There Are No Right Answers

So I clicked on a link on Twitter — the headline of “There are no wrong answers!” successfully grabbed my attention. In it, the author discusses how the refrain of “There are no wrong answers!” in education, particularly during the discussion of fiction works, is often quite unhelpful. Because there are wrong answers. It’s a good post that touches on preventing students from internalizing misconceptions, getting “too firm a hold on the wrong end of the stick;” the blogger discusses the importance of teaching the context for a work alongside the word itself.

But the headline really got my brain motor running. “There are no wrong answers!” is a pretty useless battle cry, unless the question is, “Which donut would you like?” In that case, every answer is a correct one, and the level of correction is a spectrum that I have helpfully charted here.

donut chart

But yeah, when the question isn’t concerned with the imminent consumption of donuts, there are usually wrong answers. You take a bubble test, yeah, only one of those choices should be the correct one. The rest are, at best, near misses. Interviewer throws you a curveball? Think quickly and clearly, because you probably won’t get hired if you tell them your greatest strength is “getting away with embezzlement.” Don’t even get me started with the possible minefield when the cop asks you, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” (In my case, they could probably smell the donuts on me — hey oh!)

But the reason the headline kept flipping over in my head was… sometimes, there are no right answers.

Once, students asked where they should hide or what they should do if an armed intruder entered the school, intent on hurting them.

I have witnessed adults put children into a double bind scenario, where the child was going to be wrong no matter how they answered (even if they abstained), simply so the adult could exert control over them.

Gosh, a student last month simply asked me who I was voting for to be the next president of the United States.

Sometimes there are no right answers. Sometimes all the multiple choice bubbles seem wrong; sometimes the question shouldn’t have to be asked in the first place. We are imperfect people and we operate within imperfect systems.

Sometimes the best we can do is to make do.

And sometimes the best we can to is to make donut jokes.
donut-md

Teaching & Learning in “Finding Dory,” or Why Jenny & Charlie Are Awesome

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Finding Dory came out in theaters this weekend. A sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, it revisits the same central theme of parents losing a child, though it’s handled entirely differently. In Finding Nemo, Marlin crosses the ocean in search of his missing son. In Finding Dory, the adult child returns home seeking her parents.

My analysis gets a little spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen it, come back after you have. Oh but wait! Before you go! Wait to leave the theater until after the credits! I promise the tag scene is well worth it.

Okay now shoo! Unless you don’t mind spoilers.

In Finding Nemo, the lost child has a physical disability that affected his ability to interact with his world – he has a small fin that impedes his swim speed. But his father Marlin has sheltered him and shielded him from challenges, so that when his son Nemo is kidnapped Marlin feels compelled to go after him.

In Finding Dory, we see, in flashbacks, that Dory is separated from her parents by accident. However, her parents had made very different choices than Marlin. Instead of overly sheltering Dory, we see through a series of memories that they’re doing their best to empower Dory. Jenny and Charlie use song and rhyme and repetition to drive home what they really want her to learn. The biggest difference between Dory’s parents and Nemo’s father is that, when their child becomes lost, they look for her — but then decide to trust that the lessons they taught her will ultimately lead her home to them. Instead of chasing her across untold distances, they sit tight and believe in Dory from a distance.

Marlin taught Nemo, “You can’t, because….” Jenny and Charlie taught Dory, “You can, despite….” Their lessons enable Dory to make friends and be safe while out and about in the ocean until she finds her way home. (I just realized that they never taught Dory, “Don’t talk to strangers.” In fact, the way she proactively approaches others for help is a huge reason she’s able to find her way home.)

Supporting characters experienced their own challenges as well, overcoming them to varying degrees of success — depending on your definition of success. Bailey the beluga whale struggled to use echolocation, but when Dory explained it to him in terms he could understand, he got a handle on using it. He reminded me of students who experience a block about reading or writing or math, then have a breakthrough and are able to acquire a new skill. Destiny the whale shark was exceptionally helpful to Dory, despite having very poor eyesight. While Bailey does help her crash into walls less frequently, she ultimately deals with her challenge by changing her environment to one where there weren’t walls to be crashing into.

Nemo was an interesting character in the sequel. He acts as a foil to Marlin while holding up a mirror so his father could see how his attitude towards Dory was affecting their relationship. When Marlin says something unnecessarily mean to Dory, Nemo doesn’t let him forget it. “You made her feel like she couldn’t do it.” That line really landed, especially considering how much Dory had accomplished by that point in the story. Nemo teaches his father to reassess how he treats Dory and make some positive changes.

Speaking of Marlin, it was nice to see his character continue to develop as well. He went through some major learning experiences in Finding Nemo, but that did not mean he knew everything now. A take-away from his arc was not needing to do and say everything right the first time, but rather learning to recognize when you say or do something hurtful and take steps to make things right, starting with an apology.10952119376

Anyway, it was quite a nice movie, and I recommend it. But now I’ll let Gerald have a turn on the rock.

Origins Game Fair 2016

So, nerds that we are, my spouse and I trundled down to Columbus yesterday for Origins Game Fair, a convention of sorts for fans of board games and related interests. If you’ve never been to a convention for people with a shared hobby, it’s an experience that I struggle to describe — not because it defies description, but because there’s a plane of emotion there that’s hard to communicate to people who don’t have the same passion.

One of the reasons we went yesterday instead of a different day was for the Foamed Forge youth tournament. Because I’m a teacher, you might assume that I simply enjoy watching kids bap each other repeatedly with foam swords. Really, it’s that my 12-year-old brother won it last year and wanted to win it again this year. There were many, many more kids who participated this year, but he came in second so he still got a prize. The top four kids won swords, but only the first place kid won a fancy-looking sword.

And, yeah, sometimes it’s fun to watch kids let loose in a battlefield context. Hey, if it’s okay to enjoy pee-wee football, it should be okay to enjoy foam broadsword battling for the minor set. There were rules against hitting certain, more vulnerable parts of the body. Kids received a bit of coaching beforehand, since this was an activity they probably didn’t do a lot at home — or do with a lot of structure at home. (In my experience, moms and dads are not as interested in refereeing living room fights between sibs as they are in getting them to stop.) It was interesting to see the choices kids made — some played with longer foam swords, some shorter. Some used small shields, some preferred a sword in each hand. Some played careful defense, allowing themselves to be backed up against the edge of the ring of refs; others went totally aggro and never didn’t charge; along with a whole spectrum of behavior in between. There were no fewer than five adult men in medieval costume refereeing. There were also minimal tears — the only kid I saw crying was the probably the youngest in the tournament, who got out in the first round. And he didn’t even cry when he got out. He cried when his big sister claimed the fourth place prize. (I’m totally with the sister on this one.) (These kids were all there because their families are interested in games, so I’m sure they have ample experience with losing and winning graciously.)

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Last year, fam bought a bunch of foam weapons so we could beat each other up all summer long.

I usually skew pretty peaceable. I don’t feel comfortable with a lot of violent words and play in my classroom. I tell students that, while I like video games, I don’t like scary or violent ones. On the other hand, there is a spectrum, so there exists a further extreme. I used to teach improv games in class as ways to soak up the couple extra minutes before a transition; then a principal suggested to me that “knife throw” might be too violent. (We changed the game to “throw the kuh-nih-fee,” because a kuh-nih-fee is a lot like a knife but also isn’t a knife, and also isn’t real, just like the knife was never real, so.) Discussing a hobby some might think is too violent might be a risk I’m taking with a quasi-professional blog. On the other hand, I really don’t see how this is different from many sports — for example, just because football players don’t use weapons doesn’t mean their tackling one another is any less violent. And I’m only picking on football because of its acceptability and prevalence as a sporting interest. I should maybe pick on baseball. That has bats.

I can enjoy foam sword fighting with my family because it’s not happening in my classroom. The entire context is different. I’m not an authority figure to my siblings the way I am an authority figure in my classroom. Families have more freedom to explore one another’s interests, even if those interests are weird. Also, I’m not particularly interested in foam weapon fighting myself (I was the one who took the above photo, not one of the ones posing in it). I just support my siblings in doing it. It’s good exercise, there’s sportsmanship involved, and it’s as good as rock-paper-scissors for deciding whose turn it is to do the dishes. Just do it in the backyard, please.

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Ed did own us at giant Settlers of Catan. I think he used his sweet baby face to great effect against his exclusively adult opponents.

Assessment and Steven Universe

As a thirty-year-old woman, I may not be the target demographic for most cartoons being produced today, but let me tell you this: I know a good cartoon when I see one. And Steven Universe is a good cartoon. There are a lot of things I really like about it: the fantastic character development, the sweet sing-along-able soundtrack, the way it taps into a wide spectrum of emotion.

But as an educator, one episode that really got me right in the feels was a season one episode called “The Test.” In this episode, Steven finds out that a previous adventure was used to assess his readiness to join the Crystal Gems on their planet-saving missions.

“It wasn’t something we planned behind your back,” leader Garnet tells him. “We just saw an opportunity…” Sounds like informal assessment to me!

Steven is aghast, because he thinks he failed the test he didn’t even know about, and insists on being re-tested.

The Crystal Gems then design a very video game-like dungeon to test Steven. It seems like a combination of puzzle and peril, but it turns out there’s more than meets the eye.

(Spoilers ahead).

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Cosplayers dressed as some of the characters from Steven Universe.

Steven realizes before finishing that the test is impossible to fail — it’s rigged. Whatever he tries on the puzzle succeeds, and the dangerous bits are illusions that won’t actually hurt him. In fact, he exploits a glitch (told you it was video game-like!) and overhears the Crystal Gems discussing the point of the test. Unlike before, when they wondered whether he was ready for adventure, now they want to “give him another success.” Like them, Steven has superpowers, but unlike them, he is still learning to use his, and emotional state is a huge component of controlling them. He has experienced successes but also setbacks throughout the show up to this episode.

“The point is he’s come so far,” says Pearl. “We have to give him another success. He can’t lose his confidence like that again.”

Then, after a pause, Amethyst says, “We’re bad at this.” Her point is that, while they’re probably the best suited to serve as Steven mentor’s, she still feels ill-prepared.

“He needs us to show him how to be a Gem!” Pearl says.

“Steven is not just a Gem. There has never been anything or anyone like Steven,” Garnet concurs. “We don’t know what he needs.”

As an educator, I find this struggle relatable — that for all the years I’ve lived, all the time I’ve trained, all the books I’ve read, all the lessons I’ve planned and reflected on — sometimes I still don’t know what a student needs. We can differentiate and support and scaffold out the wazoo, but to truly understand what it’s like to be inside a student’s head — anyone else’s head, really — to some degree that’s mysterious and forever unknowable. And most of the time, that’s okay, we’ll still go on adventures. But sometimes, when you know a student needs you most is when you know least what you can or should do for them.

I won’t tell you how the episode ends — I encourage you to seek it out, I found it through Hulu Plus and also Amazon Prime, though it may also be elsewhere — but Steven acts on what he overheard in a way that ultimately lifted my spirits. It doesn’t answer the questions about what he really needs from his mentors, but it is reassuring nonetheless.