Changing Tools

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Long-time readers of this blog will know that Captain America is one of my favorite heroes. (Just take a look at these posts about Iconic Images, Teacher Evolution, and Grit-ty Heroes.)

Recently, Marvel Comics released the landmark issue Captain America #700, which includes a special back-up story using unpublished pages drawn by the late, great co-creator Jack Kirby with a new script by current writer Mark Waid.

Check out this classic artwork brought to life:

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In the new Avengers: Infinity War film, Cap has a whole new look. Besides facial hair and muted uniform colors, another noticeable difference is his missing shield.

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Over the course of decades and different media, the Star-Spangeled Avenger has used a variety of shields. In fact, the good folks at Comic Book Resources have published a list of TWENTY Captain America shields, ranked from worst to best.

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Each of these shields are unique, but they all serve as both defensive and offensive tools.

Captain America has his shield. Spider-man’s got his “web-shooters.” Batman has endless  batarangs. Green Lantern uses his ring (and lantern).

 

 

What trademark tools do teachers use?

Perhaps the most iconic tool of teachers is the chalkboard (and all its derivations). Just do a quick Google search of the word “teacher” and you’ll discover an array of people posing in front of a chalkboard:

 

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As seen in these images, the chalkboard is cross-cultural and used world-wide.

Much like Captain America’s shield, teachers’ chalkboards have transformed over the years.

First we have the chalkboard:

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In black OR green varieties!

 

Then we got the overhead projector:

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You can face the entire class while you write – BONUS!

 

Then came whiteboards:

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Less chalk dust, but more mind-altering marker smells!

 

Add a projector and computer connectivity, and you get a SMARTBoard:

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More recently, the advent of “Augmented Reality” (AR) is a new addition to standard SMARTBoards. Here are two photos courtesy of the March/April 2018 issue of THE Journal:

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No matter the board, each version serves in the same general capacity – to display visual information, record ideas, provide an avenue for students and teachers to share, and more.

And like Captain America’s shield, the actual effectiveness of the tool depends on the expertise and ingenuity of the user. A state-of-the-art tool used poorly yields shoddy results.

Honestly, the above photos of AR-using teachers are problematic. In one, the teacher is fixated on the board instead of the students; in the second, the computer station is a barrier blocking the teacher from her students. Both examples are just snapshots, but both could be improved with more flexibility and responsiveness to the students.

Let’s look again at Captain America’s multiple shields. Besides the standard round metal variety, I’m particularly fond of Cap’s energy shield.  One version of this tool could change according to the user’s purpose:

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So teachers, whether you have a dusty chalkboard or spiffy AR-enhanced SMARTBoard, or anything between, please be sure to use it well. Practice to increase efficiency. Welcome student contributions. And use it creatively, adjusting to the context of the lesson and learners’ individual needs.

 

 

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What’s in a Name?

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Keen-eyed readers will notice that this blog has recently changed its official name from Teaching is for Superheroes! to Teach Like a Superhero!  (The exclamation point remains!)

Not that big of a change, really, except that the new name rolls off the tongue a little more easily.  Another change is the primary web address:  http://www.teachlikeasuperheroblog.com.  This new URL is not very short, but it gets to the point.

(I tried a shorter address, but “www.tlash.com” sounds like an eyeliner product.  And a good of an excuse as any to share this meme inspired by Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

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If all of this http://www.mumbo.jumbo stresses you out, don’t worry.  The old web address, http://www.teachingsupeherheroes.wordpress.com, still works and will lead you right back here.

This post is not just an announcement about blog name changes.

Let’s talk about names of superheroes and names of teachers.

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I remember two things from my very first teacher back-to-school in-service meeting.  The first memory is a litany of details regarding health insurance and employee benefits.  The second memory is our assistant principal reminding us all that we are “Mr. Smith,” not “Smith” or “Mr. S.”

His point was to start the school year establishing a professional identify and requiring our students to address us as such.  It may seem like no big deal for a student to abbreviate your name (“Mr. B.”) or leave off your honorific (“Bergman”).  Some teachers may even welcome such nicknames to foster a more relaxed classroom environment.

But we must always be careful to not get too comfortable with our students.  Stop and consider the range of impacts this lackadaisical habit could impart.

I’m sure I’ve allowed my students to call me all sorts of things and get away with it.  But it does help to maintain a level of respect among everyone – teacher to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, student to student, and more.

Proper names matter among superheroes, too, and not just with maintaining secret identities.  Personally, I cringe whenever I read superheroes calling each other playful nicknames.

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They’re heroes, not BFFs!

Superhero nicknames have long been a staple in comics.  Witty banter and clever monikers keep the “funny” in funny books, after all.  And it helps convey some characters’ personalities.

Wolverine, for example, with Colossus:

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And here (off-panel) with Professor Xavier:

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The best name-caller, of course, was Stan “The Man” Lee, who was so proficient he even came up with nicknames for his real-life co-workers (e.g. Jack “The King” Kirby, “Jazzy” Johnny Romita, “Merry” Gerry Conway, and many MANY more right here).

Like any good joke, though, overuse of superhero sobriquets can get tiresome.  Especially among champions who should focus their attention on more important things – like fighting bad guys and saving the world!

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What’s worse, many of these affectionate nicknames can actually undermine the job of life-risking heroics.

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“Spidey” for Spider-Man works fine for his hip quippy character;  but take a look at other heroes and their less-dignified labels:

Batman = “Bats”

Superman = “Supes”

Green Lantern = “GL”

Ugh.  Apparently, characters in the DC Universe have a thing for abridging names.  Marvel nicknames, though more colorful, can still cheapen a heroic legacy.

The Mighty Thor = “Goldilocks”

The Hulk = “Ol’ Greenskin”

Iron Man = “Shellhead”

Captain America = “Cap,” “Winghead,” “Star-Spangled Avenger”

We come back to Captain America because it’s maybe the clearest example of a noble hero who’s legendary status is downgraded by casual familiarity.  And it’s not just by fellow heroes, but even by us regular citizens.

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Call me a Stick-in-the-Mud (“Bromidic Bergman”), but superheroes deserve a little more formality.  The same goes for teachers.  Although it may seem cool for kids to use teacher nicknames, be careful with letting things get too capricious or contemptuous.

So whenever you hear a student or colleague refer to you as  “Mrs. T” or “Thompson” or “Yo, Teach,” gently remind them how they can address you more properly.

Just remember, it’s not “Mr. F.” It’s Mr. Fantastic.

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And it’s not “Incredible;” it’s Mr. Incredible.

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And it’s not “Marvel;” it’s Ms. Marvel.

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Actually, the original Ms. Marvel goes by Captain Marvel now.

But never “Cap.”

Non-Mutant Teachers

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My favorite superhero team has always been the X-Men.  I’ll admit, these mutant heroes first caught my eye with their nifty matching uniforms.  Plus, “X” is the absolute coolest letter in the alphabet by far.  (Uncanny Y-Men . . . just doesn’t cut it.)

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The main reason I like the X-Men, however, is because this superhero team’s origin starts at a school.  “Gifted youngsters” have gathered together not because they’re family or friends or famous heroes, but instead to learn and understand their powers and identities.  And ultimately, these students strive to “protect a world that hates and fears them.”

A new generation of students has taken up the cause of Professor X, as featured in the series Wolverine and the X-Men.  Unfortunately, headmaster Wolverine has recently died in the Marvel Comics world, leaving a void in the faculty at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.

I bet Wolverine’s health will improve soon, but in the meantime another hero has joined the staff of mutant educators:  your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

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That’s Mr. Spider-Man to You

One potential problem, though:  Spider-Man is NOT a mutant.  In other words, he was not born with his extra-human abilities.  Peter Parker needed a radioactive spider bite to get his superpowers.  Remember this iconic scene?

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Pre-Spider Bite Peter Parker = Lame-o

Differences in genetic background and superhero lifestyle could become a source of conflict not only between Mr. Spider-Man and his students, but also with the mutant teachers and staff at the school.

Such educational discrepancies do not occur in comic books only.  They can also arise in real life.

Real World Research

Research studies have found a “racial/ethnic gap between students of color and their teachers,” something that has increased over the years (Villegas, Strom, & Lucas, 2012).  With a growing population of minority students, teachers from similar racial/ethnic backgrounds are in high demand (Bireda & Chait, 2011).

Why is it important to match teacher and student demographics?

One may assume that students react more positively to teachers who share common characteristics.  Likewise, minority teachers can serve as positive role models to minority students.  However, clear empirical evidence of these assumptions is hard to find, understandable given the complexities of schooling and learning.

Some research studies have found learning gains when teachers and students share similar ethnicity (Dee, 2004; Klein, Le, & Hamilton, 2001).  Nevertheless, these reports note an underlying factor that could have the greatest impact on student success:  the actual quality of the teacher.

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Mr. Parker

Spider-Man does have previous teaching experience.  While plainclothes Peter Parker during the day, he did a stint as science teacher for his alma mater, Midtown High School, in Queens, New York.

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Home of the Fightin’ Living Brains!

Mr. Parker’s public school teaching experience reflects real world trends.  Typically, teachers like to teach close to where they grew up as students (Reininger, 2011).  Or if not the same or nearby location, teachers may teach in a similar type of district or community.

That was me.  I grew up in a small Nebraska town of ~4,000 people.  I graduated from a public high school with a class of ~70 students.  My first teaching job was in a small Nebraska town of ~4,000 people (about 130 miles from my hometown).  Each graduating class at this public school had ~70 students.

What about you?  Where did you go to school?  Where do you teach?  

One of the biggest advantages about the teaching profession is that it can take you anywhere in the world.  Once I had a student encourage me to apply for a teaching job in Dubai.  (Maybe he had selfish motives for introducing me to this opportunity.)

But one of the biggest challenges about teaching is that it requires extraordinary effort to assimilate the context and culture of the school when you first start.  Even teachers who teach in their hometown must navigate through this transitional period.  Moreover, imagine the degree of difficulty for teachers new to a community, culture, and/or country.

It makes sense that teacher recruitment initiatives focus on fostering “pipelines” to increase quality teachers from high-need urban and rural settings (CTEP, 2014Darling-Hammond, 2011).

Mutant or Non-Mutant?

As much as I’d like, I can’t turn myself into a mutant, or even a super-powered human.  (I’ve been bitten by spiders before.  No wall-crawling abilities yet.)  Still, I can be the best teacher I can be, no matter where or whom I teach.

Regardless of our ethnic, cultural, genetic, or other demographic descriptors, we can all work to cultivate meaningful relationships, creating memorable learning experiences for our students.  Part of this work includes finding ways to connect with the kids and their community.

Don’t try to fake it, however.  Students have a special (mutant?) ability to see through disingenuous teachers, even those with good intentions.  Admit your differences, if need be, and authentically work to find common ground.  A universal purpose in all schools is to expand understanding and appreciate learning.

Who knows how long Spider-Man will stay on staff at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning?  You can read more about the creators’ plans for Spider-Man and the X-Men herehere, and here, if you’re interested.  I hope Mr. Spider-Man makes a positive difference during his tenure, long or short.

Spidey may not be a mutant, but he does know a little about struggling to make it in the world (of both heroes and humans).  Additionally, he has firsthand experience learning the importance of “great powers” and “great responsibility.”

And like the best teachers, Spider-Man should learn from his students as much as they learn from him.

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Flex Plan

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Where will you be in five years?

If you like superheroes, a good bet is you’ll be sitting in a theater watching the latest Marvel or DC movie.  And chances are you’ll have seen multiple superhero movies between now and then.

A recent Warner Bros. shareholder meeting featured the announcement of several tentpole movie projects into the year 2020.  This list includes TEN films starring DC Comics superheroes (and antiheroes).

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Not to be outdone, Marvel Studios held a special shindig where they announced NINE movies set in their “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” involving the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, and more.

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“Infinity” sounds about right.

If you add in movies based on other Marvel Comics heroes (X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, etc.), that makes OVER 40 FILMS currently planned for Marvel or DC comic book characters.

And that’s not even counting additional comic book and superhero projects.  So we’re headed either into the Double Platinum Age of Comic Book Movies or Major Market Saturation.

Of course, many of these projects may get derailed or delayed along the way.  (Don’t hold your breath for “Unannounced Female Character Spider-Man Movie” in 2017.)

Plans change, and no one knows that better than teachers.

Adventures with Scope & Sequence

Those of us in the field of education know about something called “Scope and Sequence.”  Not only does “Scope and Sequence” sound like a terrific crime-fighting duo, S&S is a general phrase given to long-term planning in the school year.

Here is an example Scope and Sequence from an elementary art teacher, courtesy of the smARTteacher website.

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I think of scope as the overall main ideas and concepts students should learn in a class, and sequence is the general order in which they could learn, connect, and practice these main ideas.

Notice the language used here:  “overall”  “general”  “could.”

It’s important to remember that long-term planning should be flexible, like the Ever-Elastic Mr. Fantastic! 

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Sometimes adjusting to curriculum guides can feel like deflecting bullets.

All kinds of variables arise during a school year that require adjustment and revisions:  prior knowledge, curriculum mandates, assessment schedules, special events, weather cancellations, and–MOST IMPORTANTLY–student learning.

Districts often have a Pacing Guide that indicates the key content, units, and even activities teachers should use in their specific courses.  Here are some pacing guides for science teachers in Mobile County Public Schools (AL), if you’re curious.

The key word here is “guide.”  Classroom teachers know their students best, and therefore the best methods and schedules for helping students learn.

To coin a scientific-sounding mantra:  Student learning should be the constant, with time as the dependent variable.

If students require more time to master a topic, give them more time.  Don’t plow through a chapter just because you think you need to stay “on track” to finish a certain textbook.  (Who said you had to finish the textbook in the first place?)  Conversely, don’t slog through something the kids already know or don’t need to know.

A Super Biology Teacher

I met a science teacher who was just one of six teachers who taught Biology 1 in his school building.   The basic requirement was all Biology 1 teachers had to get through Chapter 10 by the end of December.  The reason was students could switch teachers at the semester break, so everyone needed to be at “the same spot” beginning in January.

Sounds logical, but not every teacher (or student) will work at the same rate or want to focus on the same content.  Some concepts and skills are more important than others.  So what do you do if you don’t agree with a prescribed schedule?

I love what this science teacher did.  He made sure he was done with Chapter 10 by the end of December, but he shuffled chapters to create the most meaningful sequence for his students.  Moreover, this teacher spent more time on some chapters and less time on others that weren’t as necessary for learning fundamental biology concepts.

Sound out of order?  That’s nothing new to readers of comic books, where odd numbering systems abound (see multiple #1 issues, #0 issues, #-1 issues, backwards releases, flipped issues, etc.).  Heck, there’s even a blog totally committed to the convoluted topic of Comic Book Numbering.

The bottom line in comic books is finding strategies and gimmicks to sell the most issues.  The bottom line for teaching is arranging lessons and units to encourage the most learning.

So whether you’re talking about billion-dollar film franchises or the infinite potential of today’s students, do take time to plan ahead.  But always keep your plans open to change.

And always leave the door open for a dynamite sequel.

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