Archive for February, 2013

New Kung-Fu!

Cornelius: The Black Daniel-san!

New Kung-Fu!

February 3, 2013  |  Culture, Teaching  |  No Comments

I’m a huge fan of Kung Fu movies. From Enter the Dragon to Ip Man to The Last Dragon (Who’s the master?!?! …Sho-NUFF!)… In addition to being essential works of dramatic art (The fight scene versus the Japanese soldiers in Ip Man is one of the best scenes committed to film. Ever.), all of these films serve as great metaphors for teaching and learning.

Many Kung Fu movies follow a similar narrative arc:

  1. Hero believes himself to be relatively proficient in martial arts.
  2. Hero gets beat in a fight.
  3. Hero tries again, and gets beat.
  4. Hero learns some new Kung Fu.
  5. Hero returns to whip all asses.

Points #1-#3 in the Kung Fu narrative arc remind me quite a bit of the old Albert Einstein quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Kung Fu protagonists usually spend the first quarter of the movie caught up in what Einstein would call insanity. “I keep using my super-secret dragon punch, why can’t I take this guy out?”

My mom used to tell me that if I ate all my veggies, I would grow up to be big and strong. Each night after eating all the spinach, I was certain that I would grow up to be this guy. -- Jim Kelly, Kung-Fu legend.

My mom used to tell me that if I ate all my veggies, I would grow up to be big and strong. Each night after eating all the spinach, I was certain that I would grow up to be this guy. — Jim Kelly, Kung-Fu legend.

As I’ve worked these last weeks, many of my teacher friends and I have been caught in a similar insanity. “I keep doing my thing in this classroom, and these students seem stuck…” Fortunately for me, I had two incredibly refreshing learning experiences this past week. I spent Monday through Wednesday with some brilliant folks in Wethersfield, CT and I spent Thursday and Friday with my energetic Seattle, WA crew. In the work that we did together across the week, we sought what most martial artists seek when things get hard — some new Kung Fu.

Here are a few things we (re)discovered: (Big shouts out to the entire team at Denny Middle School and The 7/8th-Grade English & Social Studies Team at Silas Deane! — Thanks for the last week!)

  • We carry this invisible burden as teachers, where we feel somehow inadequate if kids don’t “get it” at the end of our lessons. I’m convinced that effective teaching isn’t about kids “getting it”. Teaching is about setting kids up for purposefully rigorous practice. The “getting it” happens in the practice. If kids listen to a seven-minute mini lesson and “get it”, chances are, you did not really teach them anything. They knew that thing before they came to class. Effective teaching says, “here’s this new thing with which I want you to struggle. I’ll guide your struggle at first, give you the tools to wrestle with it on your own, and that EXPERIENCE will lead to mastery.” Basically, talk less, demonstrate lots, give kids lots of opportunity to practice multiple iterations of the thing that you are teaching.
  • Pacing, in any classroom, is essential. Use a stopwatch. Tell them kids what time it is. Literally. This is not about leaving kids behind, it’s about setting the bar high while simultaneously providing adequate supports (partners, charts, technology, conferences, small groups). When we operate with warm urgency, kids respond with warmer brilliance. Many of us slow down for students. Or worse yet, we repeat ourselves incessantly believing this to be good for kids somehow. Not that me and my peeps are bad folks, but all of these tendencies come from low expectations.
  • On expectations: We can raise them. Dramatically. We need to understand that the students that we serve are way smarter and lots more savvy than we ever were. They can think faster, question deeply, and critique brilliantly. We really have to resist the notion to teach them like we were taught. Methods evolve. Because it worked for us 25 years ago, does not mean it is good for kids now. Not one of us would visit a doctor who has treated her patients the same way for the last 25 years. We expect these people to keep up with the latest advances. Not doing so is medical malpractice. Similarly, the notion that “well this is how I learned it” is also malpractice.

Watch out world, I’ve got two whole districts of middle school teachers approaching the 5th point on the Kung-Fu narrative arc. Pow!