“What if . . . ?” and More Marvelous Questions

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The latest Disney+ Marvel series is new in a multitude (multiverse?) of ways.

First, What if . . . ? is noteworthy as the first animated show in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t count . . . not yet, at least.)

Second, What if . . . ? is significant since it explores all kinds of hypothetical storylines in the MCU. The series takes well-known characters and contexts of the films and follows different routes. (Remember when the first Avengers movie combining multiple film heroes was considered a risky idea? Look how far we have come!)

So far, we’ve seen different characters taking the mantle of significant heroes (Captain America, Star-Lord), as well as heroic characters doing unheroic things. In addition to the allure of endless possibilities, the What if . . . ? series is enjoyable because these alternative tales come in bite-sized episodes. Even so, some of these scenarios have potential for all kinds of fun adventures and far-reaching ramifications.

As a testimony to the power of “What if . . . ?” consider how there are 200+ issues of this comic series, begun nearly 50 years ago. As creators publish stories in “regular” comics continuity, other writers can explore branching paths and possibilities.

The question “What if . . . ?” can foster similar results in the classroom. Past blogs have written about the power of questioning, which you can check out HERE and HERE.

It’s important to remember not all questions are equal. Some are more effective in cultivating engaged and reflective students. Below is a list of potential questions teachers can ask to facilitate, encourage, and assess students’ learning.

  • “What if . . . ?”
  • “For what reasons . . . ?”
  • “What do you think could happen if . . . ?”
  • “How might that compare with . . . ?”
  • “Why might . . . ?”
  • “Where else could we . . . ?”

These are just some examples, and I’ve shared more in a recently published article available HERE. Note that NONE of these questions can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” or similar dichotomous response.

In other words, students have to go further and THINK about the topic in a more robust manner. Moreover, there’s less chance they can “fake it” or just guess an answer. Often, such work promotes collaboration and communication.

Such open-ended questions may not catalyze a zany tale about alternative Avengers, but they can produce meaningful learning.

One caution is to beware of counter-productive conversation. When dealing with open-ended questions like “What if . . . ?” there is potential for students to go down pathways the teacher did not intend. While this may add to creativity and application, it could also veer into darker territories. Just consider some of sadder episodes of What if . . . ? we’ve already seen, in which [Spoiler Alert] a hero becomes the villain, or ultimately destroys their world.

Hopefully your classroom won’t pivot to such hopelessness. Still, be mindful of keeping students on-task and oriented toward learning goals. Even when using open-ended prompts, teachers can guide student thinking toward intended outcomes. Such parameters could be as simple as time limits or brainstorm boundaries. For example, a science teacher might pose a challenge that prompts investigation, but requires students to use only certain materials or technology. Sometimes this is called a “testable question” in science classrooms.

No matter the subject, teachers can be purposeful in using “What if . . . ?”-type questions to get the full effect. For inspiration, consider how masterminds behind the MCU have carefully scheduled and set up movies, television shows, specials, etc. Each production features minute details and allusions that result in monumental meaning in subsequent films. (For example, it’s no coincidence that What if . . . ? has come out between the Loki television series and the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home film.)

Teachers don’t have the multi-million dollar movie machine like the MCU, but they can still be intentional and inspirational by providing creative, challenging, and coordinated questions for their students.

Just imagine . . . What if . . . ?

Magic of Meta

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It’s been such a crazy year and a long time since our last post. As evidence, check out this more recent pic of the previous blog’s cute kitten:

Change is actually the topic for this blog. In particular, let’s look at the transformation of superheroes and teachers.

(Slight Spoilers Below!)

Televised Transformations

The new Disney+ show “WandaVision” has been a love letter to sitcom television through the ages. Although it started as a unique gimmick, the episodic show slowly revealed a larger narrative and connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Along the way, viewers got to enjoy a loving homage to past and present TV shows from “I Love Lucy,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Family Ties,” “Modern Family,” and more.

Interestingly, despite advances in technology and techniques, “WandaVision” as a show didn’t stray much from the standard sitcom formula. Even though styles changed over the decades, each 30-minute episode featured similar jokes, hijinks, character interactions, and more. (And if you’ve seen the show, you might notice parallels to the grieving process.)

True change finally occurs when a new element is introduced. Namely, magic.

Hints of the supernatural popped up throughout, but it wasn’t until “WandaVision” was halfway over when the series truly transformed.

Change in Schools

Teachers, think about the analogy to education. Schools and classrooms are notorious for slow transformation.

Take a look at the following slideshow of classroom photos and notice the similarities over the years.

One of these classroom images isn’t even a REAL school. It’s from the Star Wars show “The Mandalorian.” If that story takes place “in a galaxy far, far away,” it shows how widespread and ingrained our cultural view of schools reaches.

This is not to say that a certain formula is always bad. On the contrary, it often helps to follow a standard template and procedure. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That said, the best teachers (and schools) strive to always get better. That pursuit of improvement requires transformation, which might involve drastic changes from time to time.

The show “WandaVision” demonstrated that minor changes can occur over time, but true innovation requires something more, something magical.

So Meta

A lot of the fun from “WandaVision” has been its meta-commentary on television eras and cultural norms. This involves stepping back from the story and reflecting on the larger picture. The same happens to the characters in the show.

In order for education to improve, teachers and schools must take time to “step back” and reflect. Research on learning supports the powerful role of “metacognition,” or “thinking about thinking.” Educators are encouraged to use metacognition strategies to help students learn, and we should do the same for our own growth, learning, and change.

Metacognition may not be magical, but it can certainly lead to metamorphosis.

________ Forever

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Earlier in 2020, I had planned to celebrate the release of a book featuring a chapter I wrote. I even shared a sneak peek HERE and took some pictures with a little “help” from a fuzzy friend:

Then . . .

a lot of things happened this year.

A LOT of things that made any celebration feel trite or tone deaf.

In a tough year, things got worse with the death of Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman.

However, even in tragedy, hope can shine in celebrating a “super heroic” life.

Many have shared powerful stories of Mr. Boseman’s impact and example. Words to describe him are “tender,” “hard working,” “artist,” “quick-witted,” and “deeply introspective.” You can read more in this essay from The Daily Beast–“Chadwick Boseman Became a Superhero While Battling Cancer“–among many other tributes.

All of us – teachers, learners, and more – can learn from this life of extraordinary accomplishments.

Another essay on CNN shares lessons from the actor: “What Chadwick Boseman taught us about humanity–and how we can honor his legacy.” Here is a summary of the example we can follow:

  • Perseverance.
  • Humility.
  • Passion.
  • Love.

I would argue these traits are especially important for teachers to model for our students, colleagues, and community.

In my book chapter, I examine traits displayed by the character Black Panther in a powerful three-issue comic book series by Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo.

In this story, King T’Challa leads his fellow Wakandans in defending their nation from invading alien Skrulls. (Sentences like the previous one are all thanks to comic books.)

My chapter describes four “21st Century Skills” the Black Panther demonstrates that all of us can aspire to develop and demonstrate on a daily basis:

  • Critical Thinking.
  • Collaboration.
  • Communication.
  • Creativity.

These “skills” are timeless traits to internalize and apply, much like those listed previously.

In a season when times are uncertain–and none of us ever know the exact number of our days–there is still hope for the future.

Perhaps this peace comes from focusing on those ideals that last forever.

Professor ZOOM

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People throw around the word “unprecedented” way too often, but it’s safe to say our society is truly experiencing an unprecedented time in history.

With the current coronavirus pandemic (a.k.a. COVID-19), everyone in education is working to figure out how to operate in this “new normal.”

A big change for many teachers has been teaching class sessions and interacting with students via Zoom or similar videoconference tools.

In a way, many teachers have become “Professor Zoom.” But in a good way.

 

(For those a little rusty on the Flash’s rogues gallery, Professor Zoom is an arch-villain who also has super-speed. And he loves the color yellow.)

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Recently, I wrote a brief article for the “Ed Prep Matters” blog of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). In it, I share how using Zoom has helped me sharpen my overall teaching, focusing on three particular areas.

These critical components apply to both online and face-to-face teaching:

  1. Classroom Norms
  2. Student Questions and Comments
  3. Instructional Behaviors

Here’s a link to this article with more discussion and examples: https://edprepmatters.net/2020/06/what-zoom-reminded-me-about-effective-teaching/ 

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And as an added bonus, here is a FOURTH area where Zoom can help teachers reflect and improve their practice:

4. Group Work

An old joke among educators is group work is what the teacher plans for when they haven’t planned an actual lesson. In truth, effective group work requires purposeful preparation by the teacher—worthwhile tasks, intentional grouping, necessary materials, detailed procedures, and more.

Teaching through Zoom has increased my awareness of collaborative tasks, both in aim and execution, providing the option of using “breakout rooms” during a videoconference.

Teachers can assign groups randomly or manually in Zoom, either ahead of time or during the live session, or both. As host instructor, I can drop into any group I like to listen or assist, although I prefer acting as silent observer to encourage student leadership.

These same habits are ideal in face-to-face classrooms, as carefully planned student collaborations can create a culture of shared responsibility and productive rapport – sort of like the best superhero teams!

 

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Panther Preview

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It’s almost here!

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Learn more at one of the following:

https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/the-ages-of-the-black-panther/

https://www.bookdepository.com/Ages-Black-Panther/9781476675220?utm_source=SV-Body&utm_medium=email-Service&utm_term=Book_image&utm_content=order-details&utm_campaign=Order-dispatch

 

More details to come about my chapter for teachers . . .

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School-topia*

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Recently, Marvel’s X-Men have shot back into the spotlight both in publishing and super- heroics.

This resurgence started off with the House of X/Powers of X mini-series in Summer 2019, and continues into 2020 with numerous X-titles and storylines.

One of the key elements of this new “Dawn of X” relaunch is that Professor X has created a paradise island nation for all mutantkind.

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The idea of a mutant utopia is NOT new in X-Men comics. In fact, there have been multiple “Mutopia” worlds in alternative universes, including House of M and Battleworld. One look at these stories shows that people’s ideas of a perfect world can be VERY different.

 

One of the most famous X-Men Utopias was an island in San Francisco Bay. Actually, before it was an island, this particular utopia was an asteroid controlled by Magneto. But it’s not that strange when you consider the recent Dawn of X utopia is the living mutant island Krakoa. (Hooray for comic books!)

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Here’s the problem with utopias: They almost always end in catastrophe.

Think of any fantasy or sci-fi story featuring a utopian society. Typically, these worlds go crumbling down just in time for the thrilling climax, if they haven’t already collapsed to kick off the adventure.

 

Also, many utopias hide a dark secret that becomes their undoing. It looks like this sort of thing may happen soon for the X-Men’s Krakoan utopia, thanks to shapeshifter Mystique (and Professor X? Magneto?).

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Something is fishy here.

What about schools and classrooms? Is it possible for such a place to be utopian?

I once heard a principal at a large school speak about the “Perfect Day.” He said that a perfect day is NOT when nothing wrong happens. Rather, a perfect day is when issues come up, and the school teachers and staff handle them the right way.

I like this attitude. It’s not optimistic or pessimistic, but just plain pragmatic.

We are all human, teachers and students alike. None of us are perfect. So why would a school full of kids and adults ever be perfect?

kids-in-classroom

Something is fishy here, too.

In fact, teachers must be careful whenever we think we have reached perfection. No teacher is perfect, no matter their experience or awards. We all struggle and succeed in different areas, and we can all get better at something. The same is true for every day of school.

There is a short essay by Tim Slater in The Physics Teacher warning teachers about utopian school days. It’s called “When is a good day teaching a bad thing?” and you can find it HERE.

And here’s a teaser:

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Read the entire article and consider what sort of “Hidden Contract” you may be establishing with your students and colleagues. It’s not that well-behaved, on-task students are a bad thing. Far from it. But pause and consider why and how these expectations arise.

Do your students follow directions and contribute to class because they WANT TO or because the HAVE TO? (An easy way to find out is by leaving the room, or checking with the substitute teacher after an absence.)

Naturally, there are times when students (and all of us) do things because we have to, whether we like it or not. Exercise. Healthy diet. Pay taxes. Change diapers.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit there is a positive payoff from these efforts, even if they are not easy. In many cases, practicing good habits in such endeavors will also increase the ease and even enjoyment.

A “perfect” classroom is impossible (and potentially dangerous). But hopefully teachers can instill solid skills and dispositions in students. One sign of maturity is doing things we don’t feel like doing. Another is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. (I’ve also heard this is the definition of integrity.)

So we may never reach school wide utopia. But maturity and integrity make for a good start!

 

*Admittedly, a much better pun than “School-topia” is “Edutopia.” But George Lucas already has the rights to that one. Take a look at this resource for educators, starting with https://www.edutopia.org .

 

Too Old?

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Happy =belated= Bat-Day!

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This year was special not only because you could find bat-signals around various cities, but also because 2019 is the 80th anniversary of Batman!

Batman’s 80th birthday is also timely given recent news casting the upcoming movie’s Caped Crusader.

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That’s right. Robert Pattinson agreed to take on the role.  He’s best known as Edward from the Twilight films, although I’d argue his best work was Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  Nevertheless, this news lets us revisit one of the best meme images ever:

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Some fans aren’t happy about Robert Pattinson’s casting, but that’s nothing new. It seems every Batman casting has its detractors, but things usually simmer down after a while. 

Interestingly, another actor’s name came up in the recent Batman casting.

Milo Ventimiglia, the gone-but-never-forgotten hunky dad Jack from NBC’s This is Us, had been interested in donning the cape and cowl. But at 42, he was considered “too old” for the part.

(Author’s Note #1: Robert Pattinson is currently 33.)

(Author’s Note #2: No Batman role in my future, either.)

For now, let’s avoid any discussion of “age discrimination” and turn our attention to TEACHING.

Can you get TOO OLD to teach?

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Let’s first look at the average teacher today. Below is a summary from a U.S. Department of Education study in 2017:

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Here is another summary of average teacher ages across the entire globe:

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How do you compare to these numbers?

Are you “above” or “below” average?

I’d argue that age has little to do with being “too old” to teach. Instead, the issue is a combination of a mental, emotional, and physical attributes.

I know some teachers who are qualified for retirement, but are still “young at heart.” They exude enthusiasm and energy in the classroom, becoming an inspirational example of learning for their students.

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On the other hand, some relatively young teachers already show signs of being tired and uninspired (and uninspiring).

What makes the difference?

We often want our students to be “lifelong learners,” and I’d say the key is to model the same attitude and habits ourselves.

For some, that may mean teaching the same subject for decades, earnest in learning more ideas and methods to enhance their teaching and students’ learning. For others, it may mean adding certifications, degrees, or more, along with potential career changes within the field of education or beyond.

Here are a few other resources to help teachers maintain a youthful enthusiasm for students and education:

Ways to Reclaim Your Joy in Teaching” (Edutopia)

The Teacher Self-Care Conference and The Educator’s Room’s Self-Care Resources

A Never-ending Quest

My favorite “old Batman” story is the Batman Beyond animated series, which features an elderly Bruce Wayne still fighting crime by mentoring a new futuristic (non)Caped Crusader:

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Of course if you want to know how old Batman really is, check out this meticulously researched article here.

It seems Batman would be too old to play himself in movies.

But no one is too old to learn or teach.

It doesn’t matter if you are

70 years old,

85 years old,

91 years old,

100 years old,

or even 102 years old!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Break 2019

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Happy Summer Solstice for all of you in the Northern Hemisphere!

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Check out “Five Fun Facts” about the longest day of the year.

Since it is officially summer according to astronomical coordinates, it’s time to officially celebrate summer for every teacher (even if you are still in a classroom somewhere).

For teachers who need something to do over the “break,” read the following resources:

 

You can also take a look at some highlights from the past school year:

 

Keep on reading and learning . . .

 

 

 

Don’t Spoil. Tease.

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You’ve probably heard about a little film coming out this month:

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Don’t worry, NO SPOILERS here!

In fact, the Avengers: Endgame directors Anthony and Joe Russo have earnestly requested that audiences and critics NOT reveal any details about the movie:

“Because so many of you have invested your time, your hearts, and your souls into these stories, we’re once again asking for your help. When you see Endgame in the coming weeks, please don’t spoil it for others, the same way you wouldn’t want it spoiled for you.”

I’m so wary of spoilers this time around, I refuse to read any preview articles, interviews, or speculation by fans. Likewise, whenever a trailer pops up online or on television, I quickly avert my eyes. I’m suspending my social media use later this week, too, since I don’t trust my friends or myself. No spoilers! 

I already know I want to see Avengers: Endgame. I don’t need any pre-release hoopla to motivate me.

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Read more about “Keeping Students Motivated.”

We’ve talked about how teachers should avoid spoilers in their classrooms. We must be careful to not sabotage, short-circuit, or short-change our students in the learning process. Authentic understanding arrives through wonder and discovery, making sense as one investigates concepts and applications.

Read more about spoiler alerts here, along with a nostalgic look at the highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII – ThForce Awakens. (The rumors are already flying about the upcoming Episode IX, and I imagine things will soon hit hyperspace.)

 

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Capture my attention? Done.

 

That said, excited fan-geeks are NOT the same as your typical student. While teachers should still avoid spoilers, they may need to provide a little more motivation in their classrooms. And they also need to help along the way.

Another applicable entertainment analogy is the “TEASER.”

Merriam-Webster defines “teaser” as “an advertising or promotional device intended to arouse interest or curiosity especially in something to follow.”

Often, a teaser doesn’t directly name the product or event. Teachers can apply the same practice to engage students, but not spoil them with every detail or label.

Teasers can appear many months before the actual event, and here this analogy may not perfectly translate to the classroom.

Rather than waiting several days or weeks, a teacher probably needs the learning pay-off to occur much sooner. This “a-ha moment” could be in the same day, such as fulfilling an introductory question from bellwork. Or teachers could “tease” students with a prompt or “what if?” at the end of one day and return to this topic the next class.

 

Like spoilers, we’ve discussed teasers before on this blog. Take a look at some superhero examples and classroom applications here.

In the meantime, decide how spoiled you want to be before the next pop culture event. Maybe a new teaser has appeared and piqued your interest.

Either way, find ways to tease – not spoil – your students in the pursuit of learning!

 

Higher Faster Further

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Captain Marvel is the latest superhero box office smash, and it’s a must-see for fans of the 1990s and/or cats.

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I’m particularly fond of the movie’s motto: “Higher Further Faster,” which comes from a well-regarded comic book storyline by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez.

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The first thing that came to my mind was the single “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” mixed and remixed by French masters Daft Punk, which you can watch and listen to HERE(Readers prone to seizures – be wary.) 

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Added geek bonus: There’s an anime music video based on the entire Daft Punk album “Discovery.”

 

The other reason I like Captain Marvel’s catchphrase is its application to teachers. In fact, I have a couple of related slogans I like to use with educators:

The first line is wholly original:

The best teachers keep getting better.

The second one updates a well-worn teacher maxim about getting lesson ideas:

Beg, borrow, steal . . . and make it BETTER.*

*We could talk a lot more about “making it better,” but for now here are two articles with some ideas. (Even though both are science-focused, all teachers can apply some of these strategies to their respective subjects.) 

 

These two sayings deal with “lifelong learning.” We teachers must practice an attitude of ongoing learning and actions toward improvement, especially if we expect our students to do the same.

Here’s a neat blog article about lifelong learning, which also provides a nifty-keen visual aid.

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Although the above blog’s target audience is business owners and managers, teachers can still learn something for themselves and their students.

 

Speaking of students, a recent article at Education Week tells of a Des Moines high school’s professional development approach to include both teachers AND students.

You can read more at https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/03/13/these-students-are-doing-pd-with-their.html, and here is a noteworthy quote from the article:

Students may not use the technical language teachers employ when commenting on lesson plans, but “you’ll hear patterns of what’s considered best practices for engaging students.”

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Teachers, what are you doing to get better?

Maybe you don’t have a formal joint student-teacher professional development program. But hopefully you listen to your students and pay attention to their ideas, gaining insight into your own instruction.

There are plenty of other ways to get better – professional conferences, publications, workshops, graduate classes, and other traditional methods. Or seek out improvement through personal endeavors like a hobby, travel, and relationships with your family and friends.

The summer season is soon approaching, which is a terrific time to recharge and refresh. It’s also a time to review your performance and refocus efforts on getting better.

What workshop or class or trip will YOU take to improve over this summer?

I’m sure you’ll find time between superhero blockbusters to get better, higher, further, faster, stronger . . .

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