Last year was terrible.
I’m not a new teacher, but I made all the rookie mistakes. It had been eight years since I’ve been the person at the podium day in and day out, and they could tell.
I got eaten alive.
I caught all the germs, all the tough breaks (three subjects, three grades, three classrooms, almost no curriculum).
I did things I’d never done in a classroom before: I yelled. I gave out candy. I gave in to my wanderers one day and just declared a dance party right then and there. That was one of my better days.
In June I caught my breath. This year had to be different. Sure, I’d only be teaching the one class — Career Education — but how do you get an eighth grader to care about the brass tacks of planning for her future? The kids I had last year didn’t seem to care about anything but sports.
I thought about this. I’d thought about it all year, actually; since the first time school was released early for students to attend a football game. My previous school district was extremely competitive academically and …I judged. I’ll be honest. Sports. It’s just games, you know?
But I’d taken this excellent course recently on gamification for workplace training, and saying it that way — games — made me realize I’d found the key.
There was a way back in, and it was games.
My students love the sports they play, I came to realize, because they get to build competency, relationships, and are actively taught how to become good people. Our coaches in my town are not win-at-all-costs madmen/ladies. They are avidly invested in students’ personal growth, and the kids know it.
I can do that, I thought.
So I’m trying it. My approach this year is something I think of as Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose (if you don’t recognize this motto, run, now, here).
Clear Eyes: I need to make expectations more explicit.
I got lazy about this working in a high-SES high-test score district in the past; I know better, and this isn’t that district. I need to tell why, every time.
When it comes to student work, I’m committing to making an example each time. When it comes to student behavior, I’m teaching Briarcliff’s Habits of Mind. When I talk with kids about changes I need in their behavior, we have a shared language and I can partner with kids to make a new plan for success, not shame or coerce. When it comes to Career Education, there are a lot of ways I can make the unspoken mores of the workplace and university system explicit, and I’ll talk about that more as the year goes on.
Full Hearts: Their hearts have to be in it. Maybe not every day, but they need to know they can impress me, make their families proud, represent their communities.
One of the most important things I learned studying gamification is the many reasons why people are willing to put time and energy into work/games/anything. I need to respect the various motivations why the many “players” in my classroom are willing to do the kind of dumb things they do all day, from making posters to filling in worksheets. When I understand that, the quality of what I’m asking them to do improves, and their joy increases. …and when I didn’t understand that, everything sucked. !
Can’t Lose: I am not in this for the money, and neither are the students. We have to have some wins.
Finding ways to let the kids “win” at things means that I have to be a coach. No matter how a team scores, a good coach is proud of a team that practiced well, learned what it was supposed to, and faced their challenge bravely. I have to find ways to give my students hard, interesting challenges, prepare them, and get out of the way.
One of the ways we’re talking about this concept is using Storyline — the idea that a good life story is like any good movie, with a character who wants something, will overcome anything to get it, and who celebrates his achievement. I’ll talk more about how we’re using this in the future, too.
This year is going better, so far. One of the autistic kids kind of apologetically hugged me the other day. I told a new kid happy birthday yesterday and he smiled bigger than he had all year. I rolled out a hard assignment that I’d worked really hard on, on a Friday, before the long weekend, and the kids TOTALLY ACTUALLY DID THE WORK.
I really think we may win the season. Come with me. I could use an audience.