Leadoff bunt in the first inning? Not this guy.

The goal in baseball is to just get by. Finishing the ninth inning with one more run than your opponent lands you with a win, and in the right game- a title. The goal in teaching should be quite different.*

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Swing for the fences
Teach like you have something to prove. Because, in fact, you do. When a new year begins, you have a ton to prove to your students- and in a very short time. If inside the four walls of your room on that first week -it feels like a classroom– then you will have your work cut out for you even more than you would have otherwise.

Ask Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) how quickly your students will size you up on that first day.
The only thing you have that, say -an interviewee for a job doesn’t- is about 179 more days with your captive audience to make amends. New teachers should hear loud and clear that with integrity and persistence you really can make up for a rocky start over time. In my opinion, the “first day” gurus such as Harry Wong, overlook this fact.

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Rookie season
A teacher who has never stood in front of a group of high school students can be pretty intimidated with everything that must go off without a hitch on those first days. I have seen this several times during these last three years as an instructional coach. I mean seriously… look at this. You are pulling down a whopping thirty grand for mastering that in addition to everything else NCLB throws your way. Even the word mastering can be frustrating here. As a teacher, you won’t make a penny more or less whether you nail it, or fail it. It is one of those sad realities of the profession. Perhaps Mr. Duncan will have a thing or two to say about that. One thing we do know for sure is that he never had to spend a day worrying about that first week. For all of his extensive experience administrating schools, he’s never actually been a classroom teacher.

So how do you do just that –swing for the fences– in a classroom? Step one: care. Care about all of it, and care about it deeply. If you try to pull down something in that first week that you don’t deeply care about, then you will derail the train at the station. Your students don’t care so much that you are deeply knowledgeable about science yourself. They also do not care that you may be steeped in all of the latest instructional strategies… though this will certainly help. What they really care about is whether or not you do. I mean, I’m not a big fan of street mimes, but I’m also not about to walk by someone that committed without a kind smile lighting up my face. Bottom line- if you don’t care deeply about your mission, and it is a noble one, you might want to think about trying to get out of that contract before it is too late. Yes, I’m serious.

Is it worth swinging at?
Since you’re still reading, you can likely pass muster on step one. Step two is far easier. Step two is to identify something deep to begin with. Pick something that might typically be thought of as culminating. Don’t lay out all of the vector-physics wisdom involved with every step of arm wrestling. Beat a kid at arm wrestling… or lose… it matters little here. What does matter is that your students get a glimpse of what the end looks like. What are the culminating processes, skills, and concepts you want your kids to leave your room with in May? Pick one. Start with that. The natural world is an interesting, puzzling, or beautiful thing to all humans at some level. Where is the beauty in your subject? Where is the mystery? Where is the debate? Don’t wait until Spring to drop the really good stuff on a bunch of chronically bored kids. Don’t do that.

I know, I know… “but what about the pacing guide?” The pacing guide is a very well-intentioned piece of accountability hardware. I get it. It is all about making sure a teacher doesn’t stay with the “leaf unit” -insert other easy favorite here- all semester long. It is also about making a daunting management task a bit more manageable for a school’s administrators. I’d personally rather see a school hire a VP in charge of curriculum & instruction than to lay out anal pacing guides that make teachers feel unable to innovate with sequencing, alternate approaches, etc. I’m starting to believe that no amount of well-intentioned talk about how the pacing guide isn’t your boss will change that. Teachers are generally people who will do as they are asked. If it is in writing, hey- it’s in writing. If you had a knowledgeable VP in charge of C&I in a building, they could have real bi-directional conversations with teachers on a very regular basis about how they are going about the business of delivering the curriculum to students. This would have to be an administrator freed from the overwhelming glut of management of discipline duties a VP job normally comes with. Of course, you could argue that a strategy like this could just be trading one evil for another potential evil, and you’d probably be right in many cases.

Rethink your role
OK, back to the plan. Simply show kids where you are going. If you introduce them to atomic structure yet again to begin the year, you are asking for it. I’m not saying not to do it… just do it next week. Take week one to show them why any of those gruesome details might matter at a later date. Allow me to switch the metaphor. Essentially speaking, if your classroom were a restaurant, you might think of it as assuming the role of host or maitre d’ as opposed to the chef. Control the atmosphere. Greet them at the door, lead them to their table, introduce the menu, highlight the really good stuff, even bring the ingredients to the table… but then leave the cooking to them. I didn’t say walk away. Stay. Help out when you’re really needed. Hey- you’ve cooked a steak once or twice before, they haven’t. But let it be their steak. Don’t cook it for them. Small variations make a meal interesting, but a truly burned steak is a shame. Right?

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Biology: the study of life
“What is life?” -sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? It is a typical question-led topic found in the introductory chapter of almost any Biology text. Tons of folks probably lead off with some analytic version of this lesson already. This year, like many in the past eighteen, I kicked things off in Principles of Biology by stirring up a bit of classroom discourse concerning a definition of “life.” No- I’m not talking about the one where we review a litany of characteristics like growth, metabolism, ability to reproduce, etc. Like most things, those fall dead flat without a rich context. If you’re just there for the diploma, you don’t care what a cell is or isn’t at this point. I like to ask that very same question from a more comprehensive vantage point that has relevance to all students by the time they are sitting in my class as a junior or senior.

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I like to start this period with a short reading directly from “One Minute Readings: Issues in Science, Technology, and Society” by Richard Brinckerhoff. This is one of the few inspiring resources I have obtained via a textbook company in the past eighteen years. Check it out: at the time of writing this little essay, you can even score a copy for 37 cents. What are you waiting for? Check for the sample reading I have at Scribd. I wouldn’t normally re-type this much of a work like this, but since it is currently out of print and out of stock (new) most places, perhaps this will drum a small bit of interest. This book has 80 readings similar to that one. All were very current in 1992. Of course now you can only use about 40% of them straight-up. But really, you should use the others as inspiration to find your own sources and write your own questions.

The Emeril report
Here’s what I did this time around. I passed out the attached sheet while taking roll with explicit instructions for a silent, solo read. After reading, I asked my students to scribble their current thoughts onto a scrap of paper -scribbles that no one else would see. While trolling through the students seated at tables, (want a visual of the space?) I waited for a good moment to stop them for the next step. Now let me say that if your words, as well as your non-verbals, have done an adequate job of making students feel like they can speak up, then look out. This one can be amazing. Let me also say this… if you really are 22, and feel that you aren’t ready to facilitate a large group discussion that can get spirited from time to time, then might be something to observe the first time.

That being said drag this one out if you are up for it. As long as you don’t see yourself (or anyone else in the classroom) as having the “answer” to complex issues such as this, you are probably fine as long as you require people to simply be nice to one another. I have honestly had not a single issue with this lesson that transpired out of the classroom in any negative way. On the other hand, I have heard tons of thank you’s over the years for “allowing us to discuss such real things,” or for “treating us like what we say matters,” etc. Just stay on top of things with a gentle hand, and I think you’ll like the results of this one.

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I usually end up reading the entire text to the class myself, aloud, as an expert reader. Of course, with this distilled little piece of text, you will end up stopping every other line and asking for input, asking for someone who can speak to the opposite viewpoint, and largely allowing the discussion to bend and twist to the needs of your kids. I also tend to follow this wonderful little quote that resides in my “stickies” file on the Mac:

“It should be the chief aim of a university professor to exhibit himself in his own true character — that is, as an ignorant man thinking, actively utilizing his small share of knowledge.” ~ Alfred North Whitehead

Be a facilitator, not an authority figure. That is a good rule of thumb in general. It makes you a real authority when you choose to actually play that role. But in the context of this lesson, it is honestly required to in order to keep the phone lines quiet in the days after the lesson. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think. It really doesn’t. If you take the tack of an authority on any viewpoint in this lesson, you will likely deal with a kickback you don’t want.

So this year, I developed what I think is an ideal forum for the final stage of this lesson. I had already set up a classroom learning network on the Ning platform. Before class I created the discussion forum topic for student responses. I wouldn’t see them again for two days. So I asked them to visit the site in that time, and post a reflection based on the reading, our discussion, their overall reaction, their reaction to one specific element, the response they didn’t feel like verbalizing in class, whatever… their choice. I wanted a forum thread that would not only reflect the discussion of that one class period, but one that would also extend the discussion beyond the classroom. Check it out. I think you’ll see that we didn’t answer many things, but we sure engaged a few folks in the questions.

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You’ll have to judge for yourself on how this worked for us. Keep in mind that this was the first online work they had ever done for a high school class… ever. That variable certainly changes the discussion in some interesting ways. I am open to discuss any of the other variables of this class in general, our curriculum, details of the setting, etc. The devil in all classroom adventures is in the details.

Let’s be real. I played baseball for years. I know that there are certain situations where squeezing a run in the first inning is appropriate. There are certain educational situations where scoring a small but easy victory early on is preferable as well. However, in my experience, more often than not I tend to step to the plate with any new concept ready swing really hard at least three times. That bravado is even more pronounced at the beginning of the school year. Hey if I strike out in the first, at least they’ll know what kind of a team they’ll be facing for the next eight innings…

*This post was originally published at The Synapse, a new professional development network for life science educators.  I collaborate there with some very inspiring educators.  More on that site later… check it out.
 
 


Artwork thanks:

*”Schilling” by mandolux on Flickr.
*”Eye” by Michele Catania on Flickr.
*”Rebirth” by James Jordan on Flickr.
*”That’s life that what all the people say.” by mohammadali on Flickr.
*”a brand new human” by Ben McLeod on Flickr.
*”unfolding” by p a p i l l i o n on Flickr.

 

Sean Nash

District Online Learning Coordinator (eCampus) in a large public district of over thirty individual schools. Most recently, a district instruction coordinator. Biology instructor since 1993. Find more about my passions and my work at http://nashworld.me

18 Comments

  1. I’m in the DC Bio class that he used this in and it was really great for getting people who normally didn’t get to involved to share some very good points on the subject. It was really nice because most of my teachers, even the other DC one, never really let use debate on any issues especially ones that might fall under this category and it was really great. Another girl from the coarse Morgan Wacker actually did her first edublog post on it check it out at morganwacker.edublogs.org.

    • @Ricky Maddox, Hey Ricky… thanks for the public affirmation there. 😉 I really am excited that you have recently also taken up a plan to begin a “real” blog. I am excited to read more!

  2. Love the post. The section on “rookie season” brought chills to my spine. At the site of the Harry Wong link, flashbacks of my education courses filled my mind. I graduated from UNF, which we jokingly referred to as “Harry Wong U”. Ugh. Looking back, his book (required for multiple classes) did little beyond prepare me for the first weeks of my first year of teaching. (Sad to think of all the hours of study and college classes that were exhausted so quickly into my career.)

    • @Jenny Nash, Wow. That is a really eye-opening comment adding to this discussion. Wow. I have had to think about that one for a while now. Really, I have had a concern about the super hard-line approach to “winning” on day one. Trust me, I know how crucial it is. I had never even seen that book until about four years ago, but in 1992 I was darn well going to have my ducks in a row on day one… and two… and three…

      I have seen near panicked looks from new teachers in three or four hour training on “first day” things. When those workshops take place so immediately close to the real first day of school, it only adds to the stress. That is a book that needs to be read in May or June before the new school year so that these ideas can marinate and mesh with your goals, outlook, personality, etc.

      The first ten minutes are do or die in a a job interview. Absolutely. However, teaching is not a ten minute commitment. When you engage kids for 180 days, you have time to fix up things that didn’t go perfectly the first time. New teachers need to know that.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. I know you probably already know this, but my first and foremost favorite step is step one of the rookie season.

    What you probably didn’t know is that your principal has stepped back into the classroom for two weeks to teach one Communication Arts class to a handful of freshmen in place of their teacher who could not complete the year. I was told by the Special Education teacher I am teaming with in teaching this class that the major difference in reaching the students in this class was connection with the kids. When I asked her how that was possibly any different, she said, “Well, they know you care. Since you’ve shown them you care, they will do almost anything for you. The other teacher really didn’t show them that.”

    Wow. Show them you care. It makes all the difference.

    • @Jeanette Westfall, Wow. How interesting. No- as swamped as the kickoff back into the new year has me… I had no idea. Well well. As crazy as that has to be for you, I’m betting you’ll have fun being back in the thick of things in that way. 😉

      Your comment also made me think of the power of modeling even something so subtle as “caring.” I think 99.5% of all teacher care. It is just that… what that looks like with sixteen-year-olds in 2009 isn’t something that we’re all programmed with. Those who have those strong intrapersonal skills will always be well equipped for change in our “clients.” Those who don’t… really do need to watch it.

  4. Sean, I’ve read all your posts and this might be the most thought provoking for me. In the book, The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by the Brooks family, there is a great chapter (6) about seeking and valuing student ideas. Or maybe it is more about devaluing the “rightness” or “wrongness” of ideas and provoking team critiquing and decision making. I would challenge new teachers… actually all teachers to grasp and wrestle with this. You hit a triple with this! (hey I played ball for years too, and everyone knows that the triple is the most exciting offensive play in baseball!).

    • @Luke McCoy, Interesting… I think I know what you’re getting at. (Not like I can’t find you in the hallway to ask!) “Correctness” is a valuable thing. However, I would argue that to land there as a starting point, is not the direction I would head. I think doing that tends to extinguish the flame of experimentation, innovation and risk-taking before it can even get burning in many cases.

      Does that connect in any way?

      And- thanks very much on the “triple” comment. I remember a ton of evenings at Royals Stadium watching Willie Wilson stretch the triple (or more). Awesome. Thanks.

  5. Sean, I agree with the others that this was a very insightful thought provoking post. It has made me reflect my own growth within the last 3 1/2 years, and it inspired/reinforced some of the goals I have for second semester. I will picking up a class of repeaters for geography, a room full of at risk kids who are some of our toughest nuts to crack. I have to say I am excited about the opportunity, and have decided to ditch the usual geography routine for a brand new conceptual approach instead of a content path. After all, they’ve already failed that route once (some twice). I’ve adopted a new motto this year, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”I love hearing somebody else in the building taking a stab at pacing guides, because they severely limit innovation and our ability to reach the kids. I am also really inspired by the power of “care.” Maybe, it’s a guy thing but I have a hard time telling the kids how much I care, while trying to be stern with high expectations. I am making it a goal to be more open with the kids this semester. Finally, I will always appreciate any connections to the glory days of the Royals!!!

  6. As a “rookie” teacher who went through new teacher “training camp” four days before school started I can attest to the panic getting ready for those first few days. It was interesting that the SJSD presented the new teachers with the Harry Wong book at the training camp. Looking through that book only caused me more doubt and uncertainty as I knew I couldn’t cram all that preparation and knowledge into the last weekend before school. My head was already bursting from all the new procedures and rules I was learning, little alone my colleagues’ names, and I received my class lists with 140+ names of the mostly high school juniors I’d be teaching.
    The conundrum of Jeanette, Luke and Sean’s comments above regarding students needing to “know you care before they care what you know” is that the caring skill/trait is not assessed or taught in most teacher prep programs or degrees.
    I witnessed in my own teaching position interviews the emphasis placed on caring by the SJSD. The questions posed were much more directed toward finding out how much I cared and how much I loved kids, than how much I knew about communication arts.
    On the days when I second guess my career change (and there are a few), it is the relationships I’ve already built with students that keep me going. As much as I love reading and writing, I don’t think I would be able to sustain the energy if the kids didn’t amuse and amaze me each and every day.

  7. I literally just wrote a post about whether or not I am “not swinging as hard” this year. The very next place I came to was this post. After reading your post, I am not laying down bunts, but maybe just going for the triple. Time to change bats for 2009 😉

    • @Paul Bogush, I am going to reply to myself–that’s ok right? I think it is really hard to swing for the fences year after year when there are no fans in the seats. I consider my kids fellow players, but sometimes feel as though no one cares we are swinging for the fences. I wonder how much the school environment, and whether or not a teacher is surrounded by other Ruths, Gehrigs, and Mantles, determines what they swing for. Maybe a double by some teachers because of the environment they teach in should be considered a great accomplishment, but in another school with all the support and tools a double should be grounds for a trade.
      This comment is coming from a guy who spent ten years in a school in which sometimes a teacher could be given an rbi just for facing the pitcher.
      Do I get bonus points for extra BB analogies?

      Great post.

      • @Paul Bogush,

        Yeah- you aren’t kidding. I have actually done that very thing before. I have posted an entry, and then trolling around a day or so later, found that someone tapped into the same vein that very same day.

        “Serendipitous posting.” -there, I said it first.
        😉

        I hear what you are saying in this one too. I’ll never forget the class of 1999. Those kids in my area (all three local high schools really) were collectively amazing. They were great athletes across the board, genuinely nice kids… and superior students.

        I frequently reference those years when planning as I run across old files of things I have done, expectations I have delivered, etc.

        I remember very clearly having to step up what I was convinced was already a rigorous curriculum & delivery from the start. I truly had to run faster to push those kids.

        They made me better… and in the end, after a quick upgrade… I made them better as well.

        ps- thanks for adding the poetic verse. That is always welcome. I tend to be afraid of doing that, and then someone always pipes in that they appreciated it. Interesting.

        Sean

      • @Paul Bogush, First off- you sure DO get extra points. Wow. You took off with that metaphor.

        I also get what you are saying on the general educational environment kids (and teachers) are surrounded by. I have seen both ends of that spectrum, as well as the middle. I really do think it makes a difference.

        However, that being said… I still a think a triple is possible even by a member of the Bad News Bears. Right? How long was Robin Yount a superstar on a very unexciting and largely ineffective Brewer’s team?

        Was that situation tougher on him? Very possibly. Would he have had a ton more RBIs if the folks ahead of him in the lineup could get on base? You had better believe it. Would he have been pushed to greater individual excellence by being surrounded by a team of cutting-edge contenders? Probably.

        I think the lesson here (that I will now stuff onto my “save” file) is that Robin Yount (like George Brett) stayed with their team through thick and thin for over 20 years and are still respected today for it.

  8. @Jeff & Kerry – Trust me. It is comments like these that cause me to find the time to continue doing this. Honestly- Before I found what might be somewhat of my own “voice” on here, I used to apologize for long posts as just me rambling on and on.

    After a few folks like Steve Dembo and Sylvia Martinez posted comments to those saying they appreciated the deeper perspective, and the alternative to the “link a day” approach.

    I know I tend to get windy when I get fired up. It is a weakness that I try to keep in mind. However, when I continue to get longer, deeper, well-thought out posts like this in the comments section, it makes me think something is resonating.

    Thanks so much for being a huge part of the discussion here.

    Sean

  9. Dear Mr. Nash,
    As an aspiring educator your post was really inspiring. In our methods course in my teacher education program, we talked again and again about first week ideas for the classroom. But time and time again, we talked ideas but not about the simple idea of showing your students that you care. Sometimes in the craziness of making sure that you are getting everything right, it is something that get left behind. When I will have my own classroom within the next year, I will need to keep this basic yet most important idea in mind. Thank you for making sure that we remember why we get into this profession in the first place.

    • Greetings, Avni. First off, congratulations is crafting a single sentence that includes both “aspiring” and “inspiring.” That was fun to read. But mostly, thanks for the kind words. It is always nice to know when your ideas resonate inside the head of a fellow human!

      You’re right about “show you care.” I think we all want that. I also think many folks wish to ask the “but what does that look like?” question. I do think that is a fair question as well. To me, the most concrete thing to aim at here goes back to design. Craft learning experiences that matter and start down that math in the first ten minutes. Don’t wait. Protecting all of the really interesting mysterious things for the “final project” once they’ve learned all of the disconnected factoids is not inspiring.

      They’ve know you care if you bring them the good stuff on day one and have a game plan that shows you’ve put in a ton of effort and planning. They’ll know.

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