Why Good Lessons Fail

Ever had a lesson you were THRILLED about?  You loved it, it was fantastic, interesting, crisp, approachable and ... wonderful in every possible fashion.  And yet, when you delivered that lesson, it flopped!

What gives?  What was wrong with the lesson?

In reality, there was probably nothing wrong with the lesson.  Sure, all can be improved, but the lesson wasn't the problem, the delivery was.  It seems there exists an inverse relationship between how much I love a lesson and how well received it is.  The more I love it, the more students hate it!

What it really boils down to is engagement.  We are so sure that what we have to say will blow minds, that we forget our number one task ... making sure we are teaching students, not just covering material.  We assume that because we find it interesting and fascinating, and because we had such a grand time putting the lesson together that they'll gravitate towards it.

But gravitate towards it in favor of what?  What captures the attention of students?  Drama at lunch, fights with family members, changes in weather, they might be tired from staying up and watching the new season of Stranger Things on Netflix ... we don't know.  But whatever has their attention, we must wrestle it away.

In a normal lesson we are usually vigilant and on top of distractions and such.  We work hard to make the lesson itself interesting.  But in a lesson that needs no such adornments, we fail to sell it.

So regardless of whether you think it's great, they need to be sold on the fact!

There are a couple things that you can do, at any point in time, if they're not engaged.  These work for average and poor lessons, not just the great ones that we hope will inspire a future generation of (whatever it is you teach).

Before I share with you three ways to quickly grab their attention, let me say that once you have it, you can just jump right back into the lesson.  You'll have their attention, they'll not even notice that suddenly they're learning stuff!

My favorite, go-to, method of grabbing attention is with a quick, cheesy, usually Dad-Joke.  I sometimes look up a bunch of them, print them off and have them at the ready.  There are a few that I have on the ready at any given moment, but since I don't often tell them outside of the classroom, I forget.

Make it short and dumb, they'll be captured, even if they complain.  Then, back to the lesson.

And with all of these, you just jump right into the attention getting performance, you can do it mid-sentence if you please.

The second method is with a quick story about something interesting.  It can be that you wanted some cereal for breakfast and there was only a splash of milk left in the fridge!  So you couldn't even have dry cereal, just slightly less than soggy junk -- How FRUSTRATING!?!?!  Get some feedback and jump right back in.

The last method I use is direct.  I simply tell them they're distracted and that they need to do their best to focus.  I'll sell why (perhaps the material is dry but will be very important and interesting in context later, or some other reason).  I'll share that I feel the same way, burned out and tired, but explain that we all have a job to do.  "Let's just get through these next few parts and we're done for the day, if we do them well.  If not, we'll have to revisit this again in the near future."

Whatever methods you use, mix it up.  If you become too predictable with these they'll fail to gather attention.  So, "Stay frosty," like the line in Aliens suggests.

Anyhow, I hope these are helpful tips.  Just remember, no how great your lesson is, engagement is still the most important part of the lesson.  Without it, they'll not learn anything!

The Purpose of Homework and My Response

The purpose of homework is to promote learning.  That’s it.  It’s not a way to earn a grade or something to keep kids busy.  It’s also not something that just must be completed in order to stay out of trouble.  Homework is a chance to try things independently, make mistakes and explore the nature of those mistakes in order to better learn the material at hand.

If students are not learning from the homework, it is a waste of time and effort.  There are a few things that could cause students not to learn from the homework.  Even if the assignments are of high quality, without the reflection and correction piece, students will not learn much from homework.

Reflection and correction go together.  It’s not about getting right answers, but thinking about what caused mistakes, identifying misconceptions or procedural inefficiencies and replacing those.  To reflect a student should NOT erase their incorrect working but instead should write on their homework, in pen, what went wrong and what would have been better.

It is quite possible more can be learned when reviewing homework than any other time.  It is certainly a powerful experience.

Textbooks and videos, tutors and peer help offer little appropriate support to help make homework, or practice, meaningful.  Textbooks only provide correct answers, YouTube videos usually do similar treatment to topics as textbooks offer.

I wish to help students learn and believe that reviewing work that has been done is too powerful of an opportunity to pass.  The trick is, how can I provide reflection and insight when to someone I am not sitting with and talking to?  I think I can help provide this reflection piece by doing all of the practice problems myself on a document camera and discussing pitfalls and mistakes, as well as sharing my thinking about the problems as I tackle them.  Further, I can share typical mistakes I see from students as they are learning topics.

So as I develop the Algebra 1 content I will be working on adding videos and short written responses to the assignments to help students think about what they’ve done, its appropriateness, correctness and their level of understanding.


Wrongful Punishment was the Best Thing

When I was in 1st grade I suffered punished from a wrongful accusation, well, kind of.  And the punishment would land people in jail today.  In front of the entire 1st grade class I was spanked, but not spontaneously.  I was paraded to the front of the room and quite a spectacle was made of the ordeal.  Then I was sent to the principal’s office where I suffered a similar fate.  And at home, once again.

And while it is true, I did knock all of the lunch boxes off of the stand where they were stored, and they did spill open and they did make a big mess, it was an honest accident, no intent involved.  And I was very willing to clean all of it up, all of it!  The opportunity was not provided.  Instead, I bent over, knees straight, palms placed flat on a chair at the front of the room while the teacher drew back her arm, equipped with a wooden paddle, and brought it forward squarely on my six-year-old hind end, with all of my peers in audience.  Thrice over it happened.

It was spring and I had been spanked at school so frequently that my parents made a bargain for me, a bribe really.  If I could manage to not get spanked for an entire week then I could go out for ice cream on Friday.  And, being that it was spring, the local ice cream shop had my favorite ice cream in the whole world … peppermint ice cream!

Somehow I mustered the will-power to keep the tornado of energy that sprung forth from my body under wraps.  I sat properly, as instructed by the teacher.  And the teacher’s name, Mrs. Fortenberry, was pronounced clearly and accurately, all week.  I raised my hand at appropriate times, passed papers forward neatly and returned from recess with punctuality.  There was no cutting in line at lunch, no teasing other kids during class and the shenanigans that transpired when the teacher would turn around ceased to occur.

The staying power of six-year-olds is questionable, but I held this superb behavior through all of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and half of Friday.  Upon returning from lunch on Friday I went to place my lunch box on the stand and it slipped.  I had not been goofing off, running around, just an honest accident.  But it was as if I threw a basketball at them, they toppled like dominos … to this day I marvel at the physics involved in knocking over all of those lunch boxes in such a fashion.  Entropy is sometimes spontaneous in the presence of six year old boys!

My protests of innocence might as well have been mute.

That evening my family went out for ice cream.  I’m sure there was plenty of the delicious peppermint ice cream eaten.  I wouldn’t know, though, because I was left home by myself.

And while this may sound tragic, I realized something from this experience. I had my first epiphany.  I realized that nobody believed me with just cause.  They should not have believed me, my reputation was well earned.

From this unjust punishment I realized the power of reputation.  I realized that if I wanted to be believed in uncertain circumstances, when light spilled over me in a questionable fashion, that I needed to have a reputation of being honest.  The only way to establish such a reputation was through being honest.

My behavior did improve after this.  Perhaps not getting the ice cream was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Sometimes the best lessons are hard earned.