Sunday, May 28, 2017

Students as Teachers: Restraint Only Hinders Progress

Time and time again it has been said that one of the best ways to learn is to teach. It has also been said that sometimes students can some of the best teachers. A great example of putting these ideas into effect are my school’s ongoing Senior One Act Festival. Basically, to provide some context, this festival is a showcase for the theater department’s seniors to direct, cast, choreograph, and in some cases, even write their own show to perform for an audience. So, in an attempt to throw a curveball into the expected #BowTieBoys blog programming, for the next few posts I will be periodically highlighting the directors of the three shows that I am taking part in.

The first director is actually the reason I even auditioned in the first place. Prior to these Senior One Acts, I had never stepped foot on an auditorium stage with the purpose of acting before. I usually spend my time troubleshooting our department’s sound issues, as I am the soundboard operator for anything theater related. In my eyes, the word ‘comfort’ is more closely associated with sitting in the booth behind the board rather than acting and singing. Having only met him halfway through the year, I felt (and feel) a little bit cheated that he was a senior, so in an effort to be around him more often before graduation, I began talking to him about the One Acts. He strongly encouraged me to try out for his show, which to me sounded like he was offering me a spot. There was a glaring problem with this idea, I had never been onstage before and had no clue what to expect. His solution? The night before auditions, he invited me over and we worked for hours on both my singing and acting. It was a struggle, at first. In order to accurately help me prepare I was going to have to get out of my comfort zone. He knew if I was holding myself back in anyway, awkwardness would show through. Self doubt had to be free from mind, so his first mission was to scare it off.

Our first task was improving my singing. I had never gotten singing lessons, people rarely (italics would not have done that word justice) had heard me sing before, and I did not know any of the lingo that choir students may be acquainted with. In order to explain breathing techniques, pitch changes, and warm up procedures, he used inside jokes not only to break down our musical language barrier, but to simultaneously break the ice and ease my worry. Although I was clearly already comfortable being around him, I would not have been able to instantly make myself vulnerable. I needed to feel safe in my environment before I could open up to him. After working on the fundamentals, we went directly into working on my audition song, “One Song Glory,” from the greatest musical on the planet, Rent. Before we had finished my first attempt he already had a note for me. What he said is something that is not only valid in music (as I’ve recently learned), but in truly everything.

He turned off the backing track and paused before saying anything. Then I found out what I was doing wrong. Apparently, I had been singing “One Song Glory” an octave lower that it was supposed to be. Because my voice typically rests in that range, he hypothesized that it felt more comfortable for me to sing there. He was right, high notes are scary. The pep talk didn’t stop there though. What followed will stick with me for a long, long time.

My friend asked me if I wanted to know the secret to hitting higher notes. His advice was to just do it. It may feel like I can’t, but I shouldn’t even think about it. I should worry about the lyrics, or the acting, or even the color of the chairs in the audience, but don’t think about the pitch for even a moment. My voice can do so much more than I think it can, so I just need to trust it to do the right thing.

My first attempt did not go well. As the first high note came, my voice resembled the dying cries of an animal being run over by a car going sixty miles an hour. I laughed at myself, but it was out of embarrassment. He may have smiled, but my friend did not laugh at me. Nothing but encouragement came from him. More advice was presented to me.

Do not hold back. The only people in the house were him, his mom (who coincidentally was playing piano at the time), and me. No one was going to judge me, so just go for it. The worst that could happen is I might miss the note, in which case we would take the necessary measures to fix it. Restraint only hinders progress. If I held back, I would subconsciously be telling myself that I couldn’t do it. When I went for broke and let all of my insecurity fall to the side, I would be able to achieve what my fullest ability offered. Until then, any talent I might have would remain untapped.

That may be a pretty abstract concept, but it made total sense to me. I was afraid. I was afraid to mess up. I was afraid to look stupid. I was afraid to embarrass myself. He made it clear that in the unlikely event I was not able to do what he thought I could, no judgement would be passed. Outside of the situation that seems obvious, but at the time I irrationally believed verbal evisceration was headed my way if I made a fool of myself. His comments relieved that worry, and with that we began my next attempt at the song.

Even though nothing had physically changed, I was feeling exponentially more confident. I powered through the first portion of the first verse without any doubt. Before I knew it, I was tasked with defeating the high notes. “One Song Glory’s” iconic guitar riff began picking up speed and the palpable tension between his iPhone’s speaker and I grew. The high notes came, my self-doubt slipped away, and the notes came out just the way we intended. It was miraculous. I was so excited. We stopped the recording and did the run again. Even though the first time had gone smoothly, I was so excited that technique must have been abandoned because my vocals did not sound good to put it lightly.

We tried doing vocal exercises before singing along again. Once again, the end result was pretty abysmal. After finally conquering part of my audition song for the first time, I turned right around and failed spectacularly. Twice. I was crestfallen and quite honestly, ready to give up. My friend refused to let me get down on myself. Normally, it would have been easily to just succumb to self criticism, but my friend’s reassurance proved stronger.

He clicked play on “One Song Glory” and Adam Pascal’s voice filled the room yet again. This time, instead of letting me sing the beginning of the verse, he spoke to me. Forget about the high notes. They’re there, but they should not be intimidating. I already proved to him that I could hit the notes, so I really have no excuse not to do it again. Why get hung up on past mistakes rather than realizing I’ve done it before and just need to duplicate that success?

Suddenly, the first verse ended and the chorus started approaching rapidly. Swiftly bowing out, my friend motioned me to sing the chorus. Without having a moment to reconsider, I went directly into singing mode. He proved right again. The notes sounded the way they were supposed to. That was the second time I had sang it correctly! My soon-to-be director cut off the music and gave me a smile. I’d done it, he told me, when I didn’t allow myself to have second thoughts I was able to go ahead and hit every note.

We sang through more songs from Rent. Then, we sang songs from other musicals (more specifically “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Pippin”). Goofing off and playing random characters, we sang to all sorts of different melodies. He pulled another trick on me. All of those songs were just more instances where I was able to hit hard notes. That had not even crossed my mind until he pointed it out to me.

In a matter of hours, I had gone from being too timid to sing anything in front of anyone to belting out assorted Broadway numbers while dancing around my friend’s bedroom. Consider the ice broken.

We jumped into the other side of theater that I lacked experience in: acting. Reading through the audition scripts was a breeze. I felt comfortable around him, therefore putting on different voices and playing with different emotions was not as worrisome. Unsurprisingly, we did not work on acting for nearly as long. He gave me tweaks here and there, but he let me in on another little secret. In practically anywhere, if you loosen up, the product you churn out will be much more satisfying. Good actors do not get scared stiff onstage. They don’t worry about their blocking or their lines. Often, it’s the opposite. Actors can be known as some of the most over-the-top people in the world. It makes sense. If they were always worried about how others perceived them, how could they perform?

I could go on and on about this kid. He is one of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. You will never see him yelling, insulting others, or taking out frustrations on someone. Always looking for new people to interact with, he is also one of the most welcoming people my school has to offer. All of these are good qualities for a teacher to possess. No one ever has a bad thing to say about my friend, because he is not one to make enemies. Teachers who make an effort to reach out to every single one of their students will generate copious amounts of positive student rapport. In my opinion, rapport is the most important factor in a classroom. With authentic connections between teacher and student, a classroom can become an environment where students feel comfortable enough to try new things. We will not be afraid to potentially fail for the purpose of bettering ourselves. Without these bonds, a classroom remains a linoleum-covered prison that we are sentenced to for nine months out of our year. I know which one of those I would rather spend my time in. It doesn't take much for a teacher to give their classroom the feel that my friend gave his bedroom. After all, as my friend said, restraint only hinders progress.

This post is very dear to me, as my friend is graduating at the end of this school year. Like I said earlier, I have only known him for a short while, but in that amount of time he has proved to be one of the best teachers I have ever had. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. They are found all around our community and the lessons they share are not any lesser just because they do not take place in a school. I hope we can all learn something from my friend and the guidance he offered to me. If we forget our insecurities and just reach for what we desire (in academics or elsewhere), it's within our grasp.

I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Understanding Both Sides

Today is the day! After failing time and time again to get something scheduled, my German teacher and I conducted our interview and this blog post will feature her. Prior to the start of this year, I was considering going against what my counselor recommended and dropping my foreign language only three years in. On the first day of school it was going to take a lot to change my mind about German. Resigned, I had already decided that my sophomore eighth block was going to be abysmal.

Similar to my ninth grade Biology teacher (highlighted in my past blog post, “Hooking Students from Day One”), whoever was in charge of German this year would have to make a good impression right away. If not, she would have a lot of catching up to do in order to regain the interest of me and my peers. Freshman year began with my teacher announcing that she spoke five languages and German, the one she was hired to teach, was her worst. Not necessarily the best way to kickoff the year, in my opinion. Without a doubt, I’m sure my current teacher heard the horror stories and she combatted them in the perfect way. Rather than making comparisons to her predecessor she put all the attention on our new situation. It worked too. The key is what she said though.

Through her answers in our interview, it is clear transparency is an aspect of the education system that my teacher highly values. This would explain why she said what she said on day one. As many teachers do, she opened up with her expectations of us along with what students should expect from her/her class. Frau (her classroom moniker) told us that when she was in school she felt slightly overworked. “Being required to take classes that were uninteresting to [her]” (Hawkesworth) was the absolute worst part of that. It’s very different for someone to be stressed out by activities that they enjoy as opposed to ones they don’t. Continuing, she said this didn’t mean core classes should be abolished or anything, but an effort should be made to keep classes engaging. She followed this up by letting us know that she wasn’t going to work us to death. When work was to be assigned we would know it was for a good reason, as she believes busy work is unfair to students (and frankly unnecessary for teachers).

Foreign language is one of those course groups that can get a bad reputation. At my school, they’re known as some of the hardest classes available to students. Difficulty is obviously not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes engagement much more crucial. Another belief Frau strongly holds is that student advocacy is integral to a healthily functioning classroom. “Student advocacy means students working with teachers, the administration, and others to have their voices heard” (Hawkesworth), therefore value must be put in students’ words. Teachers must be open to listening to kids, if student advocacy is to be taken seriously. My German instructor made it abundantly clear from day one that if we had any complaints about class, that we could tell her. This created an open forum for us to share our ideas.

Take, for example, the time our class was assigned a project that required lots of drawing. The majority of our class’ population is not very artistic. Despite that, our rubric demanded ‘well-thought out designs.’ When push came to shove, many of us spent more time worrying about how our art looked instead of the German we were supposed to be learning. One could argue that it was a lack of prioritization on our part. While that is probably partly true, our education system is built on an emphasis of grades. We’ve been conditioned to follow instructions to get the grade, sometimes forgoing the main purpose of the assignment. A couple of my peers and I decided to have a discussion with my teacher about it. She understood our perception of the project and vowed to find a way to avoid this conundrum again. In conjunction, she described her thought process behind adding a visual aspect to the project. The artistic idea was an attempt to appeal to students in the class who might be more skilled in that area. Until our discussion, being angsty teenagers we were just disgruntled. We didn’t understand why she would force an art project on us. On the other side, I’m sure she didn’t understand why there wasn’t much quality work turned in. After we talked, both sides went away feeling satisfied with the explanations they received. Each party also didn’t leave angry because of how civil and genuinely cooperative the discussion was. Since then, there has been no more confusion (and coincidentally no more art-heavy projects).

This brings me back to transparency. Had Frau just shut us down and gave us no explanation other than ‘I’m in charge,’ a large dip in our relationship would have appeared. Why would we trust her after such a response? In my opinion, the most important question a teacher can answer is: why? A simple way to empower students is to pull back the curtain even slightly. There’s no harm in letting us know what’s going on and why. Being given justifications for assignments signals to us that teachers see us as equals, rather than subjects. Without an environment that encourages transparency, it is much harder to keep an open forum for discussion available with students. Teachers that keep students out of the loop generate students that keep teachers out of the loop. That is not beneficial for either side. At the end of the day, and many people have said this many, many times, teachers and students are teammates, not rivals. The end goal is the same for each party. There is no good reason information should be cloaked. In order to enhance true comprehension, educators and their pupils need to be able to be open with one another.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Works Cited:

Hawkesworth, Kara. "Interview with Frau." E-mail interview. 4 May 2017.

Friday, April 28, 2017


Sorry to continuously lead you guys on, but this week will not incorporate my teacher in this week’s edition of my #BowTieBoys blog. We are still working around a scheduling issue. Maybe if I quit saying our discussion will materialize, it will just happen. Regardless of the interview’s absence, I still have a post for this week and in my opinion, it is as current as it gets.

How many of your students get excited to read Canterbury Tales? How about Charles Dickens? Does Homer get their adrenaline pumping? Confidently, I can say very few kids my age are exhilarated by poetry written forever ago. This is not to say these poems do not possess merit, but opening up a thirty year old textbook, smelling the musty pages, and reading the seemingly endless lines of Old English isn’t always the best way to hook students into poetry.

At my school especially, there is a negative stigma surrounding poetry within the student population. The most obvious cause is a lack of engagement. Teachers in my past (with the exception of one) combat this cynical connotation by telling students how to interpret poetry so it’s ‘easier for the test.’ While people may appreciate the cram-regurgitate-forget formula due to its simplicity, at the end of the day, nothing has been taught.

This poses the question: how can we connect today’s younger generation to poetry? It is my belief that the education system can completely revamp how kids see poetry by utilizing rap music as an everyday tool. It’s true the nationwide student landscape cannot be pigeonholed on any topic, it is safe to say, at least a good portion of students actively listen to rap or hip hop music. Recently, Grammy award winning phenomenon, Kendrick Lamar, released a new album titled: “DAMN.” For only two weeks, “DAMN.” has been picking up steam. As one of the most hyped albums in the genre of rap, it has already become the highest selling album of 2017 (Caulfield).

I understand where the hesitance comes from regarding introducing rap music into the classroom. Lyrics can be explicit, allude to drugs/sex/violence, or repeat the same lines over and over again. There are ways to combat that fact though. First off, overly vulgar or repetitive songs probably don’t need to be included as they may not possess much substance, but censored versions (or uncensored, if allowed) of well written songs can allow students to analyze storytelling through music they already listen to. Also, even though rap lyrics may be more direct with their references, school mandated books are not squeaky clean either. Last year, the entire grade read To Kill a Mockingbird. A key element of that story is a court case surrounding rape charges. Add in the constant use of racial slurs and you have a story that’s potentially ‘more inappropriate’ than some rap music. Obviously, subject matter doesn’t mean the book is bad, but the same judgment should apply to rap music as well. In English this year I’ve read Lord of the Flies and am actively reading Macbeth. Sexual imagery is present in the former and constant mentions of high alcohol consumption and murder run rampant in the latter. When broken down, other than word choice, there is not much difference between Macbeth brutally stabbing Duncan and a rapper describing a life riddled with gang violence. Just like poetry has a student-driven negative connotation, rap music has a seemingly adult-driven negative connotation. Bringing both together in a classroom setting would do wonders to crumble the criticism of each form of literature.

There is so much that can be taught with the unique lyricism that rap allows writers to play with. The genre is entirely based around rhythm, which in the state of Virginia is a concept students must master before the end-of-year standardized testing. Take this excerpt from Kendrick Lamar’s song, “DNA.” as an example:

"I got, I got, I got, I got
Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
I was born like this, since one like this
Immaculate conception
I transform like this, perform like this
Was Yeshua's new weapon"

In a twenty-two second span, ‘Kung Fu Kenny’ manages to seamlessly use internal rhyme, allusion, simile, alliteration, assonance, consonance, flashback, and of course rhythm. All of which are literary devices that Virginia’s curriculum involves. On the surface, teachers may be quick to avoid this song because of the mention of cocaine. Upon further analysis however, it is clear that Lamar is merely explaining that he has overcome his family’s history of drug abuse/drug trafficking. Just as in any work of art, only when its audience delves beneath the surface do they find out what it truly means.

With each new song comes a new story and/or a new perspective. It’s a great lesson to teach students; one writer can look at something in so many different ways. Look no further than “HUMBLE.” which is arguably Kendrick’s biggest hit from the album. Taking this song face value, one might think “HUMBLE.” is just another boisterous rap song where the artist raps about how great he is. After another look or so, it’s amazing how masterfully Lamar wrote this. Today’s rap singles very rarely venture into social commentaries. Typically, even when they do, listeners are supposed to just absorb the lyrics without too much extra thought. “HUMBLE.” is just one huge satirical piece, full of juxtaposed lyrics aimed at today’s landscape of rappers. Throughout the song, 'K-Dot' uses braggadocious lyrics to explain why people should “be humble.” This is a hugely popular song in my school. Imagine what could be accomplished if teachers harnessed the enthusiasm students have towards rap music and redirected it into the classroom. Most kids listening to “HUMBLE.” for example do not know that the song is dominated by irony. Reading comprehension and poetic writing ability will grow if students’ eyes are opened up to what their favorite songs’ lyrics mean.

So much would occur if rap was incorporated into the classroom more often. Rather than perpetuating a disconnect between teacher and student, schools should integrate the genre as a whole into English classes to:
  • Foster students’ abilities to analyze song lyrics, as well as poetry
  • Help students identify literary devices and figurative language
  • Build positive rapport with students through changes to classroom formulas
  • Increase enthusiasm for English through music that has a preexisting connection with kids
  • Show different methods famous songwriters use to captivate an audience
  • Draw parallels between classical and modern forms of literature
  • Allow students to explore emulating assorted writing styles in their own writing

I very much believe that one of, if not the, largest necessities of education is open mindedness. There is no such thing as one true way to write. There is no such thing as one true way to interpret a work of literature. There is no such thing as one true way to create art. That all may sound cliché, but when we disallow certain genres from the classroom (whether it be books, music, poems, movies, etc.), we dispute these expressions. To reiterate, I am not advocating for teachers to play songs that are primarily made up of unnecessary profanity, yet I still wonder; how come ‘classic books’ get exceptions made for them, while ‘modern music’ receives an advisory sticker?

As Kendrick Lamar says in the song “Ab-Soul’s Outro,” everyone has their own perspective on the world. When teachers expose students to only one form of writing, we have a much more limited understanding of what writing can be. Restricting rap music is just another way to restrict the way students think, act, feel, and express themselves. At the end of the day, even though educators are the classroom authority, no one can force a formula upon students. Writing is about envisioning a moment and recreating it for an audience, regardless of what shape it takes. Shielding kids from rap music (even though we already have access to it anyway) does much more bad than good. Ultimately, students need to have the freedom to explore what works for them and what doesn’t. Poetry is a beautiful art form and can be among the most therapeutic ways to release pressure from within. By incorporating the genre of rap into the classroom and helping students see its similarities to poetry, students will become more engaged and successful in English.

See a lot of ya'll don't understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money, h***, clothes, god, history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I've spent twenty three years on the earth searching for answers
Til' one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I've not on the outside looking in
I'm not on the inside looking out
I'm in the death ****ing center, looking around”
(Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul’s Outro)

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Caulfield, Keith. "Kendrick Lamar Earns Third No. 1 Album on Billboard 200 Chart With Biggest Debut of 2017." Billboard. N.p., 22 Apr. 2017. Web. 28 Apr. 2017.

Lamar, Kendrick. Ab-Soul's Outro. Kendrick Lamar. Terrace Martin, 2011. MP3.

Lamar, Kendrick. DNA. Kendrick Lamar. Aftermath Entertainment, Mike Will Made It, 2017. MP3.

Lamar, Kendrick. HUMBLE. Kendrick Lamar. Aftermath Entertainment, Mike Will Made It, 2017. MP3.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Minions: A Teaching Movie?

Today’s blog post was originally scheduled to include an interview with another one of my teachers, but timing didn't work out. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, I just have to put that post on hold. Inspiration really can come from anywhere and what inspired me to write this replacement is as strange as it gets.

I am a big movie fan, as many people around the world are. Going to the movie theater, buying DVDs, and watching movies at home are all so much fun to me. Some of my friends have a strange obsession with the Minions movie. At first, it didn’t make any sense to me why a children’s cartoon was connecting so well with a group of teenagers. I didn’t see the film and I knew nothing about it, so I went and researched it a little bit. The first thing I found blew me away. Would you believe Minions (according to grossed almost 1.2 billion dollars internationally? How did a movie with gibberish-speaking protagonists, gain enough popularity to earn a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Home Alone?

After getting over my original, close-minded confusion, I attempted to start looking at the movie in a more objective way. Despite having no linguistic skills whatsoever, the Minions manage to create an emotional connection with audiences. Why is this the case?

Throughout the movie, the Minions are genuine in every action they take part in. They are completely transparent to the audience in everything that they do. Moviegoers do not have to make guesses about their motives, because they will blatantly show what they are about to do and, more importantly, why.

While the premise of the movie is that the Minions want to be ‘despicable,’ kids and adults alike find solace in their heartwarming emotions. The characters in the movie see them as evil, but theater patrons enjoy seeing them care for one another.

Even though they are the titular characters, the Minions fail endlessly. Very rarely do they succeed. In fact, the entire first quarter of the movie essentially shows how the Minions achieve their goal. This doesn’t stop them though - they continue to try new things. The Minions do not hide their setbacks either, instead the yellow creatures outwardly accept them and try to adapt based off of them.

Finally, in Minions, the protagonists have disagreements with each other. Constant infighting between the Minions does not distract from the larger goal they have. At the end of the day, while they may disagree, the Minions find a way to overcome any disparity and band together.

I swear all of that had a purpose. As trivial as it may sound, a lot can be taken from films that generate excitement. The elements that make Minions a box office success are similar to the elements that make a teacher successful. Now, very few educators are one-eyed, yellow, hot dog shaped individuals, but personalities shown by the Minions are ones that should be transferred to education as a whole. I’m just using Minions as an example. Many movies show good teaching qualities. Just like when students analyze literature and draw parallels to their lives, teachers can break down movies of all genres.

Transparency in teaching is extremely important. Students should never wonder why they are doing work. If work is purposeless, it is useless too. The Minions are very straightforward. They do “X,” because “Y.” Educators that work the same way, in my experience, are better at creating positive rapport. Viewers are never in the dark when they watch Minions. It is empowering for students to not only feel like they know what is going on, but for them to genuinely understand the reasoning behind classroom decisions. When teachers withhold information from students, it perpetuates an age-old divide between the two sides of education. To ensure classes run smoothly, with more collaboration, and with more efficiency, each party needs to be on the same page. Any teacher who treats their students as underlings shoots themselves in the foot. It’s cliche to say at this point, but respect is mutual. If a teacher wants respect and trust, it is crucial they establish an environment where students know they are respected and trusted.

Minions are evil. Their original purpose was to equip Despicable Me’s villain with a group of henchmen, yet everyone are drawn to them. Unlike stormtroopers in Star Wars, Nicky Santoro in Casino, or the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, the Minions have redeeming qualities. They are humane. As humans, we are drawn to humanity. Whether it be in movies or education, our favorites are the ones who show the most compassion and empathy. Think back to some of your best teachers from the past. Now, think back to some of your worst teachers. What set them apart? My answer is very simple. Educators that I cannot connect with typically run with no reference made to students. The focus is on either what’s easiest for the teacher or what our textbook says. Stifling rules are put in place to control, rather than to enhance authentic learning. Why would a student be excited to attend a class that’s run in a borderline totalitarian fashion? Teachers that build real connections with kids are the ones that are remembered forever. In order to build a positive relationships with students, teachers need to create an environment where students feel allowed to question, explore, and draw their own conclusions. For the entirety of Minions, one of the characters lugs around a teddy bear. This particular minion will stop at nothing to protect his bear. He refuses to let anything happen to it and wants to keep the toy in his arms at all times. Inviting classrooms work the same way. Within a teacher’s classroom, students should feel safe enough to delve deep into their writing, reading, or research without fear of being judged or non-constructively criticized.

Nobody is perfect. Anybody who pretends to be perfect is lying. The Minions are far from perfect. In fact, one of the most endearing aspects of their characters is that constant failure does not perturb them. Minions are not quiet about when something doesn’t work. If one of their ideas falls flat, they own it and move on. Successful teachers are the same way. Believe it or not, a lot of the time, if something fails in the classroom, teachers do not do anything to fix the issue. Of course, I have no statistics to back this up, but this is just what I’ve seen through my ten years of school. A more positive way for educators to face failure, is to admit it and to just try a new idea. Rapport with students grows when teachers show vulnerability. Earlier, I pointed out if teachers want to respect, they need to respect their students. It’s the same thing here. Kids are more likely to step out of their comfort zone when teachers show they’re not afraid to put themselves out there either.

The Minions’ constant conflict within their ranks is arguably the most important characteristic to look at. Disagreements are a part of everyone’s lives. Students disagree with fellow students. Teachers disagree with other teachers. Teachers and students butt heads over certain topics. Administration policies sometimes create unpleasant feelings amongst teachers and students. Parents air their grievances towards teachers and administrative officials. Students and parents collide often as well. There are even more examples of dissension that I didn’t even mention. The Minions never retain harsh feelings at each other. They can accidentally launch missiles at each other and in under five minutes, it’s no longer an issue. Humans in general can learn something here, not just teachers and students. Holding grudges will inevitably eviscerate a school. Social drama does not accomplish anything positive for a school. In order for school to be inviting for students (and teachers, admin, and parents), everyone has to be open minded. I understand that is easier said than done, but feedback has to be acceptable. Without honest feedback, how can a teacher ever know the pros and cons of their class? Teachers look at school with a different lens than students. If we block ourselves in from any other opinions, we are faced with a stagnant future. For the sake of innovation and constant growth, fights should be avoided in favor of calm discussions with opposing viewpoints. When we take advice from Minions and collectively put our differences aside to achieve the same goal: student development.

This blog post may have been a bit eccentric, but I honestly believe there is merit in analyzing Minions for the sake of improving the educational realm. Sometimes teachers and students do not communicate the same way. Adults come from a different generation than kids. That does not mean the doors of discussion are locked shut. Once again, look at Minions. None of the Minions speak a word of English, or any human language for that matter. They overcame this language barrier to earn 1.2 billion dollars for Universal Studios. If Minions can make that much money while speaking gibberish, teachers can convey their messages to students and vice versa. It’s not all on the educators. Students have to also be willing to accept teachers’ attempts to connect, just like audiences have to be willing to accept “pwede na” as a real word. However, without teachers making a conscious effort, students will never reciprocate.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s unique edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Works Cited:
"Minions (2015)." Box Office Mojo. IMDb, n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2017.
Minions. Dir. Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. Perf. Sandra Bullokc and Jon Hamm. Universal Pictures, 2015. DVD.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Benefits of Varying Class Structure: Revisited

About a month and a half ago, I detailed experiences from one of my AP classes. I’m more than happy to say the class has become so much more engaging. While grades may not always be an accurate representation of information retention, I think it it’s telling that I’m on pace to earn a significantly higher grade this quarter. The climate of my classroom was very much one that did not seem to value diversified class formatting, which in part led to a high rate of student disengagement.

Out of nowhere, our AP class has embarked on an entirely new path. Worksheets, guided notes, and lengthy YouTube videos have been replaced with debates, role-playing activities, and multimedia research projects. Data is never the only measurement for student success, but the data certainly supports my teacher’s newfound strategies. Morale is high, which is rare for an AP class full of sophomores. Overall, the classroom is a much happier place to be in.

Others may disagree (and many of my past teachers have done so vociferously), but to me, there always has to be an outlet for fun in class. Now, ‘fun’ obviously doesn’t mean let students run wild and disregard any work that needs to be completed, but there’s always a way to spruce up class time. School is full of mandation, silent work, and surface level worksheets. In a sea of monotony, being a beacon of variation and/or joviality will ultimately build student rapport and foster a more engaging classroom ecology.

Take my current teacher for example. She can attest to the fact that changing class format can drastically affect the emotions of students. My teacher has been on both sides of the spectrum; at the start of the year, stressed out teenagers would call her names out of earshot, incessantly complain to substitute teachers if she was absent, and mentally check out during class. Due to her seemingly random shift in pedagogy, she is now treated much more positively. Gone are the remarks about her teaching style and the audible snores from the corner of the room. In their place are students excited to learn (or at least debate) and find their own definition of our world’s history.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this was no accident. Similar events would unfold if teachers anywhere made this switch. In the words of Nelly, “let’s break it down” real quick:

I won’t dive too deep into her past teaching decisions (because you can find all of that information in my first blog post), but let’s just say our student population was less than engaged. Videos, paired with worksheets, were given to us every single class and it was wearing on my peers and I very quickly. The non-participatory qualities of her teaching tactics led to lower test scores and a very disgruntled group of kids. I may not have a full grasp on this topic, but if I’m not mistaken, some teachers’ jobs rely very heavily on test scores. Regardless of whether or not paper and pencil tests have any merit, they can be necessary to ensure a teacher’s livelihood. Keeping this in mind, I believe a significant issue plaguing our class was a trend of declining test scores. It was getting to the point that the top scores were clocking in around the C or C+ range. Clearly, mastering nearly 80% of the material (at best) was not where we needed to be. From a purely data-centered standpoint this shift was warranted.

Rather than constantly holding classes that were carbon copies of one another, my teacher recently began varying our class structure. As I stated above, she’s seeing attention-grabbing activities with more enthusiasm.

My favorite of the activities that she has created and has us take part in, is her debate/reenactment hybrid. Take our World War I Treaty of Versailles edition for example. Each of the students were split into groups that represented the different countries involved in the conflict. We each had the allotted amount of time to prepare before attempting to persuade the other countries to give us what we wanted. Every group brought a different flavor to the debates,  whether it be through analogies, threats, compromises, or pointing blame elsewhere. The arguments were so fierce that they continued after we left the classroom. My classmates were on the way to lunch and people were arguing about whether or not Serbia was at fault for starting the first World War. If that’s not a true instance of engagement, I don’t know what is.

It should come as no surprise that collectively grades went up. Comprehension of the curriculum was also much higher, across her classes. The reasoning behind it is common sense. When students are engaged, information makes a more long lasting impact on them.

I strongly believe that school is not about teaching curriculum, it is more about teaching life skills. The independence projects like this require is so beneficial to us. Rather than having our teacher read the events out to us, with the winner ultimately getting final say about what happened, we all got to draw our own conclusions. There was no right answer. We were forced to figure out where we stood on the issues and then bolster them to a sometimes disagreeing crowd. That’s a skill that only becomes more important as time goes on. Fostering that growth would never be possible under the guidance of notes and worksheets.

Not only does this new formatting shift harness students’ desire for independence and engage us to a subject that has a bad connotation, it has given my teacher a more positive rapport with her students. In switching how her class is run, my teacher has shown all of us that she has enough self-awareness to know a change was necessary if we were going to be ready for the AP test. Most bad blood is gone because student trust has increased substantially. We know our teacher is truly on her side. She isn’t stubborn, her one goal is to make sure we learn. All of that became very clear after worksheets went extinct and constant, opinionated, and explorative work was re-introduced.

While this may be a non-English AP class that I’m highlighting, but just as in every other blog that’s up on my website, this can easily be taken to an English classroom and it will heavily improve it. The ways an educator can do that are simpler than they might imagine.

The biggest complaint from my teacher’s students before her revamp was her lack of conversation with students. She seemed very isolated from us and with a struggling class, that’s not really helpful. As soon as she started listening to the voices in her classroom and made an attempt to answer those voices, our class’ favorability of her was enhanced. Teachers need to allow students a voice in their classroom. How else with they know what is working and/or what is not? Although teachers may believe their lesson plans are having an effect on students, if their ears are deaf to the kids inhabiting their class, they will never know for sure.

On another note, we, students, know when a teacher is avoiding listening to us. It’s so obvious and on top of that it’s so off putting. That just shows as that a teacher will not change (regardless of student needs) and rips to shreds any possibility of a good relationship between students and their teacher.

The best way to initiate a switch similar to my teacher is to know your students. All throughout the year, teachers should be learning about who their students are, how they learn, and what makes them tick. Without this information, if they are subjected to a difficult aspect of the curriculum, teachers will not be able to help them as effectively. If my teacher had seen that we were not connecting with videos and worksheets, and decided to give us PowerPoint presentations to do, we still wouldn’t have connected. My teacher knew that we were a class that loves to talk, argue, and get competitive. Naturally, this led to the introduction of the elements listed above. Variations within a class structure will never be the same across two classrooms - frankly, not everything can work. No one except for the teacher of the classroom can fully understand what is right for their students. Who else spends seven hours daily with these kids, outside their parents? It’s on educators to get down to a personal level with their students, otherwise student rapport will fall, test scores will fall, classroom morale will fall, and engagement will fall. A class without these components is destined to crumble under the weight of its own failure.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Responding with Humanity

“It’s not the end of the world if they’re doing something a little different” (Hochkeppel).

At the time that I started writing this post out, I was preparing for a State competition with the director/teacher/role model that I intended to highlight. That wasn’t really a necessary thought to share, but I found it funny. Throughout the school, he is widely recognizable as the sometimes eccentric member of the fine arts wing. Although his methods can be unorthodox, he has managed to capture the hearts of students of past, present, and even future.

I have been through a good amount of classes and productions with him at this point in time. Regardless of the ever-changing class and rehearsal format, one aspect of my interactions with Mr. Hochkeppel have remained constant; his philosophy towards teaching. Central in his pedagogy is the idea that students should have as much freedom as possible. The man affectionately known as H, believes very strongly that when students are given the chance to succeed, they will.

Over the course of a couple weeks, I held interviews with H in order to paint a decent picture of how he thinks. The quotes Mr. Hochkeppel shared with me in our interviews were pretty indicative of the way he runs class. I hope that by the end of this article it is clear why he is so impactful and so widely beloved.

“All these kids up here, they have the ability and they have the potential. Now all they need is to be given the opportunity" (Hochkeppel).

At my high school, this quote is synonymous with H. It can be found all over our drama department as well as a giant sign in the Black Box (the theater classroom). This mantra is very much one he lives and teaches by.

Outside of actually directing, students run every aspect of the theater department. We design and build the set, advertise the show, make the costumes, run the lights and sound, choreograph, and search for props (along with any left out aspects of theater). H has expectations and we know we have to meet them. There is no need for him to hold our hand throughout the journey. Not only does it harness students’ need for independence, it builds a mutual trust between the two parties. Mr. Hochkeppel professes his trust of us and backs it up with giving us space to try new things. In turn, our trust in him grows because it is ingrained in us that he is on our side. He believes “the best way to make high quality work when you have a band of… people is give them as much freedom as possible” (Hochkeppel). If H were to run the department in an authoritarian manner instead of one built on a symbiotic relationship, dissension would fester. Our shows would not nearly be as successful, his classes would not retain a lot of the curriculum taught to them, and frankly fewer students would want to join.

Effective teaching is all about establishing an environment similar to this. It is necessary for students to have freedom to make choices and mistakes on their own and to experience the consequences of each.

“Unfortunately, I think we graduate people who are not ready to take on the world… because we’ve kept them, artificially, from the world” (Hochkeppel).

Assignments that students are forced to complete often have no authenticity behind them. Most of the time, they would have very little value outside the walls of the school building. Instead of doling out worksheets “let’s create as real a world as we can imagine” (Hochkeppel) for students. “School doesn’t work for some great percentage of people, if working means you come out… a lot smarter and ready to take on the world” (Hochkeppel) and a lot of that stems from a lack of real world application. For kids, it’s not unusual to be faced with daily textbook readings and passionless reading response questions. The workplace just assigns adults projects that need to get done. If school is supposed to mirror future occupational labor, then the framework of assignments needs to shift.

One method for educators to potentially assuage this issue is to consider the real purpose of assigned work. Work students are completing should not be used as a distraction tool. If something is not directly evolving a student’s comprehension it needs to be axed. Even “behavior problems… [are] because you have intelligent people who are noticing they’re being asked to do something senseless” (Hochkeppel). A simple fix would be to get the ‘senseless’ out of school. Busy work, not only annihilates any positive rapport that’s been built; it creates a blurry image of what learning actually looks like. The latter is a potentially more serious issue.

“I don’t believe in tests beyond doing. The paper can fool you. You can get all A’s and not know how to do anything” (Hochkeppel).

Since my freshman year, I’ve had three classes with Mr. Hochkeppel as the teacher; Technical Theater, Public Speaking, and Creative Writing. All of them were different in subject matter, but were run with the same goal in mind: “getting students to ‘do’” (Hochkeppel). At this point, it is a given that paper and pencil tests do not always fully evaluate a student’s knowledge. Students may understand the material, but may have extremely bad test-taking anxiety. Due to the nature of assessments like these, some may still show signs of comprehension despite not actually knowing much about the topic.

When I asked H about his education background, he brought up how he fared in school. While he excelled at completing quizzes, he felt under-prepared heading into the professional world. H noted that “in real life, there aren’t a bunch of tests you have to pass. Nobody cares about what you can do on paper” (Hochkeppel). He is absolutely right too. If a surgeon scores well on every test they take in medical school, but then does not know how to safely complete a surgery, there will be very large ramifications. Mr. Hochkeppel is very outspoken that “rather than just giving students some Latin terms to teach persuasion… we should [have] students… persuade” (Hochkeppel). The best way to learn is to do. Regurgitating phrases onto a worksheet doesn’t hit the curriculum home a majority of the time. Just like in my history class [insert shameless plug for my blog post last week], without an opportunity to take off the “thinking cap” and put on the “doing cap,” information won’t stick as often.

Other schools in our area have Technical Theater classes, but very few get as much accomplished as Mr. Hochkeppel’s do. Instead of wasting time on going over how one might build a set, his students just jump right in. Our learning mostly occurred through experience. If we built a faulty set piece, we inspected it and, with H’s help, found ways to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The importance of “as early as possible… get[ting] kids judging: was this a good move or a bad move?” (Hochkeppel) is high because it grows their independence. It allows students to learn from their own mistakes, in real time, and figure out how best to solve issues proactively. In Public Speaking, in the first semester of my sophomore year, we didn’t discuss the theory of good public speaking. The class jumped right in and started performing, later coming together for constructive criticism. Currently, I’m in his Creative Writing class. On the first day of class, we already had an assignment. He explained that had we come together to converse about how to write creatively (instead of actually writing), nothing would ever get completed. Art is too subjective for there to be one, correct formula to writing. Not to mention, the word ‘formula’ and ‘writing’ shouldn’t ever be near each other in a sentence. Writing has a mind of its own and can take whatever form the author chooses. H understands his “version of what you gotta know is silly” (Hochkeppel) to everyone except for him. The way he writes is completely valid, but it may not make sense for me to adopt all of his personal guidelines. To me, that idea is crucial to a classroom’s success.

It is treasonous to the subject of English to pretend writing only fits one mold. Writing is about expressing what writers need to express. Educators that teach to check off boxes rather than let ideas flow free are leading their students to become bland and inexpressive. Mr. Hochkeppel agrees with that sentiment. He even goes as far as saying the current public education system is destined to follow that path more than often.

“Do the citizens belong to the state? I kind of think that’s the implication of the [school structure]” (Hochkeppel).

Individuality is often suppressed by the public education system. It is very true that “some go through school damaged by the continued assault on personal value” (Hochkeppel). In most of my English classes, when we analyze the books we read, our teacher stands at the front of the room and essentially tells us how we should interpret it. A couple of my peers have been shot down, in front of the rest of the class, because they had an alternative interpretation. I strongly agreed with H when he said, “I don’t think there should be some big apparatus telling students what the real story is” (Hochkeppel). That is transferrable to any subject. There are multiple sides to history. There are conflicting theories in science. There are abundant ways students can experience a book. “If we [break down] all the facts in the average SOL… you could say ‘that’s a decent fact to know’ but it’s not like you need to know that… for a good life” (Hochkeppel) and student rapport diminishes when teachers value trivia over true comprehension. There’s a stark difference between teaching disjointed facts and actually ingraining information in a student’s brain.

One of the biggest aspects of my Creative Writing class is analyzing each other’s work, for the purpose of understanding clear author’s purpose. Just because classmates differ in opinions doesn’t mean they need to come to a consensus. Disagreements are a very real part of life. Teachers should “trust people not to be good, but… trust people to look out for their own interests and to do what they see is right” (Hochkeppel). Who are teachers to tell us how we see the world is incorrect?

Mentally make a list of all the great thinkers of our world’s time. Albert Einstein. Sigmund Freud. Thomas Edison. Galileo. Some might argue we no longer have people like them in America. H vociferously disagreed:

“We look at [great thinkers] and say, ‘Wow why don’t we have smart people like [them] anymore?’ The fact is, we do. We have just as smart people… but we have funneled them through a system… which takes away… autonomy and… personal judgement” (Hochkeppel).

Rather than allowing students to find themselves, the current structure attempts to confine them to one way of thinking. The goal of school is to help students grow into fully independent adults. “We train kids to be afraid to do anything without an adult’s say so” (Hochkeppel) and when that is instilled in us, we are destined to fail in the outside world. If when we’re younger, we are not allowed to speak our minds or form our own opinions, we never will. That would be borderline apocalyptic for the future.

“Kids are made to feel like crap for not being good enough for these tests. Even though those tests aren’t an objective yard stick to measure value, we treat them that way” (Hochkeppel).

Students respond to humanity, more so than we do to hard data. On our first day of grade school, numbers become attached to us. Grades, lunch numbers, student IDs, class numbers – every aspect of our very existence is quantified. All the time, I start off the school year taking a ‘how do you learn’ quiz. Very few, if any, of my teachers follow through and adjust to the way I learn. We follow the same formulaic agenda:
  • Guided Notes
  • Worksheet
  • Discuss as a class
  • Test
It doesn’t matter if you’re an auditory learner, a visual learner, a kinesthetic learner, or a completely different learner; you’re doing the same thing as everyone else.

The opposite is also very much true. I’ve had teachers in the past who are overly reliant on test scores (specifically reading levels) and use them to divide classes into ‘smart’ kids and ‘slow’ kids. “It’s a bit of a mania when the end result is not better teaching, but a kind of non responsive way of thinking,” (Hochkeppel) H pointed out, when I asked about his thoughts on the sudden push for the “huge push nationally… for… data” (Hochkeppel). At this point it should be very clear that no two students think, work, or act the same, yet we get assessed in a one-size-fits-all fashion. 

Most times it seems that the system isn’t “meant to help every kid achieve their dream but rather as a sorting mechanism” (Hochkeppel). Data can certainly be a useful tool, but when it’s turned into the deciding factor of a child’s intelligence, it becomes detrimental to school in general. Over my eleven years in the American public school system so far, I’ve been labeled the ‘smart’ kid and the ‘slow’ kid. Both labels hurt me, personally. When I’m painted as belonging in the ‘smart’ group, I’m expected to know every answer when called on. If I don’t, I get a disapproving look from the teacher and maybe a discussion after class. When I’m described as one of the ‘slow’ kids, I’m told I need to put forth more effort – regardless of the work ethic I show. Mr. Hochkeppel believes “those numbers exist not to help the students to learn, but to help the powers that be, pick students and divide them [into who’s] valuable and… not” (Hochkeppel). Granted, I may not have the experience of graduate school or teaching a class of students, but I certainly have been led to believe that too. It’s very clear which students are teachers favorites and which ones aren’t when data becomes a focal point of the class.

Before I finish up, I'd like to quickly congratulate our drama department (run by Mr. Hochkeppel) on winning the state championship in Virginia's one act competition! It was a great experience and it is certainly deserving after all the work our cast and crew did. There is zero chance we could have accomplished this without H at the helm. He has been a role model of mine for the past two years and I'm honored to have the privilege of working with and learning from him for two more upcoming years.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

“You can’t keep… people down if they’re free, but you can certainly affect them greatly by taking twelve years of their life and making them subservient, obedient, and non free thinkers” (Hochkeppel).

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part One." Personal interview. 18 Jan. 2017.

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part Two." Personal interview. 8 Mar. 2017.