Know Gimmicks

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gimmick ˈɡimik/  noun

  1. a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.
    synonyms: publicity stunt, contrivanceschemestratagemploy;

    informalshtick

 Every Marvel movie features snappy quips, and one of my favorite lines from Captain America: Civil War comes from hero Falcon, when he and Bucky first run into Spider-Man:

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Gimmicks have a long history in comic books.  Specifically, let’s look at comic book gimmick covers.  Like any good “publicity stunt,” gimmick covers draw attention to sell more comic books. Typically these specific issues celebrate milestone anniversaries, debut series, or other special events.

The good folks at Comic Book Resources (CBR) recently shared their “All-Time Greatest Comic Book Gimmick Covers,” and you can read about it right here.

In this list, you’ll learn all kinds of neat history and trivia, including what made these gimmicks special.  Behold covers with poly-bagged pop-ups, glow-in-the-dark skeletons, embossed chromium and/or foil, die-cut claw marks, bullet holes, and more.

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My favorite is the Superman “Colorform” cover, where you can create your own battle scene using the reusable plastic pieces.  (iPad got nothin’ on Coloforms.)

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Gimmicks are fun, but they can also go horribly wrong.  To wit, CBR contributors also compiled the “All-Time Worst Comic Book Gimmick Covers,” which you can read here if you dare.

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These unfortunate “shticks” include lenticular artwork, face-shaped die-cut covers, duplicate monochrome colors, Magic Eye illusions, body heat-sensitive “thermochrome,” and more bullet holes.

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Gimmick comic book covers have mostly disappeared, but new ideas (or old revivals) pop up from time to time.  The same is true for educational gimmicks.  Teachers must be vigilant in protecting their students (and themselves) from too many gimmicks, fads, and ploys.

 What are some of these educational gimmicks?  For a start, take a look at the following graphic highlighting “20 Years of Educational Fads,” put together by Te@cher Toolkit (“the most influential blog on education in the UK”).

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You can read more here about each gimmick, myth, fad, and/or hearsay, and see how much you agree.

Such new (or repackaged) educational ideas begin as noteworthy or eye-catching.  A financial boost often jumpstarts such initiatives.  But eventually the dollars dwindle away, followed by fading enthusiasm and support.  Given the effort and time spent by various stakeholders, you can imagine the subsequent feelings of resentment and distrust.

Please note that I am not poo-pooing all gimmicks.  After all, I’m the guy who forked over cash to get this hologram-highlighted wrap-around cover:

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And this foil embossed beauty:

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And even this one:

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 (Yup, that’s a special #0 issue mini-comic glued to the cover of the #1 issue regular-sized comic.)

Gimmicks can be good for a laugh.  And sometimes they are a breath of fresh air.  Used right, gimmicks can make cute mementos, quick distractions, and useful object lessons.

Nevertheless, it’s important to distinguish between a novel trick (that’s fun for a little while) and a credible research-supported practice (that stands the test of time).

What about you?  What educational gimmicks have you enjoyed, advocated, and/or suffered?

Super-Souvenirs

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Last time we talked about lessons learned from conventions, whether the audience is teachers or cosplayers.

 

I nearly forgot one of the best rewards of attending conferences and meetings . . . the STUFF!

The swag . . . the loot . . . the prizes . . . the souvenirs.

This past weekend I participated in a state teacher conference, and I got a few of the usual convention freebies — posters, books, pens, highlighters, candy, a shirt, and more.  Someone I know even won a free corn snake!

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Take me home!

 

The best convention prize I ever got was a children’s book about Buzz Aldrin, signed by the astronaut himself!

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This very same weekend I came home and took my family to Marvel Universe Live!  (Think “Disney on Ice” with superheroes on motorcycles and high-wire acts.)

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The show was full of explosions, stuntmen (and stuntwomen), along with cheesy comic book dialogue. Best of all, it’s the only way (so far) you can see live-action Avengers fight alongside live-action X-Men and Spider-Man.

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My kids loved the show (me and the wife, too), and they also loved the souvenirs.  Just like conferences and conventions, this event had gobs of stuff to take home.  Such trinkets cost money, though.

But where else are you going to get an exclusive Marvel Universe Live! Prelude Comic Book?

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Or giant-sized Program Book (with embossed cover)?

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Or Captain America Boomerang?  (It works, too . . . in theory.)

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Or official Marvel Universe Live! cotton candy (with superhero mask)?

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My family bought all of these beauties – BONUS!

 

Another lesson learned from this weekend is that teachers give their students an array of souvenirs over the course of a school year.  And I’m not just talking about content knowledge.

Every year, I ask my pre-service teachers to imagine their students at the end of the year.  In an ideal world, what will those kids be like?  What skills will they possess?  What traits, habits, and feelings do they have?

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I’ve written about this before in a more scholarly setting. To be brief, the new teachers end up with a short list of about ten items.  The same types of traits and skills always emerge.

Teachers want students who are . . .

  • Critical Thinkers
  • Creative
  • Problem Solvers
  • Caring and Kind
  • Hard Workers
  • Curious
  • Lifelong Learners
  • Collaborative
  • Effective Communicators

And students who possess solid content understanding, of course.

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Souvenirs are an important part of comic book conventions, education conferences, superhero stunt shows, and even school classrooms.

Some are free.  Others are pricy.  Cost does not always correlate with value.

What are your classroom’s best souvenirs?

Consider what “souvenirs” you provide for students over the course of the year.  Make sure they are treasures that last a lifetime.

 

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Super-Rich

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i am batman

When it comes to superheroes, a lot of people claim they relate the most to BATMAN.

It’s not the tragic orphan story or fascination with flying mammals that builds the bond.  Rather, it’s the fact that Bruce Wayne is a “normal guy” like the rest of us.  He’s no alien, mutant, or mystical being with special powers.  Instead, Batman saves the day using sly sleuthing skills, martial arts, and handy homemade gadgets.

I don’t know about you, but my detective prowess and hand-to-hand combat skills are so-so, at best.  My weakest link to Batman, however, is in my lack of gadgetry.  (I don’t even have a smartphone.  Guess I’m more like Captain Caveman.)

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Bat-Rich

Recently, “comic historian” Thaddeus Howze did some detective work of his own and estimated the cost of Batman’s crime-fighting technology.  It’s a nifty little article with a breakdown of every gadget used by the Caped Crusader, including his cape made of memory cloth polymer.

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What’s the final bill?  Totaling up every batarang, bat-vehicle, bat-cave amenity, and bat-salary (Alfred don’t work cheap), Howze estimated the cost of being Batman at around $682,450,750.

So for anyone making over half a billion dollars, your dream of donning the Dark Knight’s identity is within grasp. The rest of us “regular folks” will have to live vicariously through our Batman toys or video games.  Or both.

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Teacher-Rich

Teachers need gizmos, too, which we give fancy names like “instructional technology,” “curriculum materials,” “educational manipulatives,” and the like.  Unlike Bruce Wayne, we don’t spend from billion-dollar bank accounts.  One year a biology teacher told me her entire department’s annual budget was $600.  (That buys you about twenty frog dissection kits, which by their very definition are perishable goods.)

For a lot of teachers, we purchase classroom supplies using our own money.  A 2015 Horace Mann Educator Survey found that 57% of teachers spend at least $200 of their own money on classroom materials every year (14% spend $600 or more).

Furthermore, 80% of responding teachers said they have abandoned projects because of a lack of funds.  (“Abandoned” is a strong word, like Batman would give up on nights he ran out of smoke bombs.)  I suspect many teachers found cheaper, alternative projects.  Of course, there are many ways to seek additional financial support at local levels (fundraisers, community drives, etc.) as well as through worldwide services like DonorsChoose.org.

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Money, while helpful, is far from the most important element in cultivating successful classrooms and making a lasting impact.  To elaborate on this point, let’s look at an example from the world of sports.  (See?  I’m not completely nerdy.  Or maybe just a sports nerd, too.)

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The front sports page of a recent USA Today newspaper highlighted two stories side-by-side, convenient for comparisons.

The first was an editorial about football player Kam Chancellor finally agreeing to resume playing for his Seattle Seahawks team.  The Pro Bowl safety had been holding out–missing the first two games of the season–with hopes of getting a better contract.  Interestingly, Chancellor still had three years left on his current four-year contract, worth about $7 million a year.

The second sports story was much more prominent, accompanied by multiple color photos, nearly a full page of text, and a second full page photograph tribute.  The subject receiving this recognition?  The late Yogi Berra.  Headlines and highlights included phrases like “one-of-a-kind,” “true national treasure,” “American icon,” and “the sweetest man you ever met.”

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Fun fact:  The highest annual salary Yogi Berra ever received for playing baseball was $65,000 in 1957.  Compare that pay with Kam Chancellor’s, and then consider whose name we’ll remember in a hundred years.

I’m not making any claims about the value of an individual’s contribution to sport or society.  And I admit there are significant differences–different sports, different teams, different centuries.  Nevertheless, I did some calculations myself (inspired by comic historian Thaddeus Howze) and here’s what I found:

The average American median household income in 1957 was $5,000, compared to $52,250 in 2015.  Considering the salaries given above, Yogi Berra made about 13 times more than the average household in 1957; Kam Chancellor earns about 134 times more than today’s average household.

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At this rate, we’ll be living in a Hunger Games world by the end of the century.  Tempting as it is, let’s not dwell on the excessive amounts of money given to today’s professional athletes.

Let’s focus instead on building toward a better future by investing in children:  their learning, their growing, and their getting along with others–famous or nameless, poor or rich, every man and every woman.  This is the work that’s truly worthwhile.  Heroic, even.

Super-Rich

Spider-Man and Superman

Instead Batman or Iron Man or other affluent heroes, teachers can probably relate better to middle-class champions like Spider-Man or Superman.

Peter Parker started out as a teenager just scraping by, trying to earn a few bucks by taking photos of himself in costume.

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                Peter Parker–Inventor of the Selfie!

Superman may be a super-strong flying alien, but his day job is an office gig with bustling desk areas, broken copier machines, and bland coffee.  Not far from a teacher’s workplace, eh?

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And like Clark Kent, teachers can rely on a mostly steady paycheck.  But that’s not what makes us rich.  Remember the favorite phrase quoted by many educators:

“Teaching–We’re not in it for the income; we’re in it for the outcome.”

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.”

Multiple Madness

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Sadly, this entry does not feature one of my favorite superheroes – Jamie Madrox, a.k.a. The Multiple Man. But I’m going to include a picture of him (them) anyway:

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On to business!

Warning: Today’s topic contains both intense geekery and buzzword-bashing. Proceed cautiously.

Blockbuster movies are not the only highlight of summer. It’s also the season when comic book publishers launch company-wide crossovers that promise to shake up a universe or two (or 52).

Marvel Comics and DC Comics have both blasted readers with major events this year. DC recently ran through a “Convergence” that ended with every version of its universe (pre-Crisis, pre-Zero Hour, pre-Flashpoint, etc.) returning to existence. That means every crazy version of familiar heroes and villains can appear in some form or another in one of several alternate universes, or multiverses.

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Confused? Check the hyperlinks above to read more about DC’s habit of rewriting history in their comic books (“reboots”). And you can read more here and here, then impress your friends with a mindful of multiversity.

Reboots are Made for Walking . . .

DC rebooting its universe(s) is nothing new. But Marvel Comics has always prided itself on maintaining a single continuity in its main universe (called “Earth-616,” and don’t ask why).

That’s all changed this summer, though, with Marvel’s tentpole production “Secret Wars.” If that name sounds familiar, the original “Secret Wars” (1984) was Marvel’s first mega-crossover teaming up all of its major heroes – Spider-Man, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and more. Plus, it’s where Spidey got himself his snazzy black costume that . . . didn’t end well.

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In Marvel’s current 21st century crossover, every alternate universe (technically not the same as a multiverse; trust me) is starting to shmoosh into each other, with Earth as the epicenter.

What results is a hodgepodge of alternative Marvel Earths mish-mashed all on one planet. This subsequent world is called “Battleworld,” where apparently assorted Marvel heroes and variations duke it out over land rights.

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Actually, all of the post-Secret War/Battleworld comics look to be an excuse to revisit everyone’s favorite character or event from Marvel’s storied history. This nostalgia trip won’t last for long, with a finale that will “be the end of the Marvel Universe as we know it!”

Just recently, Marvel has already given us sneak peeks at characters appearing in this “All-New, All-Different” universe.  Here’s a look:

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Who knows how long either of these nascent realities will last? In recent history, world-shattering moments seem to happen every other issue.

But, hey, it’s comic books.

My concern is not a glut of mega-crossover mini-series, but rather the stampede of super-heroes – namely different versions of the same ones. Take a gander at another Marvel “All-New, All-Different” lineup:

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I count two Spider-Men, two Spider-Women (one is “Spider-Gwen”), and two Captain Americas (one is old Steve Rogers, the other the old Falcon). Look back at the first Marvel promo and find two Wolverines (one female, the other old Logan).

Duplicating heroes is one way to increase diversity. But it can sometimes dilute the specialness of super-heroes. I’m not just talking about spreading thin unique super-powers, but also decreasing high-stakes adventures. If a certain hero is facing life-and-death odds, it’s no big deal, since a copycat can fill any vacancy. And if your world blows up, just hop over to the next universe.

Right, DC?

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Okay.  Rant over.

All-New, All-Different Rant.

Let’s talk about teaching and blow up some more multiplicity problems. “Multiple Intelligences,” to be precise.

Multiple intelligences is perhaps the most touted idea in education today. But in case you haven’t heard of it, here’s a recap:

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Back in 1983 (one year before Marvel’s first “Secret Wars”), Harvard professor Howard Gardner argued that a general intelligence (“IQ”) measure is insufficient, and proposed seven different “intelligences” one could possess.

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Most people have strengths and weaknesses around this pie, and are more comfortable in some categories (or combos) than in others.

Of course everyone has different strengths. They’re called talents. Skills. Natural abilities. Preferences. Interests. Comfort zones.

But Gardner labeled these categories “intelligences” and this notion took off like honey nut hotcakes. In fact, Gardner has admitted that his ideas wouldn’t have gotten so popular had he just called them “multiple talents.”

So what’s the problem?

Many educators – many with the best of intentions – latch onto “multiple intelligences” thinking they have to cater to everyone’s needs. Taken to the extreme, each topic to be learned requires eight different lessons or activities. That way you cover all the bases.

Another term that overlaps with multiple intelligences is “learning styles.” Educators frequently pigeonhole different students according to a specific strength or preference – visual, auditory, kinesthetic. Worse, students may self-label or assume the identity they’ve been assigned, with the notion that they are stuck in one role with no opportunity to grow or change.

To his credit, Howard Gardner has explained how his ideas of multiple intelligences are NOT the same as learning styles. This is helpful, as comprehensive learning relies on much more than just “style.” Moreover, research has found little evidence that matching teaching to a specific learning preference produces higher understanding. Unfortunately, such clarification is lost among the bulk of educational professionals and publications.

Mixed up reliance on “MI” and “learning styles” enables teachers, parents, and students who want excuses for an underwhelming performance. If Billy flunks his spelling test, that’s okay. Maybe he’s just a “kinesthetic” learner. Maybe he can form letters with his arms and legs. Or if Suzie struggles in math, just have her sing out her calculations. She does so well in choir, after all. She must be “music smart.”

Here’s another problem:  Some of these “intelligences” are more practical in everyday life than others. No matter how much you plead, no one will sing the ballot to you the next election day.  You have to read to vote. The next time you get pulled over for texting while driving, try explaining to the officer that you have interpersonal intelligence. See how far that gets you.

I’m not saying we should dismiss any student who doesn’t excel at a particular subject or skill. Celebrate their strengths. Find ways for them to use and share that talent. But don’t compromise content learning. And help people shore up their weaknesses.

By the way, for those who counted the Multiple Intelligences in that pie graphic up there (all you logical-mathematical studs), there are actually EIGHT intelligences. Gardner added “naturalistic intelligence” a few years later. And then there’s also “existential intelligence.” It’s all getting a little ridiculous, to the point where The Onion featured a parody article revealing the trials of students with “nasal intelligence.”

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A nasal learner struggles with an odorless textbook.

So what should teachers do?

Dr. Gardner suggests three actions: 1. Individualize your teaching; 2. Plurarlize your teaching; and 3. Drop the term “styles.”  (Easy for him to say.)

If you want more concrete ideas, here are some quotes from reviews of the research:

From The Chronicle: “Teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions” (Glenn, 2009).

From the NSTA: “Using appropriate representations that carefully consider how to best convey the content is important. In addition, we need to scaffold between concrete and more abstract representations, being sensitive to the abilities of our students to handle abstractions. Finally, when students struggle to understand, we need to look at both the nature of the content as well as the prior experiences of our students” (Olson, 2006). 

This is a good start to wise planning and teaching. Click on the hyperlinked articles above for more in-depth reading and reflection.

Multiple intelligences – like multiple superheroes – can have some merit in the right context. But both can explode out of control and become gimmicky. Be wary of too much reliance and redundancy, resulting in loss of impact.

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Heroic Integration

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It’s been a while since our last blog post and we have all kinds of critically important issues to talk about, starting with . . . OH YEAH!  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON super-duper blockbuster opens THIS WEEKEND!  

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The latest greatest superhero movie can provide a useful springboard for exploring the dangers of relying too much on technology (e.g. resulting in an evil sentient robot that tries to kill all humankind). Forget a vengeful Ultron or iPad; beware of students plugged in but tuned out to meaningful learning.

We’ll table that discussion for another time, however, given recent chatter about another famous Marvel character who may possibly join Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on the big screen:  Spider-Man.

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Thanks to Photoshop, we already have a poster!

Like Captain America and company, Spider-Man is a mainstay Marvel Comics character. But up until now, everyone’s favorite web-slinger has appeared in his separate series of movies due to film rights owned by Sony Pictures.

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Confused? Don’t worry, because bigwig producers have signed important papers and the stars have aligned and now Spidey can swing along with the Avengers in the official “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or MCU.

Fan reaction has been understandably joyous, given the potential team-up between Marvel’s flagship hero and Marvel’s flagship hero team. Heck, the good folks at IGN have already imagined what Age of Ultron would look like with Spider-Man in the mix.  Take a look at their trailer here, if you’re curious.

Enthusiasm has erupted for integrating even more heroes in the movies. Speculation abounds if Marvel’s other movie heroes – the X-Men, the Fantastic Four – could ever merge into the MCU.  Even Wolverine’s Hugh Jackman wants to join in the mix.

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Coming to a movie theater near you?

Such integration of superheroes (a.k.a. worlds colliding) may appear as a bounty of riches; but there could be a downside.

Ever heard of too much of a good thing?

A common feature of disappointing superhero movies is a glut of characters in the script. Spider-Man 3 had Sandman and Venom and the Green Goblins clogging the villain faucet. Batman & Robin was actually Batman and Robin and Batgirl and Poison Ivy and Bane and Mr. Freeze. Superman III had Richard Pryor.

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Proving that “Two’s a Crowd.”

Curriculum Integration in schools is another appealing mash-up that may have a hidden downside or two.

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Basically, integrating curriculum is what teachers do when they teach lessons combining two or more major subjects or disciplines. Examples are as obvious as teaching algebra and graphing with a science experiment, and as unique as an instructor’s imagination. I know of a middle school that features a building-wide interdisciplinary unit all about the Greek Olympics. Every class studies some aspect of the ancient athletes – math, history, language arts, visual arts, science, P.E., and more.

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Sounds neat, right? And perhaps a little daunting to pull off, given the coordination of teachers, resources, and activities. But that’s just a challenge, not the downside. The upside is collaborative educators and students energized by explicit and relevant connections among various scholarly endeavors (subjects).

The danger of curriculum integration in classrooms is similar to those in superhero movies. Cramming in too much can end up in confusion and misconceptions. Content may be watered down, spread thin, or lost in the shuffle.

Take a minute to look at this article, “A Caveat: Curriculum Integration Isn’t Always a Good Idea,” by Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman for a more robust examination of this strategy. Better yet, print it out and read it while you wait in line for your Avengers movie tickets. Or download it on your portable digital device.

Technology can be great. So can curriculum integration. Just be careful.

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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