and playing formative in my understanding as to how popular culture functions in our lives and beyond us. I came to realize just how significant popular culture is in shaping us as individuals and as a people. I often wonder about the interplay between popular culture and reality and the push and pull of those.
In part because of World of Warcraft, therefore, I came into my own as a writer, a thinker, an observer, a writing teacher.
Tell me, how do you encourage reflection in your students? Leave a comment below.
A couple of weekends ago I was fortunate enough to see Hamilton. I hold season tickets to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (a great value, actually) and this season’s package included Hamilton. For the past two years, Felicia and I have been to many shows and this one seemed a bit more crowded and busy than normal. We couldn’t quite figure out what it was as we had been to many other sold out shows since we started going on a regular basis.
Before the show, there was a larger than normal number of people taking selfies (any picture taking in the theater is forbidden). Mind you, these were not your run of the mill selfies. They made sure they covered all of their bases to prove where they were. They had selfies holding the program. They had selfies with the stage in the background. They had selfies with anything Hamilton in there.
And I asked in my head, how many of these people were at the show so they could do the metaphorical check list of things to do before one turns in this mortal coil. I wondered how many people that evening missed out on the full, honest experience of going to a show in order to check going to Hamilton off their list. As my classes tend to be on my mind more often than not, I wondered how many of my AP students are in the AP class in order to check taking AP English off their list and end up missing out on the experience of completing a project or a class.
If you have ever been to the Louvre in Paris, you have been rushed past the Mona Lisa. In doing so, perhaps you missed the Titian piece hanging behind it (this from the days when she was not in her own room). When we do something because it is what we are supposed to do, we often miss out on the honesty of the experience. By honesty of the experience, I mean that idea of taking it all in, doing something because we truly want to, not because it is what we are supposed to do. When I wrote my post regarding colonization, part of the question in my mind is if my students take my AP class because that is what they are supposed to do, they don’t seek the experience of growth, they seek the badge of AP. They seek the credential, the grade. All of this takes that metaphor of colonization a bit further.
This harkens back to my struggle with grades and grading. I have been working with my students this year to focus on the process and not the product. And for many students (and teachers) this is a tremendous leap in thinking and understanding (again, for both students and teachers). They have been brought up in a system that focuses primarily on the end product and the content. I am working the help my students realize that their education should be more about the process and the skill acquisition, not the product or the grade.
Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.
This is where focusing on process and 21st century skills comes into play. By keeping our students and teaching focused on these two items, the hope is that students will see that school has relevancy beyond the classroom door. While I freely admit to my students they will never, ever write a literary analysis beyond the confines of a classroom (unless they become English professors or literary critics), they will, however, use the reasoning and critical analysis required to complete that writing throughout their lives in any endeavor (I will engage my students who work at Wal-Mart into role playing with me as the customer and they are helping me to decide a product. The rest of the class will explain the deductive and critical thinking skills the student went through to compare and contrast products). The same goes for math. The same goes for history.
Ask yourself as a teacher, what are the skills your students need to complete an activity and where are those skills used beyond your content and your classroom. How are those skills necessary in the process?
If we focus on skills and process, I hope that no class becomes a check box for a student. I hope that when they leave my class, they realize that it was about the experience. I hope that they are willing to look around when in the midst of checking a box to realize that there is so much more happening around them. As nifty as it was to see the founding documents at the National Archive this past summer, it was so much more fun to try and find those damn eagles placed around the room (I think Felicia and I missed one or two before we were forced out of the room).
What are some ideas you have in helping your students focus on the process? What do you do to focus your classes on the process and not the product? Let us know in the comments.