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?

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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 .

 

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 . . .

 

 

 

Grit-ty Heroes

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“Grit” is a popular term in educational circles today, particularly with helping students succeed.

Grit is “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” “having stamina,” and “sticking with your future day-in day-out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.”

I got those “gritty” quotes from the following TED Talk video with Angela Lee Duckworth, and you should watch the entire thing (about six minutes).

 

In the world of superheroes, “grit” has a much different meaning.  During the late 1980s and early 1990s, “grim and gritty” superheroes nearly saturated the comic book market.  If you’re interested, you can read a thorough analysis of this time period HERE.

“Grim and gritty” got so popular it seemed almost everyone got in on the act–Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, even Aquaman!

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Coming to theaters near you!

 

Thankfully, most of these heroes’ gritty phases were short-lived and brighter days returned.  For some heroes (or anti-heroes), however, it’s always been about grim and grit:  The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Wolverine, and about 87% of Image Comics from the 1990s.  Exhibits A-to-Xtreme below . . .

 

Given the above definition of “grit,” I would argue that the grittiest superhero is Captain America.

 

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Remember, Steve Rodgers stood up to evil and injustice while he was still a 98-pound weakling.  His heart and passion did not change after he gained powers and a costume.  At times, Steve has given up or lost the title of Captain America. But he continued his work behind the scenes and/or assuming another superhero identity.

We’ve already gotten a glimpse that Steve’s non-Captain America heroics will appear in upcoming Avengers movies:

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(He’s even got a beard – extra grit!)

 

At the time of the TED Talk video, not much was known about teaching and cultivating grit in students.  Nevertheless, you can find research summaries HERE and HERE, which also include resources and tools for student grittification*.

*Trademark 2017, Daniel J. Bergman

In the video, Duckworth refers to research of Carol Dweck on “growth mindset” as one potential factor in teaching grit.  This is a good place to start.

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For example, HERE is one of Dr. Dweck’s articles (“The Perils and Promises of Praise”) that discusses the impact of teacher praise on students’ motivation and self-concept.  All teachers should read this article, since 1) it is short, and 2) it has direct application in the classroom. In other words, it won’t take a lot of grit. But you should stop and think about how you respond to students, and what other messages are conveyed in your words.

And this is just one step. As explained near the end of the TED Talk video, teachers who want gritty students must also be gritty themselves.

Don’t let grit become one more educational fad that passes away.

 

 

Super Women (and Men)

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March is Women’s History Month, and Edutopia has provided several lesson ideas teachers can use to help students examine “women’s contributions, struggles, and triumphs throughout history.”

In recent history, Marvel Comics has given more support to their female superheroes, with solo titles starring a new Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel (the old Ms. Marvel), Black Widow, Spider-Woman, and much much more . . .

An all-female X-Men team stars in the relaunched comic book X-Men.

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Why not “X-Women?”

An all-female Avengers team will soon star in a book called A-Force.

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Better than “FemForce,” although such a comic DOES exist.

Heck, even Thor is a woman right now, which hasn’t pleased everyone.

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If I had a hammer . . . . I’d shatter the glass ceiling.

For their part, DC Comics has recently given Wonder Woman long sleeves:

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Speaking of Wonder Woman, Harvard professor Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman has earned all kinds of praise and prizes for its examination of the iconic super heroine’s creation as well as women’s history in the 20th century, which circles us back to the start of this blog post.

What does this have to do with teaching?

For better or worse, teaching has often been looked as a “woman’s profession.” In fact, another Harvard-based publication refers to teaching as “Woman’s ‘True’ Profession.”

While this notion may help to empower women and celebrate their impact on society, it can also lead to fewer men working as teachers, especially with younger grades. For example, a study in England found that 25% of all primary schools are staffed entirely by women. Is this good or bad? As a happily married male, I will respectfully and delicately sidestep that discussion for another time.

Another study in England found that women are disproportionally fewer in roles of “headteachers” and “school senior leaders” (translation: administrative and school leadership roles). Such a gender imbalance is probably not a good thing.

Male or female, super-powered or human, Marvel or DC, all teachers play a vital role in successful student learning. Or, as one new book says, “it takes team effort:”

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“Men and Women working together to enhance children’s lives.”

That’s a wonderful thing.

Question(s) & Answer

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One comic book character who is prime for a screen adaptation is DC’s The Question.  In fact, the folks at  WhatCulture.com list The Question as one of their “10 Obscure Superheroes That Badly Need a Movie Treatment.”

A movie may work fine, but an ongoing Question TV Series would be a perfect fit, featuring a street-level noir hero with regular crimes and conspiracies to solve. If you want to see The Question in animated action, you can find some highly regarded appearances in the Justice League Unlimited series.

You can also find a nifty short YouTube documentary on “Who is the Question?” right here.  The most iconic version is Vic Sage, although more recently the moniker (and mask) was taken over by Renee Montoya, best known as a detective in the Gotham City Police Department.  [A live TV version of Det. Montoya has appeared in Fox’s Gotham series.  No sign of any Question(s), though.]

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In case you’re wondering, there IS a superhero known as The Answer in comic books.  You can read more about The Answer here and here.  Judging from his appearance, I’d say a more appropriate name is The Exclamation Point or The Interjection!

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In teaching, we know that “Questions are the Answer.”  Often, what makes or breaks a lesson is how the teacher interacts with students during the activity.

Rather than just talking at students, teachers must ask questions throughout each lesson.  Questions and similar prompts are effective ways to encourage thoughtful reflection, promote engaged discussion, monitor student thinking, and more.

Unfortunately, research has found that a vast majority (70-80%) of questions asked by teachers require nothing more from students than reciting facts or guessing simple answers (Gall, 1984; Watson & Young, 1986; Bergman & Morphew, 2014).

So the question is this:  What kind of questions do you ask?  

Challenge yourself to challenge students by habitually asking  questions that require high-level thinking, such as those skills classified in Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives:  Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation (Bloom, 1956).

How do you begin?  Here are a few resources I’ve recently come across that may be a good start:

– From Edutopia: “5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students”

– From The Huffington Post*“25 Ways to Ask Your Kids ‘So How Was School Today?’ Without Asking Them ‘So How Was School Today?'”

*This second resource is more for parents, but teachers can gain ideas from the example questions for encouraging conversation.

The goal is to get kids thinking, reflecting, and sharing so you and their classmates can also think, reflect, and share ideas.

I’m glad there are two Questions running around in comic books. It reminds us that teachers need to use multiple questions in our interactions with students.  One question is often not enough.

Like Batman and his utility belt, you should have an entire arsenal of prompts and queries at your ready, posing the right one at the right time.

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I don’t own a utility belt, but I do keep a small index card in my pocket with question stems such as “In what ways . . .?”  “For what reasons . . .?”  “How might you . . .?” and many more.  Whenever I’m stumped for a good question, I can check my list to keep the conversation going.  And like Batman with his belt, you should continuously update and improve your questioning strategies.

Unlike the hero The Question, however, you will want to add engaging facial expressions.  Smile a little.  Make appropriate eye contact.  And talk in a welcoming tone of voice.

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Not the face you want to see in a classroom.

The Question wants to hide an identity and frighten bad guys.  Teachers, on the other hand, need to be personable and supportive of students.  Your questions and interactions, when used effectively, are an important part of this equation.

Speaking of which, there is no mainstream superhero called The Equation.  Get on it, math teachers!