Friday, December 12, 2014

Building Buy In: Movement is Not Just for Kinesthetic Learners

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

"Jab." "Jab." "Jab." "Jab." (Sung) Dance...Boogie Wonderland. Sounds like the weirdest location for a boxing match ever or the most aggressive disco in history. It was neither. This was my C Block today, learning what I learned this past July at the 2014 Teaching Shakespeare Institute. As we learned in one of our acting sessions, Shakespeare's language is meant to tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and seen. This full bodied experience of the language helps to internalize meaning. But my third block class wasn't studying Shakespeare. So what was I doing? Why was I doing it? Who is the mysterious author with whose works I was engaging?

The English 11 class I am currently teaching is just starting their work on A Streetcar Named Desire. Getting Williams's work on its feet is no different than putting Shakespeare's work on its feet, so I decided to engage the students in some warm-ups that would teach them some of the basics of acting.

I feel the need to interject a note here about what I mean when I say "acting." The students were not channeling Meryl Streep or Denzel Washington. Rather, when I say "acting" in this context, I mean getting up, playing with words, imagining oneself in another's skin. Sometimes that looks like good acting. Other times it does not. Either way, the opportunity presents the possibility for learning a lot.

So, to warm up today's English 11 class, I decided to do some of the punching activities one of the acting instructors taught us at TSI. We stood with our legs shoulder-width, secured our bases by tightening our leg muscles, and extended both index fingers. The first round is simply a point, not a jab. This helps students direct the focus of their eyes to the target beyond the end of the hand. As we progress to jab, I ask the students to visualize the word jab exploding from the end of their fists and hitting a point on the wall. Before you knew it, the glass at my door became crowded with confused faces as people passing by were wondering why the English class was jab the air as though it had just recited the most cutting momma joke in history.

We stopped jabbing and set up for the scene: scene one of Streetcar. When we got to the section where Blanche and Stella begin to argue about the loss of Belle Reve, I could instantly tell the jabbing exercise had worked. Two students, one male and one female, played the parts. Not only was the intensity of each italicized word or word before an exclamation point given the force of a punch, the entire emotional intensity of the scene erupted. The students had gotten so far into the scene that when Stella leaves to wash her tears and says "Does that surprise you?", the ice in her voice and eyes froze me to the core. These students have known me for five days and they were willing to perform at that level already. A testament to their abilities, but also a testament to the power of experiencing language with the entire body.

As a postscript to my day, the freshmen in my homeroom pour in before and after the final bell to plug their Chromebooks back in and store them for the night. As they came through today, they were full of questions about the purpose of the bizarre activities they witnessed in the hall or heard about through the proverbial grapevine. One young man made my week, but he doesn't know it. He said, "Whoa! That sounds like the best class ever" as he and his buddy walked out the door. That level of pure energy and excitement that causes young teenage boys to stop being cool for a minute and express an actual emotion, that is why I teach.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Preparing to Dive into the Wreck Again

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters. - from "Diving into the Wreck" by Adrienne Rich 
So, I have been unemployed now for the better part of the first semester. Soon, I will be taking over classes from a teacher taking time off to have a baby (Congratulations, again!). As I am preparing to go back to the world of pencils, books, and dirty looks, and coming off of the 2014 NCTE National Convention, arguments about education are again dragging me down rabbit holes of  quiet contemplation and not an inconsiderable amount of angst.

This morning, as I was dropping my wife's laptop off at her school, I heard a commercial from the NEA on SiriusXM. The fact that it was on a widely accessible radio station really bothered me because, as is the case with many easily digested tidbits about this complicated work we do, the message was based on incomplete and relatively unsupportable claims. After nine years of teaching, I am still shocked at the amount of anecdotal or apocryphal knowledge that seems to permeate our professional world.

To draw a parallel, let me tell you a story. An oncologist has a patient ill with leukemia. This current manifestation is the second recurrence of the disease. This time, while treating the patient, the doctor added a steady diet of only chicken, potatoes, and peas. Miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. How would the medical community react if this doctor decided to start treating all of his patients with specifically tailored nutritional plans as a means of driving cancer into remission? Unless the laboratory science was there to back it up, including numerous experiments that can be repeated with the same results, I cannot imagine many doctors who would accept this as a valid practice.

So, imagine my chagrin, when the voice of the current NEA president pours from my car speakers expounding 1) the virtues of learning styles, 2) the need for parents to identify these, and 3) the need for parents to ensure schools are teaching their individual children in ways that correspond to these learning styles. Chagrin, perhaps, is a bit of an understatement.

People who have read this blog before know my feelings on the learning styles theory. If not, click here for a prior post on learning styles. Is the work of educating students not hard enough already that teachers need numerous misleading and, largely, profit-driven curricular approaches to put distance between us and our students? That really is the bottom line. As I sit here preparing to teach again, I find it necessary to remind myself that I teach people.

That is where the world of science and the world of education part ways (in fact, that is where education departs from many disciplines): the student. Many theories that are touted as solid, foundational, and "best" practices are based on marginal changes that have more to do with the unique moment in which they happen and less to do with the children they are intended to help. This disconnect exists because children do not repeat behaviors in a predictable and systematic way that can guarantee a consistent result. As I often do when I face this particular frustration, I went back to a great article by Daniel Willingham on the AFT website. In the article, Willingham lays out some important facts about popular educational myths. I still remember reading it for the first time and thinking Oh, that is what I have been trying to say.

Cognition is at the core of what we do; moreover, cognition is a human process that relies heavily upon numerous factors. The best thing a teacher can do is view his or her students in two ways: 1) As the mass of students in need of knowledge and 2) as the individuals who make up that mass. Children have more in common when it comes to learning than we are often willing to admit; the individuality matters more in terms of environment and special circumstances than the actual acquisition of discrete information.

I guess I should thank the current president of NEA. Because of that commercial, I got an opportunity to remind myself of how vital a teachers work it--and how much vitality it provides. The wet suit is ready, the tanks are full, and I cannot wait to dive deep with the students who been entrusted to my care.