Cutting Up Gum Based On Haircuts
I discovered early in the year and quite unexpectedly that the vast majority of my students were familiar with this They Might Be Giants track from 2007. I’m not sure why – they’ve not had World History officially before now – but it was a convenient hook for a time and place otherwise quite tedious and unfamiliar for them and at times rather challenging for me. (My favorite line is the one about how Ashurbanipal isn’t getting any gum because he made fun of the singer’s haircut – who could have seen that coming?)
Several weeks later, we’re blowing through the fall of the Roman Empire and the establishment of Constantinople as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Eventually, I tell them, this city will be renamed Istanbul. It was Constantinople, now it’s Istanbul – not Constantinople. Been a long time gone, Constantinople…
I realize with some surprise and no little dismay that they have no idea why I’m talking this way, though they continue to stare politely. Still, I can’t help but finish.
“Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks!”
Well, in one hour there was a single very excited child, but he’s strange anyway, so who knows what his reaction might have meant. And yes, I kept doing it the same way every hour, deep in my conviction that first hour had to have been an anomaly. And second hour. And third.
Early in the year I introduced them to the concept of a “Required Viewing” list on YouTube for each unit. I’m not generally going to take class time to show these videos, but by way of introduction I chose a sample from Crash Course History and one from Hip Hughes History – the two big dogs when it comes to saucy, fact-packed legit history on the YouTubes.
Almost every kid in every hour recognized Crash Course as soon as the theme music hit. They hadn’t watched the World History videos, but clearly previous social studies teachers had used these in some way – and good for them. Recognizing this, I expected a comparable reaction to Hughes, but… nothing. They watched – he’s very engaging – but he’s also an acquired taste, and they hadn’t acquired it prior to my preview.
It was weird – like they all knew how to add and multiply but had never even heard of subtracting or dividing. I’m positive that were I to try the same thing in next district over, the reactions could very well be reversed.
Other times it’s far less consistent. We’ll be discussing something in class which I’d learned maybe three days before (not that I always tell them that) and a hand will go up:
“Mr. Cereal, I thought the Nubians essentially developed out of Kush… weren’t they the envy of eastern Africa as far back as the days of Abraham?”
I know what you’re thinking – smart aleck kid trying to show off, right? But no – just someone genuinely confused by the way I’ve presented something and how it seems to conflict with their oddly specific knowledge of ancient history.
In that same hour, of course, I can ask the entire class which way is east on a map of Africa and nearly spark panic because they hadn’t realized there would be a “quiz” over this particular topic. They’re brilliant and ignorant, interested and bored, richly steeped in the strangest historical folderol and lacking critical foundations for basic historical understanding.
Because they’re real people. Americans, and teenagers – either factor sufficient to guarantee that you can never quite know what to expect.
What’s my point? I’m not complaining, I assure you. I have great kids – the kind you don’t have to work that hard to love most days. But after nearly twenty years in the classroom, they’re still so unpredictable sometimes. I knew a new district in a new state would mean some changes, but so much of what’s different is intangible. Random, almost.
And yet, when I stop to think about it, this happened from year to year when I was in the same district forever. Sometimes it happens from hour to hour. What they know. How they act. What they’ll do. When I can push them. When I shouldn’t.
I don’t always adjust as well as I’d like. Sometimes I miss things, and other times I’m simply not sure what to do differently. But I know that it matters from student to student, hour to hour, year to year that I try. I know that nothing in this gig is static or predictable. It’s not even entirely rational.
Sure, my planning is important, and the standards are important, and there’s a big ol’ test or two coming up at the end of the year which is super-duper-portant, too. There are tight limits on just how much I can alter “the plan” – that’s the nature of the sort of class I teach. But there’s a reason most versions of most courses have a semi-professional human (with a degree and everything!) running the show.
Even if all we care about are the standards and the exams and the skills and the content, the best way to make that medicine is with motivated, supported educators well-aware of expectations but with substantial autonomy to adopt and adapt as they see fit based on the kids in front of them and the unique reality they radiate. I’m not saying there’s no role for online courses or commonly agreed upon curriculum across your departments, but setting aside the ethics of treating students as interchangeable receptacles, the vast majority of the time it simply doesn’t work.
Because they’re not.
I’m not talking here about their feelings and idiosyncratic needs and such – those things are important and should be reason enough not to run schools like green bean canneries, but I don’t think we have to even argue the humanity of the individual on this one. (It’s just as well; I grow tired of such basics being forever up for debate.)
We can stand safely on the rhetorical ground (Accountability! Measurement! Standards!) of the ideological opposition and still have every reason to insist that real teachers, with real qualifications and experiences, are the best way forward – even if you have to, like, pay them and stuff. Why? Because to date, no algorithm or script can accommodate or adjust to so much weirdness and unpredictability from kid to kid, room to room, city to city, or year to year. No combination of technologies, theories, or pedagogies can gauge better than that professional human when to push, when to listen, when to insist, or when to back off ever-so-slightly.
And friends outside the classroom, I hate to break this to you, but most kids don’t walk in every day driven to learn. Most aren’t motivated by the options a solid education might provide for them in three years when they graduate, or the fulfilling careers made possible in about a decade if only they’d suck it up and do the damn activity over Chapter Three. Some operate out of fear, others out of habit, and some are simply mindless zombies serving the system… but many many many of them, whether you like it or not or want it to work this way or not, operate out of relationship. Because a teacher “gets” them, or provides structure they don’t have at home, or makes them laugh, or listens to their stories, or some other impossible-to-quite-package-or-even-quite-explain connection. We’re far from perfect at it – most days I fail more than I succeed – but remove that element and suddenly we have way more kids who aren’t going to be “college and career ready” come their 19th birthday.
Maybe the “real world” won’t care about their feelings or individual learning styles – that’s fine – but unless we end up back in a 19th century factory system sometime soon, successful companies will continue to tweak their policies based on the wants and needs of their best employees. Successful careers will continue to demand enough empathy and perception that managers learn how to get the most and/or best out of their people by understanding which things are non-negotiable and which things can be fudged, adjusted, or approached in some other way. Employees will continue to learn that while the posted policies and expectations matter, so do those intangibles which make their peers and superiors feel better about them as co-worker or employee. From thence come happier workplaces, productivity, and promotions – the sorts of things we insist we’re trying to prepare them for by forcing them to be here in the first place.
That’s not coddling, snowflake; that’s just going to the trouble to do it better.
So my kids are weird and still surprise me with what they feel and want and know and can do. I do my best to grab those moments when they come and build on them – often back towards where we needed to go anyway. I didn’t get it done in time to use this year, but I devoted the first four world history-themed posts in “Have To” History to “The Mesopotamians” – Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh. The individuals are fascinating (even the fictional one), yes – but there’s very real history woven into their tales as well. If things unfold in a similar fashion next year, I’ll be ready.
More importantly, though, I’m going to try to be ready even if they don’t.
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