Monthly Archives: February 2008

“I Need Your Attention”: Leadershippp

In The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell has an essay lamenting the notion that Al Gore didn’t win the 2000 election by a landslide. And her main argument is pretty on the money, I think: Al Gore is a pretty brilliant dude, and it’s sad that our culture sees intelligence as almost irrelevant and sometimes even suspicious. We should value our super-nerds, for they often have the best ideas.

After my Lord of the Flies experiment in class, however, I’m pretty sure that nerds just don’t make very good leaders. In every class period, I have a small handful of genuinely bright students–let’s say seven total. And I honestly expected these students to step up to the challenge and get everyone organized. They would certainly come up with the best strategy to get finished in time, and the others would recognize a good idea when the heard it.

It just didn’t work out that way. One of my adorable little nerds realized that the work would have to get done well if she wanted to maintain her 101 average in the class, so she got active. Watching her try to boss around her peers to no avail was almost heartbreaking, but she and I both learned quite a lesson that day: intelligence does not equal leadership skills.

My 6th period class nailed their experiment, and while their smaller class size made the work more manageable, I’ll attribute most of their success to having a darn good leader. A strong, attractive, popular student with a C average, he failed my test on Lord of the Flies but definitely taught me a few things about what it takes to get a classroom under control. Dude just exudes confidence–people want to listen to him; they want to do whatever he says. Again, I don’t know if that’s a skill I can learn, really, but at least I know now that my kids aren’t going to listen to me just because I know stuff.

For example, I’ve been going my entire, brief teaching career trying to get students’ attentions with a simple, “Listen up.” It hardly ever works. My 6th period leader, on the other hand, got the class’s undivided attention with an extremely simple yet confident “I need your attention.”

“I need your attention!” How come I never thought of that? It’s brilliant. I’ve used it a few times since that day, and it’s definitely more effective. I don’t have the math to back up that claim, but I suggest trying it out. It’s like students believe you really do need their attention. You’re not bossing them around to be quiet; you’ve got information they need.

Whether you’re running for president or running a classroom, people will respond not to how smart you seem, but how capable you appear of taking them in an interesting direction.

Controlled Chaos

Last Wednesday, I came up with a lesson to teach my tenth graders what I think Lord of the Flies is all about: the dire need for cooperation and rules in order for anything at all to get done. Sure, there’s a little in the book about how evil we can all be, but for me, it’s all about what happens when people decide that their own personal goals trump the greater good (sort of like the anti-1984 in a way).

Before the students came into class, I had their desks thrown about the room, upside-down, in a big pile together, wedged under tables [students from earlier periods were more than happy to wreck the place for me].

As my kids entered and asked what was going on, I remained completely silent. I didn’t say a word to anyone the entire class period.

On the projector screen were these instructions:

The following must be done before class ends:

□ Get the desks back in order (6 even rows, 2 desks in the corner near the door)
□ Make a list of who didn’t survive the crash (absent students)
□ Organize yourselves into 4 groups, each responsible for a different job:
-A Governing Body (4 Students)
-Must have a leader elected by entire class
-Must WRITE 3 rules to ensure peace that everyone agrees on.

-Food Supply (5 Students) – Must WRITE a detailed plan about how you will eat and find fresh water on this island. We do not have any of our own food, but the island has fruit and wild animals.

-Shelter (5 Students) – We have supplies to make 5 shelters. In WRITING, divide the class evenly between the shelters. Ask people who they want to live with. Don’t put anyone with people they don’t get along with.

-Rescue (Everyone Else) – Come up with a plan for how we will be rescued. We have no cellphones or Internet access. WRITE it all down. Be specific. Yours is the most important job.

A lot of learning went on that day. I reckon I’ll be spending a lot of blog posts about it. Bear with me; it’s all (sort of) fascinating.

Flash Drive

In an atypically productive weekend, I managed to replace the puny portable flash drive that I’ve had since my undergraduate days.

Old drive: 64mb

New drive: 2gb

I am officially with the times.

Computers and Nothing to Do

As much as the personal computer has become the predominant medium for any communication in the real world, my school is a few steps behind in letting this become a high school reality. I realize public schools have certain legal obligations regarding what students are exposed to, but shouldn’t using a computer with word processing and internet access be a given in today’s world? We don’t send home permission slips warning parents about the potential contents of the textbooks. We don’t warn them about the potential dangers of the electric pencil sharpener. Why, then, should half my students be unable to log in to the school’s computers to simply type out a quick paper because they don’t have their parents’ permission to do so?

Friday was my first day where I went in having no clue what I would teach to the ninth graders. Luckily, the writing textbooks have plenty of semi-helpful exercises, but still, not having a game plan–especially on the day of–is one of the more upsetting feelings in teaching. I can spend all week on a day’s lesson, and if the kids hate it or don’t get it, that’s fine–at least I put in the effort. But pretending you can teach without a specific plan of where you’re taking the students’ learning is absolutely what’s wrong with the whole system.*

Lesson learned, though. I’m going in Monday with a pretty clear idea of what I’m doing all week (10th grade’s reviewing for and taking a test on Lord of the Flies; 9th grade’s learning about characterization in nonfiction through The King of Kong: a Fistful of Quarters).

Tear out liver. Repeat.

Prometheus gives fire to man, so Zeus has him tied to a rock and orders a bird to rip out his liver. Every day, the liver grows back, and the bird comes back to do it again for eternity. That’s drama, pal!  On a Mythology unit, it’d definitely be worth mentioning, if not spending a day or two on it altogether.

Best webiste in the world, McSweeney’s, ran a piece not so long ago, “Prometheus Keeps a Diary” by Mike Richardson-Bryan. The whole thing’s darn funny and pretty close to a high schooler’s sense of humor:

Day 365

What a great day. Jimmy and I spent all afternoon just hanging out. He’s a nice guy once you get to know him, and he knows the dirtiest jokes. Oh, it felt good to laugh again. Then he tore me open and ate my liver.

Hilarious, no? I also Stumbled Upon (best browser plug-in ever) a cute WordPress-based internet comic, Prometheus. Here’s a sample: