Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sam Fremin's Posts (2017)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Redefining Respect

On March 10th, I wrote a post highlighting my school’s drama director, Mr. Hochkeppel. His philosophies regarding mutual trust, student voice, and the freedom of choice remain prevalent in everything he is involved with. As we approach our fall mainstage play’s opening night, I took a moment to reflect on how impressively he has managed to incorporate student leadership. Most high schools in our area tend to give students opportunities to run technical aspects of theatre, but Mr. Hochkeppel (who is more commonly known as ‘H’ around the school) decided Stone Bridge could take it a step further. H is not directing our show this year. He stepped aside and gave directorial duties to a student. This monumental opportunity is one where this student, Paisley LoBue, has already learned, and continues to learn, a lot - not only about theatre, but about teaching as a whole.

“I’m redefining the word respect” (LoBue).

Paisley, who had quite a few takeaways from the directing gig thus far, was very adamant in the interview about how important she has found it to clearly respect those learning from her. With new experiences as a director, she began to realize the recipe for respect was harder to adhere to than she realized. Even when critiquing, she strives to make sure to express her thoughts “in a way that doesn’t make [the cast] think I am above them in any way - I’m not, we’re all working together” (LoBue). Although disagreements occur, what good does it do to lose civility? In a school, everyone is working towards the same goal. Students are trying to learn, teachers are trying to help students learn, and administration is trying to help teachers try to help students learn. It is important not to forget that. She went on to note that “some things that seem rudimentary to me, are not to a lot of people” (LoBue) when it comes to acting. What Paisley does so well regarding this topic is having patience. Certain people take longer to internalize information. That’s not a bad quality, it just means they learn in different ways. Rather than being verbally told what needs to happen, maybe a confused actor needs to visualize instead.

Understanding that not everyone will be on the same square from day one is a key factor in making sure students do not get tossed to the wayside. Nobody is always perfect right off the bat. To expect instant perfection from a student (who is supposed to be learning anyway) is unrealistic, unfair, and ultimately a recipe for disaster. Setting that unattainable precedent will turn off students to a class in a heartbeat. Students are far more likely to “respect someone who is working hard” alongside of them “to help get them to their goal” (LoBue). School is not a sweatshop. Teachers do not sit behind a proverbial pane of glass, demanding perfect results without any guidance. Students do not command from behind a pane of glass either. They should not be attempting to manipulate teachers. If mutual respect is built, none of these toxic relationships can come remotely near surfacing. It’s tough, “respect is… fragile… too mean and harsh and… they’ll… cast you out… as someone bad. If you’re too relaxed… they can hardly respect you either” (LoBue). Finding that happy medium is so important to keeping morale high and focus on what it needs to be on.

Though it may be common knowledge, creating a positive aura for your classroom is of the utmost importance. Constant, harsh negativity does not serve any purpose. Paisley brought up how she tries “to avoid… upsetting the cast before” doing any sort of strenuous work because that “negative energy… takes all of the joy out” (LoBue). Notes and, sometimes, warnings need to be handed out, but framing them in an uplifting way is essential. Doling out punishments or going on tirades won’t accomplish anything but deflate an audience. “When you need to get [production] from someone… you have to be nice” (LoBue) or firm for the sake of bettering, not disciplining. Acting requires you to be in your character’s head at all times. It distracts from the real objective when anger or shame muddies up your mindset.

The benefits of remembering that idea are applicable off the stage as well. A discipline structure based off of punishment does not encourage later engagement. Rapport is better built when teachers do not play the role of authoritarian. Energy would be better directed (no pun intended) towards generating excitement to be in the classroom. Nobody wants there to “be a dictator forcing everyone to do a good job, instead [let’s] get everyone excited to do it and let their passion drive them” (LoBue). The battle is half-lost if a classroom full of students is disgruntled and feels subordinated. A more worthwhile approach would be fostering any organic interest kids might have and allowing that to grow however they require. “It’s like having a team of construction workers build a building for you and having to describe what you want built. Sometimes you… [can’t] describe just exactly how to lay the bricks,” (LoBue) sometimes the builders will know what the best fit is for their skill set.

“Communication is a big thing” when it comes to respect as well, “you can’t glaze over anything” (LoBue). Continuity of past communicated details is also uber important. If a director changes stuff last minute, what example does that set? Why would a cast honor their commitments if the same expectations do not seem to apply to the director?

As with every aforementioned theme, this transcends theatre. Constant dialogue needs to be open between teachers and students. What is working? What isn’t? What expectations does each party have for the other? How can each party work together? These questions and more should have answers within reach at all times. Most importantly, when expectations are set, they should remain unchanged without prior warning. Teachers that stick to their word will receive higher amounts of trust than ones that do not.

We’ve all heard the adages - respect is based on treating people how they wish to be treated. No one requests impatience, destructive criticism, or a lack of communication, therefore students should not be subjected to that sort of treatment. Not only is that bad for students, it makes accomplishing end-of-year goals much harder. Students might begin to act out in slight mutiny versus the perceived disrespect they face. That definitely would not encourage teachers, which would set off a vicious cycle of rapidly deteriorating rapport. Disagreements may occur, but everything can stay calm and civil. “The way to do this is by keeping the common goal strong… and use that… as the driving factor,” (LoBue) in conjunction with always present respect and communication. One side cannot force success upon the other, working with one another is the only way to ensure multifaceted success.

Before I finish up, I’d just like to say Paisley has been a wonderful director so far. She practices everything that she preaches and strives to be the most understanding she can be. Over the course of the show’s rehearsals this year I feel like we have become better friends than before and it has been an absolute blast to work with her (and our subsequent cast members) and I am on pins and needles eagerly awaiting opening night.

We, the #BowTieBoys, will be in full strength this weekend at the NCTE conference. Be sure to check us out in any of our sessions if you get the chance!

Thank you so much for reading this 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. 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.


LoBue, Paisley. “Interview with Paisley.” 14 Nov. 2017.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Students as Teachers: Knowing Your Audience

My school’s Senior One Act Festival is a showcase for our theater department’s seniors to direct, cast, choreograph, and in some cases, even write their own show to perform for an audience. Not only is it a way to allow students to show off their talents in directing and onstage, but it is a venue for seniors to be role models for younger kids. As a follow up from yesterday, I will be featuring the director team from another one of the shows I was cast in. This time, my mentors came in the form of an inseparable pair of senior girls, who I had met around December of this past school year.

At first, I was going to use the One Act Festival as an excuse to hang out with my senior friends. This festival would be the last chance I could ever do a ‘Running Dog Production’ with anyone who had an impending graduation. So, when I was cast in three of the One Acts, I was thrilled. Everyday after school I would have a guaranteed amount of time to be around the seniors. There was a huge problem with my mindset though. As long as I saw the One Acts as an opportunity to relax and goof off, anything I did onstage would reflect that sentiment. Maybe that would fly in a comedy production (like the show where I was cast as a repairman who was hopelessly in love with his washing machine), but in a role that was more serious it would not. How could I accurately portray a disgruntled barista who was behind on rent payments if my attitude towards the whole experience was fully whimsical? Throw in the fact that these two girls had written all of the music, lyrics, dialogue, choreography, staging, etc. and it becomes even more clear that my outlook on this whole situation was going to need to change.

I originally auditioned for a less complex role than the one I was chosen for and to me, that was slightly worrisome. Others may be able to rest upon their laurels and effortlessly act onstage, but due to my lack of experience, it was necessary for me to push myself to put something together that would be performance-ready. Whoever was at the helm of this production was going to need to challenge me to better myself. Making it easy for me would have just permitted a lackadaisical performance, which trust me, was not what was envisioned for this show. On the flip side however, if the environment became toxic and criticism became destructive, I would have totally shut down. What I needed was a director (or directors) that would apply the right amount of pressure - an amount that would improve my acting, singing and stage presence, but would not make me hate every second of the process.

[Enter the team of directors]

From the moment we received our scripts, an expectation was set. Within the next two and a half weeks we would be required to be off-book, with all lines and lyrics memorized. Knowing myself, that deadline was hugely beneficial to me. This gave me room to budget my time in the way that best fit, while still having an end goal in sight. Had there been no completion date, I guarantee I would have put it off until the last second. Had there been an overly structured format for how I learned my lines, I would have harbored potentially mutinous feelings towards the overzealous requirements.

The road to getting off-book was not easy for me. This was all a new situation for me. Luckily enough, the directors were always available for advice or guidance on how to complete the task. I texted the director that was more focused on acting and she almost immediately had help to offer. Even if my questions were elementary to these seasoned actors, I was never made aware of that. Their demeanors always remained patient with me.

This was crucial. Imagine if instead of kindly answering my basic questions, they scoffed at my lack of fundamental acting knowledge. My trust in them would have plummeted. All of their tips and tricks would have come across differently. Rather than treating me with condescension, they brought themselves back down to my level and helped me through the somewhat complicated processes of theater. I was not left behind because I didn’t know the foundational knowledge.

Everyone else in the cast had been onstage before, so they were not forced to listen to the conversations that were helpful for me. These directors’ understanding of the importance of differentiated pacing was admirable. On day one, they did not focus on the nuances of acting or complicated singing riffs. They discussed with me the basics of being onstage. If I already understood something, they did not feel the need to keep hammering that point home. That would have been pointless.

Another great example of their adaptability comes from the day we began to block my singing scene. For the most part, I was able to sing the notes correctly and I was able to perform spoken lines the way they wanted me to, but I couldn’t put both of those ideas together. They tried exercises that they found helpful. Even though this came from the right place, it simply wasn’t helpful. No matter what we tried, every time I sang or acted I looked like two completely different people. That was all until one of them came over to me with a new idea in mind. It occurred to her at that moment that singing and acting together was too overwhelming for me. She removed the singing from the equation. Rather than singing my lyrics, she just wanted me to speak and act them to the best of my ability. Just like that, the message my character was trying to convey became clear. All I needed to do was look at the lyrics from a different perspective.

I was not the only one who was forced to look through a different lens though. Once she saw that her attempts to get through to me her way were futile, my friend had to get into my head. My strengths and weaknesses were not her own. She couldn’t treat me as if I were just an extension of her. It would be useless to persist with the same methods. Trying the same thing over and over and over again is the definition of insanity, right? The lesson she was teaching me was not getting across in its original form. Evolution of the original plan was necessary. Who knows? Working with someone else, the preliminary exercises may have been successful. No two people think the same though, therefore she needed to adapt or risk my continued failure. Teachers should utilize the same thought process. If an assignment is not connecting with students, it’s not going to warrant any results. Knowing your audience in order to connect with them is extremely important, and quite honestly success can hinge on that connection sometimes.

The differentiation that these two girls employed was remarkable, but that wasn’t even my favorite aspect of the whole experience. In any relationship, respect is a building block that cannot be pushed aside. Mutual respect and authentic bonds between mentor and mentee make teaching run so much smoother.

After my very first vocal rehearsal (which included only the writer/director and myself), there was a lot of time to kill before either one of us could go home. She and I sat in the choir room for a couple minutes in silence. I may have met her earlier in the year, but I didn’t really know her that well. That showed during the practice of my song too. While I was now comfortable enough to sing in front of people, I was only ready to do the bare minimum in front of her. She is a super talented vocalist and I was intimidated to mess up in front of her. As someone with a ton more singing skill than me, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she would pass judgement at any slip up on my part. This brings me back to the choir room after rehearsal. Slowly, as we realized sitting in silence for thirty or so minutes was going to kill us both, conversation between us began to brew. The more we talked, the more we felt more comfortable with the other.

We started off talking about how we got into theater and our plans for the future (in theater and elsewhere). Our paths into theater (and how we originally fared socially) were very similar. This led us down different conversational paths. Soon we were discussing personal insecurities and upcoming decisions we were going to be faced with. Both of our comfort levels rose and we offered each other insight on these decisions, as well as trading embarrassing stories about self-doubt that filled the room with laughter. By the end of it, trust between us had skyrocketed.

At the beginning of the rehearsal, I was too anxious to talk unless I had to. Working on singing was painful to an extent, because outside of the actual song and any notes she had for me, there was no communication. Try sitting in a room with someone without talking to them. It doesn’t take long before that gets awkward. By the end of the rehearsal, I was no longer irrationally stressed out. An authentic bond had formed between us. At this point, she was no longer just my director, we were better friends than we had been before.

In the subsequent rehearsals, I was able to venture outside my comfort zone more often. Our dynamic had completely changed. No longer was I working for a team of directors, I was performing alongside my friends. Although they were not offputting prior to my conversations with them, I no longer worried when they gave me notes. It wasn’t personal, they just wanted to help me grow. Through that conversation, I had found out how much work had gone into developing the one act. They saw this show as their baby, and they entrusted me with a role in it. In turn, I entrusted the development of my acting game to them. If they were willing to put as much faith in me as they had, I could be comfortable enough to do the same. This mutual trust between teacher(s) and student only enhanced what we were working on. Both parties were enabled to produce higher quality work and ultimately, our jobs felt exponentially easier.

I am so thankful I got to work with these two girls. Not only have I improved tenfold since joining their show, I have received guidance and advice that I will cherish for a long time. They are perfect examples of the benefits of building a connection between teacher and student. I am proud that they entrusted me with the responsibility they did. When I saw how much they truly cared about my own personal growth, it became clear to me that I needed to put in whatever work necessary to make them proud. I wanted to do their words justice. That’s the impact a teacher can have on a student. The teachers you remember are the ones who make an effort to get to know their students on a personal level. I will remember these girls and their teaching for a long time.

Thank you so much for reading this edition of my blog! This one is also very dear to me. 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.

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 be 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 thatVirginia’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 equipDespicable 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 abouthow 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.

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 EnvironmentsSan 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.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hooking Students from Day One

Since last week I wrote about my current chemistry teacher, I think I’m going to stick with the science theme. On my last blog post, Fran McVeigh left a comment saying, “I believe that I would not have been so science-phobic if I had a teacher like yours.” That got me thinking. I was very science-phobic in middle school, and probably even in elementary school. When I got to high school, there was a clear shift in my scientific interest level.

All summer, leading up to the school year, I was adamant that I should avoid taking biology. My middle school had billed biology as a class students should only take if they were seriously considering a future in science. I did not (and do not) foresee a scientific career for me, so I did not think biology was the class for me. Not only that, being new to high school I thought I would be overwhelmed by the workload. I didn’t want to be swamped by my new workload and jeopardize my GPA before I even got my footing, so it took a lot of convincing for me to drop earth science.

Due to all of the negative feelings I’d harbored over the summer, let’s just say I was less than excited about entering the biology class room on the first day. My teacher had a large mountain to climb if he wanted to engage me. I had already made up my mind that biology was going to be a waste of time, so had I been in almost any other class, I would have been treated like a lost cause. Little did I know, my interest in science was about to be rejuvenated.

Milling about, waiting for class to start, students picked seats and chatted amongst themselves. It was all pretty standard. Then, the warning bell rang, soon followed by the late bell and biology began. Our teacher flipped the light switch and we started class in the dark.

A curious silence came over the class, as we waited for him to put his flipchart up on the Promethean board. His bright white slideshow cut through our palpable pause. Giant black letters that read, “What is Science?” appeared. I was not the only person who rolled their eyes at that. What a cliché way to start a class. My body slumped down upon itself in preparation for the imminent, inorganic conversation, destined to be dominated by teacher’s pets looking to start off on the right foot.

My teacher spoke up to initiate the conversation. Skipping the typical introductory bullet points, he called on the first kid he saw. Better yet, he called on them by name. “What is science?” He repeated the question that was plastered on the front screen. The student seemed a bit unnerved and stuttered through an answer involving “doing labs and papers and stuff.” Our teacher let their answer sink in and because of the lull; the class broke out into little sniggers. I remember my teacher’s response so clearly to this day, he said, “I don’t understand what is so funny. I asked ‘what is science’ and he gave his answer. His definition of science will not be the same as yours, yours, yours, or yours.” He went on to describe how that differentiated perspective is what made him fall in love with the subject.

He called for another student’s interpretation. They brought up different units they’ve had in past science classes. A different student’s hand shot in the air, wanting to share their idea. With each new student came an absolutely different view, our teacher was right. His interludes describing the year’s plan were interjected only when they made sense. Sometimes he was even forced to say we wouldn’t cover a certain topic or that he wasn’t fully capable of understanding that topic. He followed up quotes like that with apologies and promises to work with individuals wanting more information. This process continued until every kid in the room had an opportunity to explain what they thought of science.

His passion for biology showed through every time he spoke. Every answer gave our teacher’s voice more volume and clearer tint of curiosity. Leaving this class, I wasn’t magically transformed into somebody who loved science, but I came away knowing that our teacher was absolutely qualified and excited to teach the subject. Due to his love for biology, he was determined to transfer some of the energy he put forth over to his students.

Even though my anecdote was kind of short this week, there is a lot of good to pull from this opening class. My teacher was aware of the “critics [who] often accuse the American schools of crushing children’s creativity” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). He knew what students say in the hallways. For example, the student I wrote about earlier said science was based around papers. In order to combat that mentality, my teacher integrated a huge class discussion to put the school year in motion. In addition, the excitement my teacher possessed for biology was very obvious and the expression of that excitement was necessary to grab our attentions. Bringing in every class member was another perfect decision. Keeping the introductory discussion to a minimum was another small, but student-focused choice. His transparency and advocatory attitude were fundamental elements (no pun intended J) in building positive student rapport in a short, ninety minute period.

Energy is a great way to hook in students. Teachers excited to be in class are not guaranteed to have a positive rapport with students, but without a tangible enthusiasm, students will lose interest immediately. Nothing is more off-putting than seeing an educator who doesn’t want to be there. Some students view school as a boring waste of time. Why perpetuate that stereotype by showing apathy towards class? In my opinion, being so openly energetic was a crucial step in my teacher’s victory over our attention spans.

As I said above, not one student was allowed to sit alone and refuse to participate. To be completely honest, no one wanted to either. Everyone was so engaged that even the shyest kids in the class were in a position where they were desperately wanted to share their “scientific definition.” Too often have I been in a class where a teacher starts to pick their favorites on the first day of school. Just like history shows us all the time, when an elite group forms, the commoners, with no special attention, become alienated. “In using… labels we create… barriers that do a disservice to teachers and students” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010) and those barriers are a toxic ingredient in creating a positive classroom ecology. By separating the class into cliques, teachers cut up the very fabric of their class before it even has a chance to be thread. My teacher was smart and made sure to incorporate every single patron of his biology class. Everyone left that class feeling like their perspective was important and they were reenergized to return in two days. Putting value in a student’s word is very empowering and it’s a great step to building positive rapport with students.

Hosting an open discussion is a great way to foster students’ taste for inquiry. Inquiry pushes student understanding to the next level because we are forced to form opinions and defend them if necessary. When our teacher asked each of us what our definition of science, we had built-in defenses for why we were correct. The basis of education is “teach[ing] students to be curious, skeptical, even contrary to ask for the whys and the hows behind what’s in the rote acquisition of facts” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). The facilitation of conversations like “What is Science?” build a space for students to question, an idea that is absolutely transferable to the English classroom.

When my teacher pointed out the topics he did not have a full understanding of, he was demonstrating a form of transparency not often seen. Teachers’ admissions of weakness are actually endearing to students. Not only does it prove a teacher does not pretend to be perfect, it also opens up potential opportunities for students to flip the script and teach the teacher. Moments with role reversal like this are longstanding memories for students and hit home the material in a more direct way. While “educators tout… the importance of [fostering] ‘soft skills’ such as” the ability to teach a peer, “the profession’s attention to [soft skills] has too often been secondary” (Students at the Center, 2017). Showing chinks of armor makes it known to students that you are one of them and will not pretend to be a larger entity than them. That idea is one hundred percent crucial to creating a mentoring relationship with the student body.

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.

Bracey, Gerald W. Setting the Record Straight (Second Edition): Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.

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.

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Evolving Common Practices

Let me just preface this by saying I am not a science guy. I'm not inherently interested by the structure of cells or how to balance chemical equations. This year though, Chemistry is easily one of my favorite classes and it is one hundred percent because of my teacher.

The pacing of his class is one that I've experienced in no other class before. Comprehension is valued above blind regurgitation of info. Whether it is through his notes, his labs, his practice, or even his tests, my teacher makes sure we understand the material. When he uses different methods to get the information to us, it helps become more adaptable and well-rounded. “Equipping students to [work] in… one mode… will not serve students in… higher education… or the workplace” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010) and my teacher knows that. In order to combat the one-size-fits-all aura school gives off, he comes up with as many different venues for chemistry as possible. All of them are pretty common ideas, but he attaches his own unique strategies to them, making him a very unorthodox teacher.

Every thing he assigns us obviously has to be completed, but there’s really only one real due date per test. That is where his new pacing comes into play. The practice sets are all preferably due the class after they’re handed out, but my teacher is completely available to them being turned in late if extra help is necessary. Chemistry has a lot of algebra and a lot of equations involved, so as someone who isn’t the best at math and memorization, it’s really helpful to have the freedom to grow at my own pace. I talked to him about what his thoughts on grading were and he bluntly said, “I’m not here to get students an A, I’m here to teach chemists.” At first, I was a bit confused as to what his statement meant. On the surface, it sounded a little bit standoffish. Once I started really looking at the way he runs class, I started to understand. His philosophy isn’t to teach students only for the purpose of getting us ready for state-mandated standardized tests. My teacher is teaching us chemistry. He tries his hand (and succeeds) at sharing his passion for the subject. Above all, he knows learning anything is a process. If a topic is not clicking, the hammer is not mercilessly cracked down. Sometimes taking time to slow down is crucial to student understanding. Having this option is integral to the incredible results his class creates.

His flexibility and willingness to walk through work with us has really increased his student rapport. Rather than leaving “slower students” behind when the pace is too fast, my teacher makes sure everyone is on board before we pull away. To me, it’s clear why he’s so popular within the student community. Other teachers would consider students lost causes if we didn’t comprehend their notes immediately, but my chemistry teacher does it right. He sees any mistake as a learning opportunity, a place to grow from. There’s no such thing as slipping through the cracks in room 402.

A big portion of science classes is the lab work. My chemistry class is no different in that way, but my teacher’s procedures are unique to him. We start off by getting some baseline information (safety requirements, materials needed, the allotted time, the goal etc.). Then, we, as a class, split ourselves up into groups and grab the safety equipment required to proceed. Once we are all geared up, we just jump right in. There is one catch though; the itinerary is completely up to the students. How we go about finding our result is up to us. Of course, if any of us struggle to find the next step or make repeated mistakes, our teacher is ready to swoop in with guidance.

Students taking part in labs in our class gain so much non-chemistry experience from our teacher’s almost entirely hands off approach. Through authentic experience, we improve leadership skills, problem solving, critical thinking, time management, and more. Our teacher one hundred percent believes that learning in school transcends curriculum and I appreciate him for that. Rather than feeding us answers and holding our hand through every step, we have the freedom to explore chemistry. Not only is that really beneficial to student growth, it’s so empowering when we’re given the reigns to our learning.

Tests leave very little room for maneuvering. That’s why my teacher’s way of handling them really impressed me. In most classes, tests are weighted very heavily, leaving poor test takers to drown in angry red ink. My chemistry teacher is still required to administer high amounts of points in tests, but to counter that he raises the point values of labs and problem sets. Another portion of testing that he has revised involves the multiple choice aspect of his tests. Our tests are structured so half of our questions come from multiple choice questions and the other half come from free response questions. In my opinion, awarding partial credit is positive because students are graded with more accuracy than an all or nothing style of grading. My teacher certainly agrees. Free response work and answers have partial credit awarded where students understood some, but not all of the material, pretty standard, unexciting stuff right there. That’s where the multiple choice part comes into play. He is the first teacher I have ever had to come up with a system that gives partial credit on a multiple choice section on tests. When we were younger, teachers taught us test-taking strategies to help us guess answers correctly when we got stuck. Does anyone remember the rule that usually one or two potential answers are obviously wrong, so students should eliminate them as options? My teacher rewards students for being able to sniff out wrong answers. On our answer sheet, we may write two answer choices and circle the one we think is “most correct.” If the circled answer is right, we get all of the points available. If the circled answer is wrong, but our second choice was right, we get one-third of the points available. If neither of the answers is right, then obviously we get none of the points. This way of grading accomplishes so much for students and for my teacher’s reputation.

His student rapport is through the roof when it comes to tests. Students are less stressed heading into his tests, because they know if they show their knowledge of the topic, they will get the fair amount of points. Even if you just know the fundamentals, you will get your due. Not many other classes can tout that. The fact that he takes time out of his day to grade our tests with that much concentration shows that he is truly on our side and wants the best for us. Most of all, it shows the importance is not placed on grades, but on true understanding. He would rather encourage us by showing school is not “driven by grades, but by [the] series of unsung victories along the way” (Students at the Center, 2017).

While I have been talking about a science classroom, the information is easily transferable to English. When students are doing work of any kind, instead of pressing students towards rushed, imperfect work, foster an environment where quality is more highly valued than quantity. Any mistakes are immediately met with feedback on how to fix it. He understands true comprehension “requires rich feedback [for] the student” (Students at the Center, 2017). The emphasis is more on “details, nuances, and techniques” that can be applied to other sciences “than [completing] a standalone assignment” (Students at the Center, 2017). It’s important to remain patient, but don’t be afraid to give students a push when the time comes. It’s important to encourage independence, but be ready to guide students when they hit a roadblock. It’s important to help students earn good marks on tests, but curriculum covered in class shouldn’t be governed by the tests. After all, the goal of education is to prepare students to function in the outside world, not to only be able to function when they have a guide telling them what to know.

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Benefits of Varying Class Structure

Currently, I am preparing for a test in one of my AP classes. As I was studying, a thought came over me: The difficulty of the class has grown exponentially while the year has progressed. My stress levels reflect that, the same way my grades and work levels do. Naturally I wanted to find a common factor or at least a reason why I suddenly feel overwhelms.

I’ve been taking mental notes what we’ve been doing in class and I’m surprised this didn’t hit me sooner. The structure of every class is as follows:
            1st – Video for either thirty minutes to an hour
            2nd – Teacher explains video followed by lunch
            3rd – Fill in blank worksheet about specific topic
Two aspects of this schedule stick out to me; the uniformity of class procedures and the constant use of videos and worksheets.

When a class falls into monotony, so do the students. Every class is the exact same and it wears us down. It may be comfortable to have an unchanging structure every day, but eventually disengagement starts to set in. We stop putting forth energy and we start blindly going through class. No excitement is ever built from constantly repeated activities. There is a simple solution though. Just by switching up our class agenda (whether it be marginally or significantly), my teacher would be able to regain our attention. After spending so much time utilizing the same classroom components over and over again, a shift would be welcome. That brings up another question though. What can my AP teacher do to spice up class?

When there are a group of people together, chances are the amount of interests everyone has will vary greatly. Try asking those with similar interests how they express their passion. Answers will spread even further. It’s no different than when there is a collection of twenty or more students in a room, but I know that’s common knowledge.

It is unrealistic to ask teachers to craft individual assignments for students, based on personal work methods, however there has to be a happy medium. In my opinion, my teacher misses the mark when it comes to reaching that medium, and many of my fellow students agree. This is not an attack on our teacher; it’s just our perspective on a class that is not working for us. Her heart is in the right place having us watch videos. On the surface, it makes sense. Our generation of students is a digital one. We have more technology at our fingertips than ever before. In showing videos to us, I’m confident our teacher was trying to connect the information to us in a way we are comfortable with. Attempting to find a different way to do conventional work is commendable, however this idea just happened to fall short.

As my class was watching the most recent video picked out for us, I observed the room. Maybe one or two students were actively paying attention. Almost the entire rest of the class was on their phone, talking amongst themselves, or flat out sleeping. Even me! I decided evaluating my classmates’ focus was more enticing than watching the video. To me, that sounds like disengagement.

In a way, I feel bad for my teacher. She clearly tried to reach out to us in a medium that we enjoy, and it just didn’t work. With the guidance of Troy Hicks, Danielle Devoss, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, in “Because Digital Writing Matters,” I believe I have pinpointed the potential issue. Watching a video and filling out a worksheet with obvious answers does not fully involve us. Our teacher integrated technological tools into our classroom, but attached nothing to them. That is a key misstep.

Digital resources “demand a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010). Students prefer active assignments. We would much rather be doing something than be told how to do it. It’s almost a cliché at this point; but kids sometimes need to make mistakes to grow from them. Incorporating a digital element in the classroom shouldn’t remove the interactive aspect of work. Technology has created a more involved social climate just through widespread television and mainstream social media websites. It loses its purpose when it’s offered to students with no clear purpose. Now, that issue could just mean my teacher needs to be more transparent about what the work accomplishes, but that’s a blog post for another time.

One reason I think I am not doing as well in my class is because in a way, I’ve lost my teacher. The personal element of the student-teacher relationship has been replaced with alternating YouTube personalities. It’s impossible to ask a YouTube video for more clarification. Now, obviously I can just reach out to my teacher on my own time, but with the worksheets assigned being so specific to the video I can just skate by in class. It’s only when I’m out of the class that I face trouble. Studying is next to impossible when your whole comprehension hinges on tidbits from a video and nothing more. Our class, as a whole, struggles because “access to tech tools won’t ensure… [we] learn” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010). We still need a bridge between the cyber world and the living world. My recommendation to her would be take one or more of these guiding suggestions and integrate them.

If work must be created in conjunction with the videos we watch, it should be more centered on overarching topics, as opposed to questions like “who made the YouTube video?” This would prepare us for chapter tests, AP tests, and essays in a much, more efficient way than the current model.

The videos do not necessarily connect with all of our class’ members either. I don’t know whether it’s because people are more kinesthetic learners or they prefer reading over listening or something else. There are a multitude of reasons YouTube may not entice students, however some students may enjoy the videos. No two students are the same. Just as I said earlier, ask a group of twenty how they learn and you will get twenty completely different answers. Rather than playing videos for the class, our teacher can offer a variety of options in an effort to reach out to as many different types of learners as possible.

Another way to engage the students is to avoid the video altogether in favor of a more interactive activity. Well thought out games, group projects, “act outs,” and more can positively impact a classroom environment. A common theme between these options is the ability to gain life experiences. That’s why I’m a big fan of them - they don’t just teach for a test. Videos and blank worksheets “cannot measure many of the important qualities needed to enjoy life or succeed in it” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). The alternatives (mentioned and unmentioned) above invite students to grow team-building, enhance leadership skills, and teach students about social cues.

In the near future, I intend to have a meeting with my AP teacher to discuss my newfound struggles with the class. I believe just by making some slight changes, our class’ experience will become much better. We don’t require a drastic upheaval of her lesson plans; it would just be beneficial if different elements are put in place to keep us engaged. I will definitely update this blog as the situation unfolds, but I still think she will be receptive. Like I said, her heart is in the right place, but the class just needs a couple of tweaks to reinvigorate us.

Thank you so much for reading the opening post to 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.

Bracey, Gerald W. Setting the Record Straight (Second Edition): Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.
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.

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