Surrounding Oneself With Inspirational Educators--CAG Today

If you find yourself needing some inspiration, take the time to step out of your comfort zone: Attend a conference.  Not only will you learn some new strategies and think about your students in surprising ways, but you'll find yourself amongst like-minded teachers.  If you're waiting for others to treat you like a professional, treat yourself like one.  Although we often have to pay our own way to attend a conference (Grr...), it is well worth the investment of time and money. 

This afternoon, I was fortunate enough to present at the California Association for the Gifted (CAG) conference.  While an hour felt like an absurdly short time in which I attempted to offer an overview of the applications of improvisational theater, I found myself energized to be playing with (and, of course, talking to) a room full of people seeking innovative options for reaching all of their students.  I look forward to working with some of these fabulous teachers in the months to come!

Combatting Teacher Burnout

Every teacher has that moment--pick one:
"I don't want to be doing this right now."
"These kids are driving me crazy."
"Can't we just stop...right now?"

I'm here to tell you, if you're asking that question, the answer is yes.

Take a moment to be with your class.  The lesson you're slogging through can wait.  If it's worthwhile, you'll get back to it...and you and your students will get much more out of the activity.

Just play a game.  Debrief it...or not.  Take the time to enjoy your students as people--smile with them; appreciate their humor and their gifts; let them laugh or be challenged with you.

If you're feeling stressed, the class is probably picking up on that energy.  (Perhaps you're feeling this way because you're picking up on their anxiety levels.)  Whether it's a five-minute game or a forty-minute experience, the break will be well worth your time.

This is a tough time to be in education--as a student and as a teacher.  In the world of union busting politicians, budget crises, furlough days and constant attacks on educators, we need times to remember why we're in this profession.  A smile on that student's face might be just the ticket.

Convince Me! (In-the-Moment Curricular Integration)

"Convince me!" shouts the teacher, while standing on a stool in the front of the room.  The class is full of energy: pairs of students stand ready to improvise compelling (or at least committed) arguments for the thesis that just been stated.  As if in a relay race, one half of each pair stands with her/his hand raised, ready to accept the pass-off of their shared persuasive speech.

This image shows a snippet from my classroom throughout the past few weeks.  Used for different purposes, this made-up game supported the conceptual development of work in both Science and English...and it got middle school kids out of their chairs and involved in some active, engaged learning.  If you can handle the noise, it's just an awful lot of fun as well.

How did this game evolve?  As a Teacher/Improviser, I not only adapt given games to meet the needs of my classroom, but I am keen to notice times in which an improv game will enrich the learning experience.  If I don't already know of a game that will suit my purpose, I just make one up.

Step One: Finding a game to "spice up" what must be done.
As I launched into a new geology unit, I knew I wanted to find a way to hook my reticent Earth-scientists-of-the-future in to caring about the new subject matter.  Rather than taking a "walk through the chapter" or utilizing one of the other strategies in my teacher tool belt I often go to when launching a unit of study, I decided to opt for an interactive, slightly competitive game.
Borrowed from the "Bluff the Listener" game (from NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me"--a personal favorite) and Balderdash, I invented a game in which groups of students had to come up with two false (yet somehow convincing) and one accurate answer to a question that came ahead in the chapter.  One question was, "What are the differences between a young and old mountain?"  The groups had about five minutes to come up with their collective answers (using any resources they could think of), choose three people to perform these answers, and then rehearse and give feedback on those performances.
Next, we had a volunteer from another group sit in the middle of the room in front of the panel of three students who convincingly offered their answer.  The volunteer guessed which was correct, and then the student with the accurate answer identified him/herself.  The process was quick and fun...and I, of course, cleared up any conceptual inconsistencies as we proceeded through the game.

Step Two: Build a Warm-up
I am lucky enough to teach two back-to-back periods of the same subject, and my lessons invariably improve over the course of the day.  So...thinking that the process of offering convincing arguments needed a little work, I invented the warm-up game described at the top of this post.  Students worked with their lab partners, standing up, and they chose who would be "A" and who would be "B".  I instructed one of them (A or B) to raise their hand as if they were about to high-five their partner.  I encouraged them to look directly at their partner with an "I've got your back here, buddy!" sort of expression.  Then, the other half of the pair was told to CONVINCE ME, to offer reasons that the opinion statement I was about to provide made sense.  Whenever they wanted back-up, they could high-five their partner, and s/he would take over--after one word, after seven sentences, in the middle of a word...whatever was needed.
Examples of opinion/thesis statements: Cats are the best possible pets.  Everyone should have a pair of rainboots in their wardrobe.  Spring is the perfect season.

As we moved on to the bluffing game, energy was already high and they were primed to offer convincing arguments.

Step Three: Apply to Another Area of the Curriculum
The next morning, I realized this Convince Me Relay game would be beneficial as a warm-up to working on our thesis statements for Response to Literature essays in my English class.  We began our writers' workshop with this activity, followed by a game in which players were encouraged to act out a scene utilizing as many thesis statements as possible.  Immersed in persuasive language, we launched into writing with our full energy and a positive attitude.

Integration Points to Consider
  • Teaching using games makes learning more fun--for the students and for the teacher.
  • Adapt games to meet the needs of your group.
  • If the right game doesn't exist for your needs, make it up!
  • "Yes, and..." yourself.  If a game worked for one purpose, experiment to see if it'll work for another area.  The similarities and differences may both delight and surprise you.  The students who have used this game in one area may offer insights you hadn't considered when they use it in a different context.
Keep on playing!

Science Fairs: Makin' Me Crazy, Essential...and Dwindling

Science fair season makes me insane.  As THE science teacher for my school's 6th-8th-graders, I end up taking on an insane amount of work--for my school science fair and as I bring a group of kids to the county science fair.  One might ask the question, "Is it worth it?"  Definitely.

Throughout the process, my students learn to think like scientists.  The early stages--and the redesigns--borrow much from our work in improvisation: I encourage students to try out lots of possibilities, to own and learn from the mistakes.  From the simplest question to the most complex, these kids get to take on a project that is of interest to them--something that they own.  And then they get to present their findings.  Although we all experience a rise in stress during the process, it's the good kind of stress.  We push through the challenges to actually accomplish something.  In the best of circumstances, we innovate.

And then I come upon a newspaper article telling me that science fairs are dwindling in America.  In "It May Be a Sputnik Moment...", the New York Times presents data that I've seen confirmed in the county science fair I attended last week.  As the pressure for high stakes testing increases, fewer schools are participating in science fairs. 

What do we lose when we limit our students to small boxes that lead to narrow testing?  Presentation skills.  Scientific thinking.  The joy of owning one's learning.  Innovation.
Now, those are things worth fighting for.