Friday, February 24, 2017

Employing Controlled Chaos

While brainstorming for last week’s “What is Science?” blog post, I compiled a list of engaging lessons I’ve taken part in. The one I’ve chosen to highlight this week is one of, if not, the greatest example of controlled classroom chaos I have ever experienced. This time it wasn’t a science classroom where this took place, it was in sixth grade history. It may seem like a little bit of a stretch to reach that far back, but I still remember every detail and I don’t think that memory will fade any time soon.

Just like every standout teacher I’ve had, my history teacher made a lasting impact on Day One. Regardless of his initial success, the history lessons I was subjected to improved as the year continued. The time frame we were in during this specific lesson was the French and Indian war. Even though we were interested in every class, some of the information seemed to be falling on deaf ears. For a bunch of eleven and twelve year olds, it was hard to picture why guerilla warfare worked so well or the inefficiency of weapons. After all, we lived (and obviously still live) in the twenty-first century. Outside of using a time machine, it was going to be impossible to transport us into the French and Indian War… our teacher clearly felt otherwise.

Seeing that we were having trouble visualizing the war, my teacher set up a scenario for us to act out. Now, that might not sound exciting at first glance. It was obviously more participation-driven than guided notes per say, but an “act out” wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. My history teacher decided to take it to a whole new level, a level that I have sadly not revisited since.

 As soon as he corralled our attention, my teacher began explaining his idea. We were going to fully recreate the battle of Fort Duquesne in class. We weren’t just going to talk about the war in funny accents; we were going to have a full-on battle in class. For those of you who are a little bit rusty, let me break down some elements of the battle that the activity highlighted:

The British and American Side:
·         Fought in a very structured, open battlefield style
·         Were very loud and telegraphed their actions/movements
·         Underestimated the opposition’s numbers
·         Utilized inefficient 1700s weapons

The French and Native American Side:
·         Used guerilla warfare tactics (concealed themselves, reorganized the fort)
·         Remained almost silent, not giving away any information
·         Had higher numbers than expected
·         Also used inefficient 1700s firearms

This was all unknown to us at the time, but we were about to learn everything firsthand. We were split into two large groups by my teacher. Those of us who were on the British/American team were escorted out into the nearby locker bay so we could strategize. Once we were far enough away from his classroom, my teacher began to brief us on the information we needed to know to play our roles correctly. Because we were the classic European army, we needed to be organized in a rigid formation before entering the battlefield [classroom]. In order to intimidate the French/Native American team, we were told to loudly stomp our feet with every step we took down the hallway. My teacher reassured us that it would be easy because the other group was in an enclosed space. Clearly, we would be able to slowly pick them out, one by one. He concluded by asking that we get in our formation by the time he returned from the officer’s quarters [classroom].

Calmly, but quickly, us snobbish redcoats grouped ourselves into two lines that extended a quarter of the way down the lockers. Just in time, my teacher walked back to our turf with a stack of papers in his hand. I internally groaned because I thought we were going to have to fill out a worksheet in conjunction with the activity. Much to my surprise, he started crumpling up the papers and giving a handful to each student. This was to be our ammunition. If we saw a rival soldier, we were supposed to hit them with a bullet [paper ball]. If we were hit with a bullet [paper ball], no matter who it was from, we were supposed to die [drop to the floor, playing dead]. Most importantly, our group was never allowed to break our formation. That would dishonor the countries we were fighting for and nullify any potential victory we obtained. My teacher jogged back to his classroom and gave us the signal to begin our march.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. I’m confident the amount of noise we were creating was bewildering students of other classes, but it didn’t matter to us. The pride of Britain was all we cared about right now and the way we’d show it was by annihilating our fellow classmates. Our squad reached the door, and one of our two line leaders slowly opened it up. The room was uncharacteristically dark. If that didn’t faze us, the upheaval of all the desks did. Desks and chairs were flipped, leaned, and stacked to create barricades for our opponents. While we were processing the new aspects of the war we didn’t have prior knowledge of, bullets [paper] started flying. Our first six warriors dropped before they could even toss their paper. Even though we couldn’t see many soldiers, we started almost aimlessly sending our bullets across the room. I saw an enemy insurgent sitting in the corner of the room and I knew what I had to do. With haste, I lobbed my biggest paper ball in her direction. Much to my chagrin, it went nowhere near her and I suffered a mortal gunshot wound to the ankle before I could try again. Soon, our entire legion of students was relegated to lying on the floor. The lights came on and we were disappointed to see very few of the French and Indians had been affected by our onslaught. My teacher flipped on the lights and requested we all help clean up the mess we had so successfully created.

Before scooping up the scraps of paper we’d tossed all around the room, I took in the view. Our former classroom was in utter disarray. Not one desk was untouched, papers were strewn everywhere, and students were picking themselves up off the linoleum ground that they’d previously been laying on. Many teachers would shudder at the amount of damage we had done, but mine just sat back and smiled.

When the room had become relatively clean, we started to break down the events that we just experienced. Everything that occurred in our little battle had a purpose. The disarray was similar to the way the French decided to defend their fort. Our side faced so many more casualties than our opposition did. That was very reminiscent of the death ratio between Britain and France in the battle of Fort Duquesne. Paper doesn’t fly very well and neither did the bullets from the 18th Century muskets. My team wasn’t given the information needed to win, just like how Britain’s Fort Duquesne was overconfident and incompetent. It was clear how much thought my history teacher had put into this activity. Too often, I feel like my teachers put certain aspects of a project up to chance and they end up ruing that decision as things fall apart.

Student excitement was billowing after going through our reenactment. Although we weren’t supposed to let his later students in on it, each one of us found friends in other classes to rattle off a recollection of events to.  Sitting at the lunch table, I couldn’t help myself and I just started spilling out information to kids with different teachers. After explaining the whole scenario, there was a little bit of a silence at our table. Confused, I thought maybe they wanted to tell me what they did in class, so I asked them. Our grade had two really popular history teachers; my teacher and one down the hall. My peers told me that the other popular teacher just let them research and fill out a March Madness bracket for their classwork. Even as a sixth grader, I was bewildered with the decision making of their teacher. Intentionally allowing your students to essentially accomplish nothing seems like a poor conclusion to come to. He probably wanted to create positive student rapport and I guess it was technically succeeding. Meanwhile, my history teacher was able to build a good relationship with his students, while still churning out good results. Tests are obviously not the only way to show a student’s comprehension, but not one of my classmates got a grade lower than an A on the French and Indian War test.

It’s probably not hard to imagine the amount of excitement this generated for his class. I mean, my teacher hosted a full-on mock battle in his classroom. How many students can say they’ve experienced something even remotely similar to that? The amount of thought my teacher put into this activity was commendable. The unordinary disruption to daily class life was readily welcomed by the student body. The activity helped us fully understand the context of the battle of Fort Duquesne. The lesson clearly was successful too, because to this day I still remember most of the battle’s key information.

As always, the foundation of what this instructional period entailed is easily transferable to the subject of English. For example, let’s say a class is having trouble comprehending the context of a novel. Take a section of the book and create a scenario for students to act out. Once we’ve lived it, it’s much easier for us to wrap our heads around. However, incorporating a dramatization isn’t the important takeaway here. The fluidity that my history teacher brought to the class was the real key factor.

Making it even easier on my history teacher, we each got our own experience out of our dramatization. So he didn’t need to tailor the activity for any particular students. The activity was differentiated without any extra effort on his part. He let laid out the ground rules and let the reigns go, freeing us to personalize our time-traveling adventure. My teacher knew (and knows) full well that “good teaching doesn’t take place by teaching a list of objectives, but by intentionally planning ways for students to create their own learning” (Students at the Center, 2017). Instead of reading off a PowerPoint word for word, he decided to design a broad activity and have us run wild. In retrospect, this was obviously the right idea. If I were to meet up with former classmates from his class, we would probably all tell the story a different way. The information we learned however, stuck with us and would remain the same.

To students monotony is just another part of their daily school routine. Teachers should not be afraid to purposefully upset the established order for the benefit of their students. Variations in a class’ agenda will get us to perk up immediately. A little unorthodox can be good for students. When educators step out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there with an activity, students are encouraged to follow suit. Getting students fully invested and moving is important. Switching tables and moving around the room “gallery-walk style” are not good enough. Just like integrating technology for the sake of integrating tech is pointless, having kids walk around the room aimlessly defeats the purpose of having students move around. Figuring out reasons for everything students are doing may take a decent amount of time to do, but at the end of the day, if activities like this help students, an attempt should be made. From my experience, the attempts can be just as useful as the tried and true. Teachers can model a healthy learning process with their attempts throughout the year. Students and teachers will be learning alongside each other all year, allowing for a completely even playing field. When students teach teachers even a tiny detail, it’s beneficial. Exposing that weakness and allowing room to grow shows students that teachers are one of them. It should not come as a surprise that when my history teacher employed these tactics, his positive student rapport crashed through the roof.

The last big part of this lesson that I’d like to touch on involves the culture my teacher created in our class. With the aforementioned class period, my history teacher initiated a feeling among the students that we had to go all in. Imagine if students just went through the motions during the Fort Duquesne reenactment. The information would have gotten lost in the shuffle. Also, creating activities that require one hundred percent of a student’s attention is important. Rather than outright banning student cell phone use, teachers would be better suited in using engaging lessons to mitigate class disruptions. At the 2016 NCTE Conference, Dr. Sara Kajder said, “Rather than complaining about students playing Angry Birds, we should be asking ourselves why they are.” Students turn to other sources of engagement if classes are disengaging. “New media literacies… demand a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010), therefore we can’t expect a simple worksheet and video to grasp students’ attention. By utilizing activities that excite students, through controlled chaos and “demand[ing] a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010), through hands-on activities, teachers will be able to ensure that their students are comprehending the material while concurrently building rapport.

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.

DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Kajder, Dr. Sara. "Digital Literacy Can't Wait: Advocating for Access, Autonomy, and Authenticity." 2016 Annual NCTE Convention. Georgia, Atlanta. 19 Nov. 2016. Speech.

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017. Print.


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post Sam and for vividly describing the power of transporting students into our teaching through dramatic recreation grounded in controlled chaos. Your detailed descriptions literally made me feel like I was standing beside your teaching watching with a grin. THAT is the kind of teaching we all desire!

  2. Sam,
    What a thought - provoking post from the title of "Controlled Chaos" all the way to the end. I especially liked this section . . ."Teachers should not be afraid to purposefully upset the established order for the benefit of their students. Variations in a class’ agenda will get us to perk up immediately. A little unorthodox can be good for students. When educators step out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there with an activity, students are encouraged to follow suit."

    So much to think about as you said because you were required to be "all in" and there was no easy spectator role. I love history and know that our learning would have been enhanced by learning like this!

    Thanks for sharing your recollections of this instruction!!!