I was tasked with relating what I learned in class and how I can leverage it in my day to day job. We were also strongly encouraged to make it entertaining and to be creative. Hence, I present to you a fictionalized account of the conversation current me (Jason) would have with Social Studies teacher me (John) and how it could impact the classroom.
Ancient History Like You Have Never Seen It Before
The phone fell with a pronounced click, and John slumped back in his chair. His principal had just informed him that he again would be on the team with the “rambunctious” kids. Generally, he really liked those students as people, but he always had a hard time getting them motivated to care one whit about Ancient History. They didn’t care about current history.
He glanced across the hall at Mrs. Daniels’ class where students sat quietly in rows and listened intently to the lecture about Charlemagne. Why couldn’t he have a class like that? Instead, it was a feat just to maintain a sense of mild calm when the students came through the door. How am I supposed to make these kids care? How do I get them to do anything?
Over the summer, John went to lunch with his friend who also happened to be the Tech Director at his school, Jason. Jason was studying to get a MAET from Michigan State University. As they were talking, John mentioned the nightmare next year was going to be. His friend nodded and listened to John’s mini gripe session, and then Jason asked him a question that would alter the course of John’s next year. “Have you ever heard of Design Thinking?”
John honestly had not, and he was pretty perturbed that after his eloquent delivery of woe that his “friend” wanted to talk about interior design. His face must have shown this because Jason displayed his just wait for it smile and carried on.
“There are five steps. Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test.”
“That’s wonderful. Why do I care about this? Do you want me to do the five steps for every lesson or something?”
“Just listen. In empathize you try to really understand the situation. In your case, you would want to have a good idea of why your students act and feel the way they do. You would go past what you think. You would listen to them and hear what they have to say. You want to know their feelings and why things don’t work for them the way they are now.”
John just looked at him. Jason persisted.
“Once you really understand where they are coming from you would move to Define. Here is where you put into words the problem you are trying to solve. In your case, how do I help students learn about Ancient History? That question might change after you do the first stage though, so be flexible.”
John may or may not have rolled his eyes at this point.
“Now that you have a definition of the problem, you need to come up with as many ideas as you can to solve it. Be crazy with this. Don’t dismiss any ideas. Shoot them all out and then look at it from a different direction and shoot out some more. Involve the kids in the process. Drag their parents into the process. Have everyone involved in coming up with any idea they can to help fix the problem.”
“I can’t get a parent to sign a planner. How am I going to get them involved in brainstorming?”
“You’re super negative right now. Let me answer your question with a question. Have you ever asked that parent at the beginning of the year what she thinks is the best way for you to help her child learn? Or did you just want stuff from her like a signature or classroom supplies?”
“… … … Go on.”
“Once you have all of these ideas, you pick what looks like the best solution and you prototype it. Maybe for one student, they can draw or build the most magnificent creations. For that kid, you might help them study architecture through the years and have them create different models that show the differences between civilizations. For a student that can’t write to save their lives, maybe you let them do a speech instead of writing an essay. For the student that can’t read, maybe you help them find what they need in audiobooks. It would be different for most every kid.”
“What?!? You want me to have a different plan for every kid? I have 115 of them. That’s crazy!”
“Do you want them to learn or do you want to keep doing things the way you have and watch kids keep hating school?”
“That is an unfair question. Of course, I want them to enjoy school and learn. What you’re asking for is impossible, though!”
“Hold that thought. The last stage is testing. You let the students learn in the way that you prototyped for them. After that, you sit down with them and talk about whether that really caused them to learn what they needed to learn. If it did, keep using it. If it didn’t, come up with a new prototype. That’s it! Brilliant, right?”
“I’m still holding on to that thought.”
“Okay, let’s look at what this would look like in real life. When you meet the parents at Open House, you tell them that you really want to hear from them about how they think their child will learn best. They’ll think you’re full of it, but say it anyway. The next day start making phone calls. Leave messages. Send emails. Send a letter. Do whatever you have to do to show that you meant what you said. You want the parent to help you help their kid succeed. In the meanwhile, first day with the kids, instead of playing a stupid game, tell them about this. Tell them you want to help each one of them come up with their own prototype. Explain the steps and tell them to go home and talk to their parents about the empathize phase. The parents should be expecting it. Next day, have them define the problem they have with learning and go home and brainstorm with their parents how they can overcome it (Ideate). You have suggestions but don’t tell them what to do. Meanwhile, parents know you’re for real and some (not all) are going to jump on board with you. Have them design a prototype that matches what they think will make them successful. Teach them an introductory lesson about whatever it is that you teach first. Paleolithic age, I guess? Tell them that they need to propose to you how they are going to show they understand the Paleolithic age using the prototype they came up with. Roll the dice. Some of them aren’t going to do anything. For those kids, ring up their parent and tell them you don’t think that prototype worked because they didn’t do it and get the parents involved. While it is possible that some kids have parents that don’t care about them, I’ve never met one. Parents want their kids to succeed. If they believe you want the same thing even if the kid is hard to handle, you’ll have an ally for life.
“At the end of it, evaluate with students and parents whether that prototype was the best. If it was, they keep it. If it wasn’t, you come up with something else. If they want to try something else, let them.”
John looked at Jason for a good twenty beats of the vein thumping at his temple. “I can’t do this. It isn’t possible. How do I make that many rubrics? How do I maintain that many prototypes? How do I make sure the kids are all doing what they are supposed to? How do I prove that they learned something?”
“Well. The students keep up with their prototype (or you can have them fill out a Google Form). The kids can make their own rubric, or you can have one rubric that focusses on content and has one line for product. You walk around and talk to the kids while they are working and ask them questions. The product ought to show you if they learned or not. Did I miss anything?”
“If I try this harebrained scheme of yours, … It’s crazy. The whole thing is crazy.”
“Crazy? Isn’t doing the same thing over and over and wondering why it doesn’t work crazy? Try it. I’ll be there to back you up.”
John left Jason and churned the ideas in his mind. The more he thought about it the more he thought it was worth a try. The worst that could happen is that chaos will rain for a couple of weeks, and then he can lock it down and go back to his regularly scheduled program of lecture and group projects.
The summer flew by and John was ready for his Open House speech. As the parents filtered in, he leaned against the wall waiting for the seats to fill. He stood up and said, “Hi, I’m Mr. Whitehurst. I’ll be teaching your child Ancient History this year going from the Stone Age to just before the Age of Exploration. This year, with the help of our Tech Director, we are going to try something different. Every student has strengths and weaknesses. Every one of them can learn and if stuck in the wrong circumstances fail to learn. It’s our goal to help your child learn the best way they can. On the board are the steps of a way of designing class that we are going to try. It is vital to me and your child that you participate. You’re their first teacher. The first few days we are going to figure out what is unique about your child’s learning so that I can empathize with where they are. We’re then going to figure out the main problem your child may have with learning the material. After that, you, your child, and I are going to come up with as many ways as we can how your child can best learn and show that learning in this class. We’ll pick one of those and give it a try. If it works, hallelujah. If it doesn’t, we keep trying until we are successful. I need you. Your child needs you. Let’s make this the best year of your child’s education.”
There was a fair amount of murmuring as the parents filed out, but there were a whole lot of smiles and nodding of heads. John spent the next morning contacting as many of the parents as he could before the PD in the afternoon. He continued that over the next three days managing to at least attempt to contact all of the parents once. He followed Jason’s ideas to the letter. Students and parents worked through the process and came up with and tested the prototype over the first week and a half.
On presentation day, the principal stopped in. One by one the students proudly stood and presented their work. There were speeches, presentations, models, songs, and a variety of other things. Some were incredible while others were pretty bad. One thing was evident though. Every one of those kids understood the Stone Age.
As the semester progressed, the students continued to tweak or outright change their prototypes. They learned about Egypt and Mesopotamia; Indus Valley and China; Greece and Rome; Middle Ages and Central America. At the end of the year, he told them their last assignment was to explain what they learned that year. The students dove in and produced their products. John invited the parents to come and they presented them in the multipurpose room.
John leaned against the back wall with a smirking Jason as students who had never had a chance to show off before proudly stood and presented to nearly 200 parents what they had learned that year.
“Not that bad of an idea, huh?”
“Shut up. No one likes a know it all.”