Friday, April 29, 2011

Lesson Plans that Didn't Work The Way I Thought They Would.

Someone asked me recently if everything went perfectly in my classroom.  It got me to thinking about some of the disasters I've had from time to time.  It is fun to get together with old colleagues and share some of our frustrating times.  And the chaos has descended on me at all grade levels.

One of my early disasters has stuck with me over the years.  I was teaching a fifth grade in social studies and trying to get my students through the civil war.  What was the civil war about?  What were some of the problems facing both the north and the south?  What was slavery all about?  

My class was all white kids, mostly middle class from good homes.  But the standard social studies textbook seem to me to gross over the civil war in a few pages.  AND... we didn't seem to have much in the school library that I could make use of for the kids.  So I put together what I thought was a great idea.  I would choose some of the kids and make them southerners, slave owners, cotton barons.  Got to have slaves to grow and process cotton.  The rest of the classroom would be northerners and be industrial owners, manufacturing, some farmers, and ship owners.  

My idea was that we would have this debate and get to see both sides but especially see how slavery was such a terrible idea.  I split the room into two parts, north and south and let them plan their presentations.  This took several days as it took the "north" awhile to understand this debate.  At first they were willing to let the south have their slaves and I had to prod them into saying they didn't want the south to have slaves.  

Anyway, we finally started our debate.  I had picked a small group of bright kids to be the south and they started out by saying that if they didn't have slaves, they would go bust, their cotton farms would collapse and the north would never get any cotton.  When the kids representing the north got to say their piece, the practically folded on me.  "Well, we can't grow cotton in the north and we need cotton for our clothes so, okay, you can have slaves."  No, no, no!  The north kids just didn't get their heads around the fact that slavery was terrible.  

Then the southern kids got up at the podium once again and said that they were giving the slaves medical help, that they had taken these people from Africa where they were being eater by tigers and living in grass huts and that they had built them wood buildings here in the states and were providing them with food. They even held up some National Geographic magazines with pictures of natives with spears and those grass huts.  My kids representing the north practically sold out on the spot.  I was beside myself trying to get the north to understand freedom but it was slow going.

Indeed, I got a couple of phone calls from parents asking what was going on--was I promoting slavery?  I almost beg one parent that I knew fairly well and asked her to push her daughter a bit on the theme of freedom, having choice, that all humans were equal.  She said she'd see what she could do.

It took about a week of afternoon debates and discussions before the north got their act together.....with a copious amount of pushing from me to finally get to the equality and freedom part down.  The kids loved all this talking stuff--much better then reading stuffy old textbooks but I'm not sure that some of them ever got the meaning and problems behind the civil war.  I can only hope.  I never tried the north/south debate again in class.  I have thought about it for a number of years.  Wonder if it could ever work at that grade level.  Maybe middle school.

Another lesson that bombed was in an Instructional Technology class during the summer with about thirty to thirty-five experienced teachers.  Both elementary and secondary teachers, they were all working on their fifth year certificate.  Just after a mid-term exam I planned to go into roll playing and recorded sound (then 33 1/3 records, and tapes).  

First off, these were experienced teachers--they were all sharp.  A fun group to work with.  And they were not afraid to ask questions.  Up to the mid-term things had gone very well indeed.  The mid term test was just a simple one covering the use of technology in the classroom that I had demonstrated up to that point in the quarter.  I gave the test on a Friday and graded it over the weekend.  But I made sure that the points in the test didn't total more then about sixty five points all together.  No one hundred perfect score here.  If I remember all of the class received between fifty-five to the full score of sixty-five points.  A lot got a perfect score....not surprising.

But on the following Monday, I arrived in class dressed in a dark blue suit, dark power tie, shinny black shoes.  Not summer time garb at all.  And I didn't smile when I went into class but just started passing out the mid-term tests.  

With the paper work finished I announced to the class that I was quite upset with them.  They were teachers and I expected more.  No one had gotten over sixty five points and that was unacceptable to me.  Therefore, I was assigning an extra assignment.  I continued, "the only book that there were enough copies in the library for this class was 'Peter Rabbit' and I wanted them to 'mediaerize' (I made the word up) this book and turn it into me on Wednesday."  "AND I didn't want to work harder because THEY hadn't work hard, therefore those mediaerized reports had to be one hundred words long.  Not one hundred and one or ninety nine but ONE HUNDRED.  The reason for this was that the computer would do the grading  [how about that for a nasty response?]

I remember someone raising their hand but I ignored it...which wasn't my normal style. Then I asked the class how many were graduate student working on their masters.  Most raised their hands and I mention that they should have known better--their report was to be different.

The class was silent, one student slammed his notebook shut--a great bit of communicating his disgust with me but not going over the edge to get on my wrong side.  I then told them I had a record that would explain how I wanted them to "mediaerize" their report.  I had a 33 and a third record of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."  One of the selections is "Book Report" and is a musical on how each of the characters in the show works on their book report of Peter Rabbit. Lucy with all her charm starts off..... "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven--[sigh] eighty three to go."  As I played the record, I had expected to see the class break into smiles and become more relaxed but that didn't happen.  THEY TOOK NOTES ON THE RECORDING.  

At the end of the recording I had to tell the class that I had been putting them on, role playing a poor teaching behavior.  A high school girls PE teacher stood up and looked me straight into my eyes and said, "You mean you were putting us on?"  And when I nodded yes, she said, "You have spoiled my entire week!" (and it was Monday) and then sat down.

I debriefed the class--you have to do that with role playing as it is an emotional response and you have to get them to analyze their feelings.  Most agreed it did make them pay more attention to the record then had I not role played that bad teaching behavior....although several mentioned that they had had professors that did just that--add an assignment for poor grades on a test.  I also told the class that a perfect score was 65 and would equate to an "A".  The class had done well on the mid-term test.

Well, I recovered and I thought the class did too.  Several talked to me in the days that followed about role playing and where they might learn more about this teaching behavior.  I did think I needed to make some adjustments to it if I were to do it again.  The blue suit seemed an overkill--maybe something not in the power suit category.  

The rest of the quarter went well.  I had a guest speaker who taught films and lesson plans using film.  He was outstanding.  I know I did some television instructions, particularly with the newer portable units that was just then coming on the school market.  And finally it was final test time; end of quarter and the class.  I felt pretty good about most of the presentations.

On the day of the final, I gathered the test, made sure I had enough copies and headed for the classroom.  The students were all there, actually sort of excited about the test--or so I thought.  Before I could say anything, one young teacher stood up and said, "Dr. Blackwell, we want you to know that this has been a wonderful class and we have learned many things of value for our teaching and learning."  And with that announcement, the class go up and walked out!  To a person.  I just stood there with my mouth open I suppose.  "Okay," I think, they are all out in the hall waiting to laugh at me."  So I went to the door and wandered into the hall trying to look cool.  BUT they were not there.  To this day I don't know where they went.  I thought they might have gone to the coffee shop to await me there but not so.  When I returned to the classroom, there they were laughing up a storm.  And that sweet young thing that had made the initial announcement stood up once again and said, "Now, Mr. Blackwell, how did you feel when we all walked out....and also, how did you feel when you found we weren't in the hallway?"  Tons of more laughter erupted.

I know that the class had gotten the lesson on role playing and recorded sound. The test was handed out and I made a few remarks about wishing them all well in the coming school year.  A few contacted me about this and that during the year but I have never forgotten the class that walked out on the final test of the quarter.


  1. Here is something that I always wanted to try in my philosophy of education class but never dared to try it. In order to get the students into a philosophical discussion on the meaning of teaching, I had wanted to come in on the first day of class, sit down, and do nothing. Hopefully, before the period ended, someone would ask when am I going to start to teach and I would answer that that is exactly what I have been doing. Again, hopefully, someone would start to challenge my concept of teaching and we would get into a robust discussion about it on the very first night. I have never tried it however. I guess I was always afraid that the whole two hours would pass and no one would question me, or conversely, that they would leave and never come back.

  2. Oh, Lorraine, I always wanted to try that too. I once heard about a nuclear physics prof at the University of Chicago who had a seminar for graduate students. He came to class with books and papers, checked the enrollment, asked if there were any questions? Nobody said anything, so he said, "good" and got up and left.

    The next week he came to class, checked enrollment and asked if there were any questions? This time the graduate students had questions.

    A great idea that I always wanted to try....