#Fail (Or, Recovering after an Instructional Misstep)

Oh, Failure.

You're one of the best tools for learning -- and yet nothing feels worse than that moment when you instructionally faceplant right in front of all your students. And since it happens to the most seasoned teachers, regardless of how much preventative planning they might have done, you may as well learn how to roll with the punches now. Especially if you ever plan on doing anything in your classroom other than worksheets.

I've been taking some major risks this week in regards to student leadership. On Monday, I put our Lead Producer in charge for the class period -- selecting which shots should be filmed (based on the materials that were available), giving instructions to the cinematographer and actors, and maintaining discipline on set. We were able to wrangle some quality footage, but it was definitely more challenging than I'd anticipated. The Lead Producer kept looking at me every time she gave a direction, like: "I think that we should do the shot of Sarah and Bobby walking through the dog pound?" I kept trying to non-verbally redirect her to address her classmates instead of me -- and, by the end of the period, she seemed a lot more confident taking charge. I think that, in another few weeks, I should basically be superfluous in my classroom, which is always my goal.

I also tried having some of our eighth graders choreograph dance numbers for the younger students. That? Was a disaster. I had one student choreographer who stood in front of an entire class and said: "I don't know the dance." She didn't know her dance after two structured work sessions, a final showcase (with teacher feedback), and a written reminder the day before. The other student choreographer had a much better grasp on the material, but still forgot half of the steps once she started teaching. (Understandable. It's sometimes challenging for me, as an adult, to teach. I imagine that it must be exponentially harder for a middle schooler.) The one step that I skipped over with student choreographers this time around, but won't in the future, is a work session where students need to demonstrate how they'd teach the lesson before they're scheduled to go into an actual fifth grade class. I'm not giving up on the idea of student choreographers. I just need to rework the process of training and following-up with them.

So here are my key takeaways for recovering after an instructional misstep (or, how I plan on learning from this week's many failures):

1. Have a packet of go-to activities.
If your lesson implodes into a blazing firestorm, always have a packet of go-to activities copied and stocked in your classroom. Have a list of TV episodes on Netflix (or Hulu or Amazon Prime) that you can turn on in case of emergency. Or an art activity that will get students silently drawing for 10-15 minutes -- while you MacGyver a new lesson plan out of a pack of Expo markers, a ream of copy paper, and half a dozen paper clips. Even if you have a list of Turn and Talk topics taped to your whiteboard, those few seconds where students are focused on each other (instead of you) could be a lifesaver in terms of getting your act together.

2. Take smart risks.
I thought that having student choreographers would be a "smart risk." I knew from watching years of talent shows that our students are able to choreograph independently. I was also acknowledging my own limitations -- in this case, my lackluster dance skills. My choreography would involve a lot of swaying from side-to-side and pointing at the audience. But this skill deficit is exactly what DIDN'T make this a smart risk. When you're taking an instructional risk, it needs to be in an area where you're strong enough to readjust the lesson at a moment's notice. When those student choreographers forgot all of their pre-planned dance steps, I needed to be able to say from the back of the classroom: "Do you think we should add a box step here?" Make sure that you've mastered the basics before you start taking major risks.

3. Take ownership of what happened.
There's nothing wrong with admitting that you tried something new today, and it didn't work out exactly as planned. In fact, it sets a great example for your students. Middle schoolers are terrified of putting themselves out there and taking risks. What if something goes wrong? What if they are totally embarrassed in front of all their FRIENDS? WHY DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND THEIR STRUGGLE?! By stepping up and taking ownership of your instructional missteps, you can show that not only do you understand their struggle, you also take steps to learn from your failures and make adjustments for next time. (And look! You were totally embarrassed and the world DID NOT END!) Remember that your students will (in the words of Sondheim) "look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be." So make your best behaviors clear so that they can replicate them.

The Thirty (Or, How To Get the Most Out of a Year)

Today, I'm turning thirty. Since that's a grown-up age, there will now be a certain level of gravitas attributed to my every word, and I will automatically be taken seriously by all academic researchers, corporate executives, and government officials. I will be perceived as a fount of wisdom and showered with laudations for my every deed. Don't tell me I'm wrong; I've been waiting for years to gain admittance to The All-Powerful Thirty Club. You can deny me no longer.

At the beginning of each year, I create a list of tasks that I want to accomplish. This year's list is titled "The Thirty" and consists of thirty tasks because I'm unbelievably boring. There's only one guideline that I keep in mind when creating this list: I need to feel excited about completing every single task. That doesn't necessarily mean that the tasks themselves need to be exciting. "Get your driver's license" wasn't going to light my world on fire -- but the thought of using that little ID card for my passport application (after the post office rejected my permit) was enough to put that task at #13 on my list.

So, without further ado, The Thirty:

1. Run a 5K (registered for The Color Run on May 8)
2. Join a gym
3. Apply to lecture at a conference (completed)
4. Travel abroad
5. Visit a nutritionist (completed)
6. Become a WW Lifetime Member
7. Apply for a teaching award
8. Order a food-related subscription box
9. Go to a group fitness class
10. Take a cooking class
11. Buy a bikini for the first time ever
12. Go on a date
13. Get your driver's license (completed)
14. Learn to ride a bike (first lesson completed: February 21)
15. Submit an article for publication
16. Take the GRE exam
17. Apply to a summer program (completed)
18. Get a new tattoo
19. Email a theater company that you really admire and introduce yourself (completed)
20. Go on a scenic multi-day hike (scheduled for April 25-29)
21. Take a personal day off of work (scheduled for June 13)
22. Go on an adventure tour of a cave
23. Do an athletic activity that cannot be found at the gym (archery, circus skills, etc.)
24. Go to a spa and get absurdly pampered
25. Get professional headshots taken (scheduled for June 13)
26. Then get trashy boudoir photographs taken (scheduled for June 13)
27. Have a makeup lesson with a professional
28. Have a party in your apartment (like with other people)
29. Start a personal blog (completed -- obviously)
30. Actually celebrate your 30th birthday (completed)

One quick best practice: I used to write down "get published." Now, I write down "submit an article for publication" instead. I have no control over whether or not a magazine chooses to publish my work. I could deliver unto them all of the Graze snickerdoodle dip in the world, and it might not change their minds.

(Seriously though, I dream of this stuff.)

So you need to think carefully about your locus of control. What can I do that will get me closer to my goal, even if things don't work out as planned? For example, I've already been rejected from one summer program, but I generated tons of copy working on the application. I know that I can go back to that application and reuse parts of my personal statement and project proposal in the future.

I've never done this activity with students -- but I'd like to start. All too often, students think exclusively about the goals that we, as teachers and parents, have for them. You will graduate from college. You will make two years of reading growth. You will get onto Honor Roll this quarter. They often don't get the chance to consider what THEY would like to accomplish, what excites THEM. I'd love to see students take greater ownership of their aspirations for the future, as opposed to listening to them regurgitate whatever they heard during fifth grade orientation.

Happy Pi Day! (Or, The Power of Tradition)

Last Monday marked one of the most beloved days of our school year, Pi Day (3.14)! It's the day when our students compete to see who can recite the most digits of pi, and then the winners get to smash pie into a randomly-selected teacher's face. (It's not really pie; it's just a pie tin filled with shaving cream.) I managed to avoid being pie'd for four consecutive years before finally succumbing to the Wheel of Pie. This year, I sat out entirely to shoot some footage of the event. You can see the magic of Pi Day for yourself below:

Our school thrives on traditions. Times Table Day, when an antagonist selected by the math department, like the number ninjas, "steal" all the math facts, resulting in a head-to-head multiplication speed competition. The Gobble Wobble, our annual Thanksgiving foot race where the winners take home all of the fixings for their dinners. And Gingerbread House Making, during which zero sheets of gingerbread are actually used. (Bootleg graham cracker houses for the win.) We also need to have a moment of silence for those traditions which have been lost to us over the years -- like Human Dogsled Racing, where at least a dozen students walked away with bumps, bruises, and sprains each year. We shall miss you, Human Dogsled Racing.

Traditions are important in any community -- but especially educational ones. They provide our students with the stability and routine that they need in order to be successful. Students don't just know how each class period will play out; they know the course of the entire academic year. They provide our students with something to look forward to. Everyone at our school, students and staff alike, has their favorite annual event. (Mine used to be Gingerbread House Making but, since I cut down on my sugar consumption, I clearly need to find a new favorite. This year, I narrowly avoided pouring an entire paper plate of M&Ms down my throat.) And they can add a little joy to the most distressing times.

I'm talking, of course, about state testing season.

I don't believe in state testing. We've turned over far too much power to second-rate companies like Pearson that can barely write a competent multiple choice question. (Pineapples, anyone?) We allow these hackneyed exams to determine where our students attend high school, how they're sorted into their core academic courses (honors vs. gen ed), and even if they pass from one grade to another. I believe in portfolio assessments that are completed over the course of an entire year and that take into account the breadth of a student's knowledge, creativity, discipline, and intellect. State tests make me want to slam my head against the nearest wall -- so I can't even imagine how they make our students feel.

Thankfully, our school always chooses to turn test prep season into one of the most celebrated events of the year. Our staff brainstorms a list of potential themes, and then we vote for our favorite. This year's theme is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because there's nothing like dropping a giant nostalgia bomb to cheer up your staff members. (Unfortunately, it also means that I've had to endure students telling me how much they enjoy Michael Bay movies. I'm choosing to approach those as "teachable moments." In this case, teaching them that Michael Bay is the literal worst.) We kicked off test prep season with a video from Shredder telling our students that he's kidnapped the turtles, and they'll never get them back -- unless they can defeat him with the power of KNOWLEDGE. The following day, in each advisory, students find a poster with a grid pattern, like a slice of pizza or the NYC subway system. For the next month, they collect pepperoni stickers from their teachers for showcasing their test-taking skills -- annotating texts, dissecting the prompt, marking close confusers, using process of elimination, etc. -- and stick them on the poster. When they fill up the entire poster with stickers, their class gets a visit from Shredder.

(Our principal in the winning-est costume ever.)

Shredder hems and haws about how the students will never defeat him (while members of the Foot Clan walk around the classroom, throwing textbooks and sweeping worksheets off of desks) before leaving them with a reward for completing their poster and getting one step closer to freeing the turtles. The reward for the first poster? Cardboard turtle masks.

(These are seventh graders. Moral of the story: Cardboard turtle masks are cool at any age.)

The rewards get bigger and better every time students complete a poster -- and, since our state test prep theme is an annual tradition, students know that they have some clutch prizes to look forward to over the next month. They also know that we'll wrap up the entire experience with Testival the day before the ELA state test. There will be playground games and temporary tattoos and sidewalk chalk and freeze pops. And when students compete their final day of testing, they're allowed to take off their uniform shirts and show off the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle themed T-shirt that they received from the school underneath. It's about as awesome as state testing can possibly get.

So the next time you're confronted with a dismal event that makes you want to stab yourself in the aorta with a wooden pencil (Quality Review?), think about if there's an especially awesome tradition that you can link to it. May I suggest Human Dogsled Racing?

An Ode to the Gluteus Maximus (Or, When to Let Kids Be Kids)

I never thought that "butts up!" would be the call to action for my eighth grade filmmaking class -- but what else are you supposed to do when you're puppeteering a spray-painted foam derrière?

(I told them that I needed to take this photograph "for posterity." Then paused and added: "Or should I say . . . for posterior?" The joke went right over their heads, but I thought it was solid.)

This particular shot was envisioned by our Monday/Tuesday Lead Storyboarder. The protagonist of the film (a twelve-year-old boy) says with a chuckle: "The dog looks like it came from Uranus." His little sister asks: "Why are you laughing?" And the boy, like any typical middle schooler, snorts out: "I said 'Uranus.'" The directing team decided early on that they wanted to incorporate surrealistic imagery into their film, especially when we talked about what the "look" and "feel" of the screenplay was in our first weekly meeting. So our Lead Storyboarder decided to have the dog in question pop up from behind an actual set of buttocks. (We decided to gel the shot with dark blues to make it look more like outer space, playing around with the Uranus pun. We're also adding an illustration of the solar system in the background, which we'll probably create in Photoshop once our MacBooks arrive. For now, there's a vector illustration lifted from the Internet being used as a temporary stand-in.)

I'm not going to lie. When the directing team first told me that they wanted to create a shot of a butt, my first instinct was to say NO. NO. NO WAY. NOPE. It's not that I'm morally conservative; I taught a sixth grade nonfiction unit on Sigmund Freud after all. It's that immature low-brow humor does absolutely nothing for me. All throughout my childhood, my family tuned into the BBC for a good laugh. Although I didn't understand any of the jokes at the time (with the exception of "two things must thee know of the Wisewoman"), I took away that humor was supposed to involve history or literature or other intellectual topics. That we need to aspire to something higher than cracking jokes about the bathroom.

But when I really listened to my students' ideas, I realized that they weren't arbitrarily choosing to insert a butt because it was funny. They crafted that shot because it fit with the tone of the screenplay. The movie plays out from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy, and they designed their imagery accordingly. Like the shot where we watch his little sister's eyes transform into gigantic hearts with flowers blooming around the edges. Or the horrifying puppet monster that the boy dreams up in order to terrify that same little sister into hiding under her bed. I'm always lecturing students on how their shots and designs need to fit into the world of the script. Well, the directing team dreamed up an inspired and fantastical text-based world -- and spray-painted foam hindquarters just happen to fit into that world.

Sometimes, you just have to let kids be kids. You might be surprised at how inventive they can be when you grant them the use of their own immaturity. So, as we say on set, butts up and . . . ACTION!

(We have better footage than this take -- but this is definitely my favorite. We had two eighth grade puppeteers, Aileen and Jessica, who had to work together to operate both the mouth and the arms. They'd finally gotten the hang of it by this point. Even though you can see Jessica's hands in this shot [and my classroom is the actual worst in terms of lighting a green screen, thus all the wrinkles], I think that it's kind of redeeming. In fact, I prefer the imperfect shots with their bloopers to the more polished ones. We'll have to see what the directors say though. It's their decision.)

How To: Write Design Concepts in Middle School

So you've finished conducting visual research in your class. (Congrats!) What's next? After we analyze the images on our visual research wall and read our dramaturgical articles, we launch right into writing our design concepts. The most important thing to remember about design concepts is that they probably won't be any good at first -- and that's alright. Your students will refine their visions for what their designs will look like throughout the drafting process. You just need to be patient and remember that you're looking at rough drafts; your students will come back and revisit these documents in a few weeks and, by that time, everything will have changed.

I don't use a lot of exemplars in my classroom because students can easily become locked into the "right way" of doing something as opposed to taking artistic and intellectual risks. However, I do have sample design concepts that I've typed up and read out loud in class. I've found that these exemplars are extremely helpful for students who aren't necessarily used to thinking in terms of light or sound. They're all for a theoretical production of Romeo and Juliet that takes place during World War 2. (My seventh graders just completed Night in ELA class and are starting Romeo and Juliet. Why not combine the two for maximum literary neural networking?)

Sound Design
Our production of Romeo and Juliet takes place in Germany during World War II. Before the lights go up onstage, the audience will hear radio snippets from World War II German radio shows. At first, it will be clips like up-tempo 1940s songs to cheerfully set the time period for the audience. However, it will gradually morph (through the sounds of a radio dial turning) into German military marches and Third Reich speeches. After the lights go up, there will be a soundscape of a street. It will include the sounds of street vendors, cars driving, and military marching.

After we've read the sample design concepts together, I ask students what they noticed about each one. This helps us create a list of bullet points on the whiteboard. Students know that they need to think about:
- Colors
- Textures
- Lines
- Cues
- Set Shifts
- Soundscapes
- Songs
- Instruments

They also know that their design concept needs to start with identifying the actual concept. We even write that first sentence together: "Our production of The Taming of the Shrew takes place in a WWF wrestling ring." "Our production of The Tempest takes place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina." During my first year, our design concepts didn't uniformly begin with this statement, and I found that students drifted into what "looked cool," as opposed to what actually belonged in the world of the play. There are still students who occasionally drift, but it's easy to send them over to the visual research wall and say: "Look at the world of the play. Prospero needs to look like he belongs in that world." Or, alternatively, if they've listed elements for a design that DOES belong in the world of the play, but just haven't provided substantial text evidence to back it up, you just jot down a note in the margin: "Great design idea -- but explain how this connects back to New Orleans, Voodoo, Mardi Gras, Hurricane Katrina, etc."

(Makeup and costume designers collaborating on a scene for The Taming of the Shrew at their first design station activities -- coming next week!)

If a student has done a "good enough" job on the design concept, I put a plus sign in the top corner of their paper. If they either haven't finished or need to focus more on fitting the world of the play/substantiating with text evidence, I put a C in the top corner of their paper (for NEEDS TO COMPLETE). Why do I settle for "good enough" here? Because students, especially ones who have never worked in their area of focus (sets, costumes, lighting, and sound) before, are going to learn an encyclopedia of new knowledge through the first draft process. No amount of anticipatory writing can compare to loading Virtual Light Lab and watching a cue in real-time or writing and then listening to a musical motif on Finale Notepad. After they've played around for a few weeks and have a better understanding of what "lighting design" or "sound design" means, I have them go back and rethink their design concept before they start working on the final draft. (I'm a little bit harder on costume and set designers, since those are far more "tangible" design areas for our students.)

After they've received a plus sign, they can move onto their first design station activities, which I'll discuss in the next installment. Before I sign off, here are some examples of student work:

This design concept was written by one of my top students in The Tempest cohort. She's thought a lot about how to integrate information from the dramaturgical articles into her design concept. She includes the head wraps that we saw in a short film about Voodooism; the snake emblem, which she identifies later in her concept as a marker for Prospero (since, in the Voodoo tradition, snakes represent wisdom -- she even includes the detail that Prospero's books should be wrapped in snakeskin, as the source of his wisdom and magic); and the stitches, which tie into the rough hand-sewn textures on the visual research wall (not to mention popularized images of voodoo dolls).

We have one set designer who's working on the entirety of The Tempest. I'm really pushing him to think about minimalism in his design. How can we indicate a ship without actually having to build one onstage? He's doing a fantastic job of parring down his design into basic elements (rope, wooden slats, bookshelf, sand, etc.), while making sure everything's connected back to the rubble left after Hurricane Katrina.

This design concept was written by a student whose assignment was to dress the Strange Shapes that appear halfway through Scene Six. This could have gone so wrong. I'm imagining the following: "I chose this outfit because it looks strange, and they are called the Strange Shapes." But this student went above and beyond in her analysis. She re-read the entire scene and made sure that her design, in some way, foreshadowed the harpies that would arrive later. She also linked her designs back to devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina -- even making the actors' expressions appear haggard with the use of makeup. She also kept the mood of the scene in mind, recognizing that these shapes need to establish a sense of unease amongst the Royal Guests. Overall, an incredible job on a design concept that could have easily been mediocre.

The Write-Revise-Trash Cycle (Or, What Makes a Young Playwright Extraordinary)

My theater company, the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA), is currently producing a workshop of Slowmatch by Nick Mecikalski (Vanderbilt University '16) -- the script formerly known as Things People Defenestrated. I first read this script back in 2014 and fell instantaneously in love. It was one of those scripts where you start reading it on the subway, reach the end of Act One cliffhanger, and find yourself still sitting in the Nassau Street subway station an hour later because there's NO POSSIBLE WAY that you can continue with your day until you know what happens next. We ended up producing Rae Binstock's Expedition that summer, but Things People Defenestrated stuck with me so much that I couldn't resist coming back to it next year.

Sadly, we won't be producing Slowmatch this summer due to a mix of extenuating circumstances (like the fact that our new venue won't be fully-functional by opening night), but, thanks to the generosity of The Dramatists Guild Fund and Actors' Equity Association, we were able to bring the playwright and the director (Daniella Wheelock, Webster University '16) to New York City to workshop the script. At the beginning of the week, our mentor playwright (who works in the artistic department of Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway) observed the first rehearsal. Afterwards, she told me: "I have never seen anyone, student or adult, who has been more willing to tackle the revision process head-on." And then, she told me that's how she knows that Nick will be successful someday.

(Nick workshopping Slowmatch in New York City)

I've worked with a lot of young playwrights through NTSA. While they've all been extraordinarily talented, many of them have been reluctant to part with their early drafts. They write version 1.0, and then they become locked into that structure and those characters. They focus all of their energy on deciding where they should make cuts and where they should add new scenes. But, for the most part, they remain firmly committed to the script that they submitted. As a producer, I never had a problem with this logic. After all, the NTSA staff selected that particular script because we could envision it being performed on our stage. So why should the playwright make major changes? Who wants to end up contractually obligated to a new script that they didn't even choose?

After we decided to move ahead with Things People Defenestrated, the NTSA team attended a Skype reading of the script, performed by students at Vanderbilt University. Afterwards, Nick received tons of feedback from our staff members. Most playwrights would have picked out the comments that they felt were most relevant/valuable and discarded the rest, making some minor adjustments along the way.

Not Nick.

Nick threw out the entire script. And when I say "the entire script," I'm not being hyperbolic. On the first day of the workshop, our cast read through the most recent draft out loud. I didn't even recognize it. The only way that I knew I hadn't walked into the wrong rehearsal was that the characters' names had stayed the same. The script that we'd originally selected was a semi-farcical "slice of life" about a young playwright who returns to his hometown to find his family in disarray; the script that's being workshopped on Saturday is a politically-charged (and sometimes surrealistic) drama about what happens to disabled children when they grow up and have exhausted their families. Honestly, I thought that the first script was outstanding, but I like the second one even better.

(In rehearsal with Katharine Nedder [NYU '17] and David Lepelstat [LaGuardia Arts '18])

I hate to think that if Nick had been a different playwright, if he hadn't been quite as willing to give up that early draft, then Slowmatch never would have been written. I feel like this is such a valuable lesson that we can teach our students -- in the classroom, in the rehearsal studio, in the conference room, wherever we work with them. I watched a microdocumentary of Mike Wierusz from Inglemoor High School, one of last year's Allen Distinguished Educators, saying something along the lines of: "Because your drafts are not sacred, we encourage you to crumple them up and throw them at us!" And then all the students crumpled up their engineering drafts and thew them at the teacher who tried to catch them in his recycling bin. It was a great way to add some joy to the classroom, while also teaching students to throw out those first drafts. Writing those drafts was not time wasted; they help you figure out what you're trying to say (and what you're NOT trying to say). But once you've gotten those thoughts out there, it's time to crumple those first drafts up into a ball and toss them into the nearest recycling bin (or at least chuck them into an archive folder on your desktop). And even late in the process, even when you look at a script and think that this might be THE final draft, you maybe could benefit from throwing it out and rewriting it one last time.

I'm not saying that you should get stuck in the write-revise-trash cycle forever. I've dedicated my career to funding fully-staged productions of scripts by young playwrights -- scripts that all-too-often get stuck in "Development Hell," that limbo where scripts receive reading after reading after reading without any actual production in sight. And producers certainly shouldn't be paralyzed by the idea that a script might be better in another month or year or decade; they should commit themselves to staging energetic, thoughtful, IMPERFECT work whenever it appears in their inbox. But if you're going through a revision cycle (or you have some free time), it might be worth it to start over from square one and just see what happens.

Additional Note: All of these photos were taken with the new camera purchased for my school's theater department. Which my eighth grade students assembled during class today. And also taught me how to use.

The "Figure It Out Yourself" School of Learning (Or, How Necessity Really Is the Mother of Invention)

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"Ms. Chatfield, the Tuesday cohort lost the pieces that I need to finish the Lego dragon."

Remember when I made my case against grit?

This is my case in favor of grit.

When I was a Teach for America corps member, the goal was to make everything as simple as possible for our students. No longer were students given blank composition books for note-keeping; no longer were they expected to write their essays on loose-leaf paper (complete with a professional heading that they'd memorized at the beginning of the school year). Instead, they were given worksheets with sentence starters. They were given fill-in-the-blank outlines and graphic organizers. They were given prompts with a bullet list of points that we expected them to include in each paragraph. Now, I'm not saying that these modifications are necessarily a bad thing, especially for our ESL or SPED scholars.

But I am saying that students can benefit from having to figure things out for themselves.

This week, I've taught my best eighth grade classes of the entire school year -- and "figure it out yourself" has been our guiding mantra. Where are the directions to assemble the green screen and the softboxes? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. How can we make this cardboard box look more like a rugged mountainous cave? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. What do we do when we're missing the pieces that we need to finish the Lego dragon? First of all, CAN WE PLEASE STOP IT WITH THE LEGOS? Second, I don't know. Figure it out yourself.

At first, I thought that I was being a bad teacher. I'm supposed to anticipate student questions and misunderstandings. I'm supposed to create exemplar responses and use rubrics to guide students towards the ideal product. I'm supposed to open up class with a Do Now and then lead my students through each component of I Do/We Do/You Do. That's Lesson Planning 101. But here's what MY classroom looks like on a regular day: Students enter and sit in their assigned seats. They put their trapfolios (backpacks) into the cubbies so that they won't get damaged while we're working. There's no Do Now, Brain Buster, Learning Log, Bell Ringer, or any other eduspeak term for a pen-to-paper activity to start off class. (Sometimes, if I think my students are going to be especially energetic [i.e. right before an extended vacation], I'll put on an episode of Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge for any students that are stuck waiting.) I announce the activities for the day: "If you want to build something, go to the red table", "If you want to design something, go to the yellow table", etc. Students move to a new seat at their selected table. Then, I go around to each table and give them their objective:

- Design eight foam puppets.
- Create a cave for the dragon.
- Assemble the light poles.
- Find a local studio for us to record in this weekend.
- Fill out a purchase order for our office manager.

Sometimes I'll give them the materials that they need -- but usually not. To assemble the light poles, for instance, they first needed to ask the operations team in the main office if the light poles had even arrived yet. Then, they needed to go downstairs to the lobby where the package had been delivered and bring it up to the theater room. They needed to unpack all of the different components. When they struggled to put the parts together (because the poles didn't come with an instruction manual), they needed to go to the laptop cart in the teachers' office, grab a Chromebook, and look up directions online. And they needed to come up with all of these steps on their own because whenever they asked me for help, I simply shrugged and said: "I don't know. Figure it out yourself."


Of course, these are eighth graders. They've been at our school for years and have accumulated the necessary "know-how" to solve their own problems. They feel comfortable walking up to me and asking: "Can you write us a pass to the fitness room? We need to grab a resistance band." This method probably wouldn't be as effective with our lower grades. (Then again, I haven't tried it with them, so I couldn't say for sure.) But still, I'm amazed at the fact that, every single time, students are able to complete the objectives that I've laid out for them.

And they're almost always able to do a better job of completing the objectives than I would.

I believe that the best learning happens when teacher and students are working together as a team -- not when the teacher's standing at the front of the classroom, trying to extract an answer that she already knows. Teaching is not all about getting students to successfully complete an exit ticket on their way out the door. Today, I sat at a table with a group of eighth grade girls, and we all worked together on assembling puppets. I didn't circulate between groups and monitor their activities. (In fact, when a couple of students came over to ask questions, I had to tell them to wait because we were struggling through connecting the socks to the foam puppet heads -- one of the most challenging parts of puppet assembly. None of those students came back over because they all managed to solve the problems themselves.) I trusted that my student leaders would be able to make progress without me and that they would behave responsibly and respectfully with the materials.

This doesn't always work out. (I have one student who has a penchant for wasting materials. Today, he took the bejeweled stickers that I bought at an Upper West Side paperie and stuck them all over his fingers. Definitely needed to take a calming, meditative breath after that one.) But nine times out of ten, students will behave like grown-ups if you treat them that way. Last year, when I coddled and scolded them, there were many more instances of theft and destruction in the theater classroom. But left to their own devices, they generally choose to do the right thing.

I don't know if my classroom runs so smoothly with this structure because I teach performing arts. Could this same methodology be implemented in an ELA or math classroom? I have no idea. But I do think that, in every class, our students could deal with a little less hand-holding and a little more grit.

(Our first green screen test)

Keeping Time (Or, Let's Stop and Smell the Pencil Shavings)

First of all, thank you for excusing all of my typos in the last entry. That's what AMC movie marathons will do to you. Make you forget everything you thought you knew about English grammar.

A few weeks ago, I subscribed to Daily Burn. It's the absolute greatest. Seriously, go to Daily Burn and sign up for the 30-day free trial, and just see how quickly you get addicted to doing the 365 workout every morning. (I've started waking up an hour earlier just so that I can prep all of my classes and be free for the live broadcast at 9 AM. #nevermissamonday) Daily Burn was my alternative to joining a gym because, let's be honest, gyms are terrifying -- especially if you're not a seasoned athlete. And I'm not. Whenever the Daily Burn instructors announce THE PUSH-UP CHALLENGE, I'm thinking: "Let's see if I can do four push-ups today, instead of three!"

My lack of balance, coordination, strength, and all other things sporty kept me away from exercise for a long time. Back in college, when I used to do The FIRM DVDs, I would force myself to keep up with the instructors no matter what they were doing. Mountain climbers? Sure. Jumping lunges? Okay. One-handed push-ups? Come on, guys. Really? The moment that I fell behind or needed to take a break, I felt like a complete failure. I'd stop the DVD and go down the block to order a Broadway Shake. Nothing like drinking away your troubles with your two good friends -- chocolate and coffee. (Tom's Restaurant, y'all. Tom's is life, Tom's is love.) Every time that happened, I became a little bit less likely to come back the next day. Why would I want to fail all over again? Eventually, I stopped altogether and The FIRM DVDs started collecting dust on my bookshelf.

When I subscribed to Daily Burn, I was expecting more of the same. The instructors would demonstrate their physical prowess, contorting their bodies into circus-like shapes and scolding me for not being able to keep up. I would end the ordeal by guzzling down an entire pint of Ben and Jerry's. But then I tuned into my first 365 workout. There was no pressure to keep up. On the contrary, the instructors would put sixty seconds on the clock and then say: "Go at your own pace. It's whatever works for you. Do your best, leave the rest." And it wasn't just talk. All of the workout participants were going at completely different paces. A few of them were using modifications which, as the instructor stressed, were "just as effective." (Amazingly, some of the fittest exercisers were the ones using modifications because they'd sustained injuries in the past.) And sometimes, even the instructor would slow down or use the modifications.

I finished the workout. And I came back the next day and finished another one. Three weeks later, I'm logging in every day like clockwork to complete the next 365. I've even started doing an extra workout at home (Cardio Sculpt on active days, Pilates and True Beginner on rest days). Not having that pressure to keep up, being allowed to do the work at my own pace, has made all the difference for me.

This, of course, reminded me of the decision made by the New York State Education Department to implement untimed state tests. I know states that have switched to untimed testing haven't seen any major improvements in scores, but I still completely support the decision. It's just like when I'm doing my Daily Burn workouts. The instructor tells us to go at our own pace so that we can set ourselves up for success. Why should a physical workout be any different than a mental one? Our students should be able to annotate the text, mark up the questions, draft a planning page, and check their work. They shouldn't have to dash off half-finished answers because they ran out of time.

I also like the idea of applying this mindset to class. All too often, I find myself throwing up a timer -- especially when I'm covering a core academic class. "You have five minutes to read the article and complete the short response questions at the end." It's great to bring a sense of urgency into the classroom -- but what if the student doesn't have enough time? Do we take points off because she didn't finish ALL of the short response questions, especially if we're only grading for completion? That encourages her to do a poor job on multiple questions, as opposed to really delving deeply into one.

I'm thinking about when I try a new Daily Burn routine, like 3D Lunges. I couldn't watch that move once and then breeze through a minute of reps at breakneck speed. I need to take it slow and make sure that my form's correct. Is my knee over my ankle? (As someone with an overpronated right ankle, I find myself frequently slowing down and checking.) Am I going down far enough? Is my tailbone tucked under? Am I engaging my core? There are so many things to remember when you're first starting out that you really need the space and the time to focus on getting it right. After you've mastered the basics, then you can start speeding. It's the same for our students. If they don't get the requisite space and time, they might just be temped to quit. Except instead of The FIRM DVDs collecting dust, it will be their textbooks.

So let's all stop and smell the pencil shavings. If you teach in New York, be thankful that state tests are no longer timed -- and maybe try taking some of the time crunch out of your classroom as well.
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