March 09, 2008

Swing Away?

I teach an advanced production course to high school students. It’s a brutally difficult class, and I don’t try to make it easy for my students. Two groups of ten students each have two weeks or 10 class sessions (less than 10 hours) to create their own 10 minute television program. Their work is viewed by the entire school of 3500 students, teachers and staff (Ok, not all of them tune in, but they could if they wanted to.) The “Friday Show” airs on Fridays and the advanced class watches and critiques the show immediately afterwards. The critique is aided by an evaluation sheet the students fill out while watching the finished show. The ensuing discussion is usually led by me or one of the students. The first question is “What did you like?” Students raise their hands and offer their positive reactions. The follow up question is “What will we do differently next time?” Again, the students raise their hands to offer their constructive opinions. Recently I’ve added, “What can we do to make the Friday Show better?” This question has enlisted some even more positive and constructive ideas from students who might not normally speak up. Asking students to evaluate their work in this manner forces them into higher-level thinking rarely experienced in the high school setting. It’s a very good thing. And each week the show improves because the STUDENTS identify their own weaknesses and collectively create an action plan for improvement. I know this model doesn’t work for many high school or even college courses, but I encourage you to look for opportunities for public presentation leading to real assessment of student work. It simply makes them work harder and strive to improve more.

On a Friday not long ago while critiquing the students’ work with them in this manner I was grasping for a relevant way of expressing my reaction to the quality of work the students had produced that week. My mind immediately went to the climatic scene of the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs when Mel Gibson’s character, Rev. Graham Hess, while confronted with an alien being about to kidnap his only son tells his former baseball playing brother while reflecting on the dying words of his wife that immortal line, “Swing away Merrill. Merrill… swing away.” For those of you who have never seen the film, I won’t reveal what happens next (but you can imagine). I thought to myself, that’s it. The kids had bunted, when they should have taken a full swing. (A bunt is a half-swing at the ball for you non-baseball fans.) So I told them, “Guys, you bunted. Next time, swing away.” That same group presented their Friday Show this week. Full swing, hit the back wall.

How often do you tell your students to “swing away?” As teachers we all have expectations for the students in our classrooms. Those expectations can be as diverse as our student populations. But how often do our expectations require our students to take a full swing at their assignments? What do we really expect from them? Do we really respect them and their potential? Think about it for a minute.

In the current day and age of NCLB education including standards, standardized testing, common assessments, API and AYP there is a huge push to teach to the test. I don’t have any problem with that approach so long as we don’t lose sight of our goal: building people. We need to do more in our classrooms then simply build great test-takers. However, the opportunities to strive for more then that are few and far between. It is easier for an elective teacher like me to talk and write about project-based learning and challenging students because I have no common assessments and my scope and sequence is somewhat more flexible. But elective courses are quickly being replaced by remedial courses for students struggling to pass the exit exams and as a result, more of the “thinking outside the lunchbox” load is being placed on the core subject area teacher. As a core subject area teachers with a heterogeneous grouping of learners and everything else piled on top of you, it simply may be impossible to create assignments like the one I described earlier. But then, that’s not my point. My point is, just how much do you really expect from your students not matter what the assignment? Do you expect a homerun every time? Do you ever expect a homerun?

For example: packets. I hate them. But, assigning packets for students to complete can be an effective and efficient method for getting the job done. I don’t like packet work because I see students in my classrooms sharing answers on a regular basis. Not much learning going on there. Packet work doesn’t require much of a swing but it will get you to first base. Another example: multiple choice tests. Sure you can write very effective multiple choice test and there is certainly nothing easier for a teacher to grade. But what kind of higher-level thinking do most multiple choice test require from the test taker? I’ve often heard them referred to as “multiple guess.” Hmm.

We want our students to be successful both in our classrooms and in their lives. If we teach them well in their youth they’ll be well prepared to take care of us in our old age. I want to encourage all teachers to design their curriculum in a way that not only authentically challenges their students to learn and grow, but that also includes opportunities for them to “swing away” at their assignments. Sure, they may strike out. Remember, the learning experience from a strike out can often be more beneficial them simply bunting to get on base. And just think of how amazing it will be when one of your students, your pupils, your prodigies actually knocks one over the fence! That can only happen if you, their teacher, gives them the chance.


  1. Of course, your blog begs the question: "What do you do if a student continually chooses the same type of assignment?"

    I play with menus - based on Gardner's multiple intelligences - in my class. Yet, I'm perplexed in how to get a student, who is bad at writing, to do a writing assignment instead of their fifth art assignment?

    In this light, assignments should be attainable by the student yet should encompass, when possible, many skill sets and/or subject areas.

    Though I prize my students' strengths, I must have them deal with uncomfortable work because this happens in real life.

  2. One of the things I do with my english lit students is have them storyboard a short story from literature, as if they were going to direct a movie. I got this idea from a site I found that animates classic short stories and narrates them:

    So, I have them watch one of the short stories on the Adam Smith site, and then I give them a new reading assignment to storyboard like they do on the site. You should see what they come up with. It's amazing. And, the retention of the material skyrockets! They really get into these things, and debate elements of the story that deserve an illustration, and ones that don't.

    Since you do a production class, and storyboards are part of film production, I thought I'd pass this little gem along.