By Ryan O. Murphey Teacher What’s the Point of Being Prepared, New Teachers? What’s the point of writing a lesson plan if you haven’t taught many lessons? I realize that new teachers train on lesson planning in teacher school and maybe even student teaching, but real teaching takes time to perfect. There really aught to be a “sim” lab for young teachers so students’ brains aren’t damaged “on the table”, but since I don’t make the rules I suppose I’ll focus on reality. Don’t get me wrong, I do think there’s a value in lesson planning that at least gets you in the teacher mindset. It makes you think about what you might say and do in a hypothetical situation. However, in my opinion, administrators shouldn’t expect new teachers to be following a lesson plan to the letter. Listen up new teachers, stop obsessing over details if you can possibly avoid it! It’s great to have a lesson plan, but that only can get you as far as your mind can conceptualize while sitting quietly in your favorite chair at home, or in a peaceful coffee shop as Norah Jones soothes your nerves as you sip an Oprah Chai. Seriously, that is not a practical school environment in either case! If teachers want to write a practical lesson plan, it should be done during lunch in the cafeteria as the din of laughter and insults wash over you. Are lessons plans a good idea? Of course, but they are just that: an idea. Lesson plans only exist as they are imagined in your head, much like a piece of music exists on paper. However, it doesn’t sound like Beethoven until the orchestra starts playing, and what if the orchestra can’t even play or much less get in tune? Well, that’s the reality of “real” classroom teaching. According to a recent study, less than 35% of the U.S. population has a bachelor’s degree. So teachers have to stop thinking that there’s something wrong with students. The majority of the students aren’t like you! So those brilliant lessons plans you’ve been slaving over are great someday for teacher heaven where all the kids are thirty-year olds who have a master’s degree, and there might even be something there that really works, but it’s not real. It’s fun to plan a lesson. I encourage it! Being creative is the best way to forget about the pressure and anxiety that haunt us educators every day. Just remember, the first time you teach a lesson will most likely never be the best, but if it was truly inspired, you will know it, feel it and use it again. Who Cares About Administrators? You might be thinking, If I don’t teach the lesson plan I write, then how will that be perceived by an administrator? This is a great question and it reminds me of a story my fellow underdog and administrator just brought up as we were watching “Rocky III” last night. Actually in “Rocky III”, Apollo has to teach Rocky how to fight like a street-fighter in the ghetto and while that might be politically incorrect now, the message is a great one about improvisation. You see, Apollo didn’t plan out or research this workout, he thought of it when he saw Clubber Lang demolish Rocky. He tested out his theory and there were some cultural issues Rocky had to overcome, but ultimately it made the Italian Stallion a better fighter. The point is that Apollo’s “lesson plan” could only be analyzed after the fact. It was more of an instinct and that by the way is the message of all the “Rocky” films and it is a quintessentially American theme: ingenuity over science. But I digress, back to the issue at hand and how to deal with picky administrators who are afraid you aren’t doing anything other than watching “Rocky IV” in your classroom and want to see tangible lesson plans that refer to learning targets. About four or five years ago I got this half-cocked idea, or maybe it was my colleague Dr. Jackson’s idea (I honestly can’t remember, but our minds had melded so much at that point that our collaboration was seamless anyway) to present writing through the the metaphor of visualizing how a salad is made. I love to use metaphors or analogies when teaching to create connections. It’s one of the most effective things an educator can do. We were going to buy the ingredients to a salad (i.e. a salad bag) and talk about how a great essay had to have all these elements to “taste” great. We decided that the lettuce would be the structure, the chicken would be the “meat” (the evidence), the dressing would be the commentary (something that makes it entertaining to the reader), and the seasoning or croutons would be the adjectives that spice things up. It was a brilliant brainstorm! We both knew we were on to something. My friend and co-author, being the consummate showman, decided to even dress up in a chef’s uniform and make it like one of those fancy cooking shows! The problem was that this idea had come “out-of-the-blue” and he was being evaluated the next day. I told him he shouldn’t worry about it. The lesson was amazing and we knew kids would never forget it and we could both refer back to it as a connection throughout the year. So we both bought our salad kits, taught the lesson, had a few laughs with the kids and watched their eyes light up as indelible visual and sense-memory connections were made. The problem remained that my friend’s lesson plan didn’t match what he had already written. It was a step process in utilizing sentence types and peer review to create a more sophisticated analysis. It did have a focus on paragraph structure, sentence types, adjectives, academic language and citing evidence, but there was no time to change the thing about the salad. The principal already had the lesson. Sadly, the administrator wasn’t able to see the brilliance of the lesson and it scored a “1” out of 5 on the TEAM rubric which is like most any other rubric that is too lengthy to analyze if one is going to actually have some kind of life outside the classroom. So, yes it was risky and my colleague scored low on his evaluation, but guess what? He was able to redo the evaluation, we had unprecedented writing scores that year (read his chapter about the CTM-Competitive Teaching Model) and both of our classes were easily reminded of what a good or bad essay “tastes” like just by bringing up the salad. Interestingly, that particular administrator doesn’t work at out school anymore because he didn’t see “eye-to-eye” with the executive principal. Not that what he did was wrong, or that a teacher shouldn’t always have a lesson plan ready in the binder. The secret is to know when you have something that could be impactful and don’t be afraid to try it out even when it means changing plans. Not only will it help solidify what you’re teaching, but it will bring an air of excitement to your classes that is impossible to put into a rubric. This kind of experience grows like a viral tweet. Kids start talking and the next thing you know you will start becoming the teacher who “actually teaches”.
Previously, when I thought of China, the last thing I thought of was teaching and learning. Instead, I thought of the countless imprints at Wal-Mart that read made in China, America’s own suffering Gross Domestic Product, or, embarrassingly, John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks from the late 80s. So, when I was asked by Vanderbilt and Metro Nashville Public Schools to travel to the People’s Republic of China so that I could help share insight on developing and fostering Chinese students’ critical and abstract thinking skills, while collaborating with Chinese teachers on incorporating 21st century teaching pedagogies, I was excited and perplexed.
See, I was under the impression, mostly due to our media and the U.S.’s own wild sense of paranoia, that Chinese students were quite possibly some of the world’s most perfect students. I’d heard of intense, even robot-like study habits, coupled with razor-sharp focus and a determination that would make the hardest pentathlon champion blush. Like I said, my perception was set and the thought of me teaching any Chinese student, let alone teachers, seemed absolutely ridiculous.
However, day one in Guangzhou, China, sitting front and center at South China Normal University listening to Professor Wu explain the Chinese government’s paralyzing fear that their own education system is producing a nation of factory workers not creative types, I felt my head was going to explode: Paradigm Shift. Due to my limited space allotted here on this blog, I’ll keep my rug-pulling awakening brief. Basically, Chinese teachers lecture, students listen and write down information, regurgitate that information on a standardized test, then based on this test score attend a post-secondary school which will ultimately determine their lives’ fate – literally. That is a succinct yet fairly accurate description of a Chinese student’s academic career. Sit. Listen. Write. Sit. Listen. Write. Sit. Well, you get the picture. Are the students focused? I guess. Are they robot-like in terms of work ethic? They have to be – the fate of their lives depends on it (this is no hyperbole).
Therefore, the rest of my time spent in Guangzhou was helping teachers appreciate the value of questioning, incorporating cross-curricular lessons and project-based group learning, all while infusing a bit of fun in an otherwise stale learning environment. My perceptions were again shattered at not only the students’ willingness to try and accept this frenetic, inquiry-based approach to learning but also at the Chinese teachers’ desire and appreciation for a fresh, right-brain approach to teaching and learning. At the risk of sounding of corny, I felt like I was making a difference. Sitting with my American educators at dinner, over a fresh plate of bok choy, I would smile and share the untapped love of learning and teaching the Chinese were experiencing. As an educator it was rejuvenating.
And then reality set in…
My American team and I couldn’t help dance around the irony of the Chinese government seeking out help from the perceived cutting-edge educators from the West in order to propel their country into the 21st century. I then realized that just as my perceptions were vastly skewed, so were theirs. America’s own educational system is orbiting around standardized test scores, sit-and-get pedagogy, and answers being more important than questions. Here I was doing my best trying to help Chinese teachers turn their students into the creators of the iPod not just the manufacturer, while back in the states our own academic stagnation was turning our students into regurgitation robots.
I’m frequently asked about my trip to China, and the reality is there were so many takeaways, both personally and professionally. However, only one truly keeps me awake at night: China realizes what it will take in order to be the world’s #1 powerhouse as we advance deeper into the 21st century. They even realize and respect the fact that the United States has the ideologies and pedagogies it will take in order to fulfill this prophecy. Then the irony sets back in. Will America realize and respect the imperative ideologies and pedagogies it will take in order to compete in tomorrow’s global climate?