Building Blocks

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If you’re near Sydney, Australia, and enjoy LEGOs and superheroes (who doesn’t?), then check out The Art of the Brick: DC Comics exhibit at the Powerhouse Museum.

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Here is a Powerhouse blurb with more details:

Created by legendary LEGO® artist Nathan Sawaya, this contemporary art exhibition uses hundreds of thousands of bricks to create large-scale sculptures of the most enduring Super Heroes and Super-Villains: from Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, to The Joker and Harley Quinn. It will be the world’s largest collection of DC Comics-inspired LEGO artwork, ever!

If that doesn’t excite you, here are some nifty samples of this “contemporary art,” useful examples for art teachers to show their students:

 

Here is more information from Newsarama, and here is a cool-tastic video clip with even more sculptures:

All of this heroic brick building reminded me about an activity I use in one of my teacher education courses.  It’s called “Classroom Jenga,” and I got it from a graduate school colleague (VandeHaar, 2006).

The basic premise is that a classroom is just like Jenga, “the classic block-stacking, stack-crashing game” where you take turns pulling out wooden blocks from a tower until the entire structure comes tumbling down.

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For the classroom illustration, each block is an ingredient needed for a successful lesson.  In the version I use, example blocks are labeled with different classroom components:  “cooperative groups,” effective questioning,” “eye contact,” “appropriate materials,” “student management,” “time management,” “enthusiasm,” “a good night’s sleep,” and such.

As blocks are removed, the classroom lesson tower can remain standing for a while.  But every missing block makes the lesson a little weaker.  Finally, the tower (lesson) becomes so unstable that it falls with an item’s removal.

The analogy is that when teaching, you can have a few “holes” and missing parts.  Maybe you aren’t asking enough thought-provoking questions.  If the topic or activity is engaging enough, the students can probably still find meaning from the experience.

But if you aren’t asking good questions, and you have off-putting non-verbal behaviors, AND you aren’t managing the students to keep them on-task . . . that’s when your lesson falls apart with disastrous consequences.

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That last block was “a good night’s sleep.”

Of course a simple Jenga game doesn’t exactly match the actual complexities of a classroom.  But it does make you stop and think about all of the components needed for successful lessons.  If a lesson isn’t working, maybe it’s because you have too many holes.

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The challenge is discovering which holes exist in our classrooms.  It could be a simple fix like adding more illustrations or examples for a specific concept.

Or it could be a gaping cavity present throughout one’s teaching.  Something like pleasant facial expressions to convey kindness and warmth.  Or a metaphorical backbone to address misbehavior immediately and respectfully.

Whatever the case, work to fill your classroom holes and keep all the pieces connected.  With careful construction, your lessons can truly become beautiful works of art.

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Reference:

VandeHaar, A. (2006). Let’s Jenga! Presentation at the Annual Meeting of

the North Central Association of Science Teacher Education. Eau Claire,

WI: October 5-7.

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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.

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! 

mr fan in action

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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It’s SHOWTIME!

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The fall television season is upon us, and it’s full of several shows (some old, some new) featuring superheroes.

In fact, there are so many comic book-based shows on TV that you could make the argument it’s the “Golden Age of Television Superheroes.”

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I’m waiting to see how these shows turn out and how the Netflix/Marvel deal transpires.  On the surface, though, things look promising.  Here’s a useful list summarizing all of the current, new, and future superhero and/or comic book-themed shows, courtesy of the fine folks at Newsarama.

Also from Newsarama, here are their 10 BEST and 10 WORST Comic Book Live-Action TV Series of All Time.  (Animated series is a whole different category, but it’s safe to bet on anything related to Bruce Timm and Paul Dini.)

For now, I’d say the Golden Age of TV Superheroes was the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, which gave us gems like The Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, The Greatest American Hero, and Spider-Man on The Electric Company (with narration by Mr. March of the Penguins himself, Morgan Freeman).  

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As a bonus, this era also included The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, and preceded the wave of cool-vehicle-based shows like Knight RiderAirwolf, Street Hawk, and Magnum, P.I., which featured the one-two combo of a Ferrari 308GTS and Tom Selleck’s mustache!

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‘Stache trumps the car every time . . .

Getting off topic here, so let’s talk about television and teaching.

How do you use TV and videos in the classroom?

Shameless plug:  I’ve done a little writing in the past about using movies and video clips to enhance science lessons.  You can read a little bit about that here and here.

No matter what you teach, below are a few tips about sharing video clips with your students:

1. Decide WHY you need the video.

What does the video do that you can’t do in another way, including hands-on experiences, interactive presentations, collaborative discussions, outdoor investigations, role-play scenarios, and more?  Sure, using a video clip is easy because you can pop in the disc or click on the computer.  But what materials and activities will create the most meaningful and memorable learning?  If it’s a video, then go for it!

2. Make it an active, not passive process.

Related to #1 above, students should not just act as passive audience members during the viewing.  Give them something to do while they watch.  Observe and categorize specific attributes, list examples and/or questions, answer questions or prompts on a handout.

With the handout approach, be careful that you don’t make it a scavenger hunt for trivia.  If you do, students will pay attention to those tidbits only and not benefit from the overall experience.  If you want them to complete a handout, be sure you emphasize just a few key concepts so students don’t get bogged down looking to fill in a mundane list of blanks.

Very rarely will a video by itself teach the students anything worthwhile.  As a teacher, you need to be there to guide students’ thinking and foster discussion.  This includes before and after the video, as well as during.  (You’ve got that pause button for a reason!)  Remember the ideal rating of “TG:  Teacher Guidance Suggested.”

3. Decide WHEN you should show the video.

Videos are more than “rewards” students can enjoy at the end of a unit or after a test.  What’s the value if you wait until then to show it?  Instead, reflect on your unit sequence and consider when a particular video best serves the students’ learning.  You could use it as an eye-catching opening, part of an introductory pretest or puzzler, a formative review or extension, a prompt for homework or application, or even part of a summative assessment.

4. Keep it short and sweet.

Very rarely should something as dull as a “movie day” occur in your classroom.  A common rule of thumb in education is no activity or task should last longer than 20 minutes during class.  By breaking things up, teachers can help students stay focused and motivated to learn.  The same goes for video clips.  Stick to showing the key scene or segment that matters, which may only be a couple of minutes at a time.

Furthermore, when using a clip from a popular movie or television show, I never show the ending.  Sometimes I don’t even show the end of the scene, leaving the students with a cliffhanger and spawning a chorus of disappointed groans from the class.  But consider how much this motivates them to think further after class is finished.  What parent wouldn’t be thrilled if their son or daughter asked them to check Netflix or take a trip to Family Video so they can finish a movie they first saw in school?

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Bus jump from “Speed.”  Will Keanu and Sandra make it?  Let’s do PHYSICS!

Another reason for using a specific clip is to edit out any superfluous or inappropriate content.  Speaking of which . . .

5. Get parental and principal approval.

When using any entertainment-based media, or even educational materials that may be controversial, plan ahead and check with your supervisors (principal, department chair, etc.) to see if they have any concerns or advice.  At times, they may recommend sending a note or email to students’ parents/guardians so everyone is clear on the content and purpose of the media.  And for any sensitive topics, it provides the opportunity to opt out if anyone objects.  It also is helpful to have a back-up activity or alternative task for those who may not watch the video, whether by choice or by circumstance.

6. Keep it legal.

All kinds of stories exist about the proper use of media by teachers and threatening lawsuits from corporations.  If you’re not sure what is okay or not okay about using media, check with your school’s media specialist (a.k.a. librarian), who usually knows the latest.

Also, here is a terrific resource for teachers regarding copyright and “fair use” guidelines, provided by TechLearning.  I’ve saved this PDF onto my computer and printed copies to keep in my teaching binders as a quick reference.

For me, the most important guideline is found in the “Fine Print” about videos: “use should be instructional, not for entertainment or reward.”

So will anything from the current crop of Superhero TV shows be worthy of classroom use?  Tune in to find out!