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Cross Comments

Today I got two comments within minutes of each other that seem inextricably linked.


The biggest problem I have is the students who are unwilling to learn.

Of course. The students who want to learn are easy. They don’t need teachers, they just need a good text book and enough quiet time to figure it out for themselves. The whole reason we teach is because of those students who don’t take to it naturally. But I think part of the reason it’s so tough is because somewhere the system tells us that

Movies and TV are recorded and directed under controlled conditions. Every factor is known or predictable when going onto a set. […] Reducing lesson plans to beats, if it succeeds, will be a limited success.

Maybe the reason kids aren’t interested in learning is because we, as teachers, don’t care to think about beats, about how a lesson ties together, what drives it forward, how it builds and then resolves tension, leaving enough of a cliffhanger to make them come back the next day and pick up where it left off. I’m not talking about a story (though a good one may be useful). I’m talking about how we structure our communications to have a purpose that may tease with the eventual goal, but never leave any doubt that there is a goal, and that it is worth the process to get there.

I’m still a rookie.

I get it wrong a lot. More often than I get it right, even.

But there are days when the lesson is on, when it’s going to work, when every kid in the class will fall over themselves to explain to me how they solved something that they figured out for themselves that I didn’t even hint at a solution for. And those days happen with purpose – I know they’re coming before I get in the car to go to work. I know how each part of the lesson will connect – I know how those who get it will deal with those didn’t catch it yet, and how I can use that dissonance to drive the whole thing forward. Right now I like the metaphor of beats. On another day, I might compare it to a dance, where I lead so gently that they don’t know what they’re following. Or I may find some other metaphor. The point is, there are very few kids who are interested in nothing at all, and there is no rule that we as teachers need to stick with complete and utter boring crap.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Benjamin Baxter | March 10, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    The point of reducing a lesson plan to beats —- the point of even writing a lesson plan half the time —- is to share with others the structure of a lesson.

    In my observation of other classrooms, teachers who control their classroom have already a mastery of beats, and their best beats are improvised in response to spontaneous discussion, discussion that is never predictable.

    It’s one thing to think ahead and figure out in advance the sexiest parts of polynomials and FOIL distribution —- the name? —- but it’s another entirely to write out the effective beats of a lesson and transmit them in the form of a lesson plan while expecting those beats to work the same way and just as effectively.

    Existing lesson plan formats already have listed the sexiest parts of polynomials and FOIL distribution. Making them as powerful as beats, however, requires a level of finesse to work with both the competence of the teacher and the personality of the class.

    Oh, and just to be sure —- no hard feelings or anything. I love a good back-and-forth.

  2. Mr K. | March 11, 2008 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    I don’t want to reduce the lesson to beats. If anything, I want to expand it.

    The point of a lesson plan is to share the structure, but in order for that structure to work, it needs to appeal to the kids. And real appeal (especially in math, but I suspect other subjects as well) comes from being able to get why the lesson works.

    That’s completely missing from the FOIL example above. actually holding up a sheet of aluminum foil as the hook? Give me a break – all that’s going to do is throw chaff in their path.

    The beats I see in this are:

    • Review different models of multiplication – repeated counting of groups, repeated lengths of string, hops down a number line, area.
    • Explore the distributive property as applied to all of these models.
    • Introduce the lattice format, or some variation to connect the above models.
    • Expand the problems to require distribution in both factors, rather than just one.
    • Record conclusions.

    Hardly spellbinding stuff, from the face of it. And I’m sure I left some stuff out – this is pulled straight out of my butt at 5:30 in the morning. But the idea here is that the initial beats require low investment – the equivalent of introducing characters in a story. The following beats are the character development – the students start to build connections of how this stuff relates. When you you hit the second to last beat in the lesson, you don’t have to explain anything any more. The climax, the whole raison d’etre for the lesson, is something that they already are going to understand, the same way that when a movie hits its climax, you are completely involved and don’t wonder about why any of the stuff on the screen is happening. The beats are the steps they take from what they know to what they don’t know. Sure, there’s more than one path, just like there’s more than one plot line for a murder mystery. But having any plot at all is better than waving around a piece of aluminum foil and saying “mystery solved” before the mystery is even established.

  3. Jason Dyer | March 11, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I start with polynomial multiplication with students getting dressed in the morning.

    So your music fan has a Kiss T-Shirt, a Metallica T-Shirt, and a Grateful Dead T-Shirt.

    He’s got a choice between slacks and torn jeans for his pants.

    (This all can be personalized to a particular student, if anyone in class has particularly snappy behavior, or to make fun of your own habits.)

    How many different outfits can he make? That simple question can lead directly into what’s going on with the multiplying.

    I also do a lot of geometric representations of this. I don’t go as far as saying “forget FOIL”, but I show visually what (x+2)(x+3) looks like, and we figure out what each area should be labelled to match the same trick.

  4. Mr K. | March 11, 2008 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    So your music fan has a Kiss T-Shirt, a Metallica T-Shirt, and a Grateful Dead T-Shirt.

    He’s got a choice between slacks and torn jeans for his pants.

    Hah. After I woke up and got to work, I had that exact same idea (Except my thought was to use sports jerseys. My kids are more likely to wear sports jerseys. I, on the other hand, would wear metal t-shirts. When I do finally teach this, metal t-shirts it is.)

    But the point remains that it is possible to make a subject comprehensible, and a lesson interesting and connected, and plot out how those connections are going to be made over the course of a period or two.