Snow Day (Let’s Talk About Zelda)

I was really surprised to answer the phone at 6:15 this morning and hear the announcement that today would be a snow day for our district. I was surprised because we had school yesterday when just about every other school in the county had off. And today, very few other local districts have off (some have two hour delays).

I am going to try to grade some assessments (something I struggle to force myself to do, more than doing dishes even). But, I am also going to play more video games than I probably should. Specifically, I will play Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the new Nintendo Switch.

We got this game the day it came out (my spouse and I are both big fans of the franchise; in fact I proposed to him with a Zelda-patterned cross-stich with a ring sewn on). My husband had to go out of town that weekend, so I got quality time on the system first.

And

I

love it.

Firstly, the Switch. It’s much smaller than the Wii U, and you can switch it from being hooked up to the TV, to being more like a handheld console. I prefer playing on the big screen, but it’s cool to be able to have it smaller, so that my husband can catch up on Hulu shows. I even took it to a family dinner to show my twin sister (also a big Zelda fan). It’s still just as lovely to behold on the smaller screen, it’s just smaller. And even using the smaller screen, you can set it up to multiple different controller configurations so that you can do however you prefer. (I like to hold the Joy-Cons by themselves in each hand; my husband likes to use them in the Joy-Con grip.)

Next, the game itself. It really seems very compatible with my gaming style, which is reckless. I tend to rush headlong into circumstances without planning much in advance; then, if I utterly fail, I observe how I fail so that I can base future planning on that. (My twin sister, by contrast, is cautious: she made it through Ocarina of Time without ever dying.) This game does not overly punish rashness; it autosaves frequently and does not force you to save at particular points. There are many situations where, instead of killing you outright, puts you back to your last safe moment with reduced health.

There are many challenges in the game that you can choose to face in different ways. Often there are items lying around, or characteristics of the environment you can use to your advantage if you think things through. You also get some abilities early in the game that you can creatively apply in many settings.

My husband and I are benefiting from watching each other play. For example, I solved a puzzle using the stasis ability and arrows; when he came on the same one, he happened to be out of arrows. Rather than retreat to gather supplies, he managed to find another way to solve the puzzle. I remembered his method the next time I faced a puzzle, and made sure to try other angles than I normally would at first. I don’t think I’d be doing half as well if I wasn’t playing in tandem with a different person who doesn’t do the same things I do.

I also like that there’s not a strictness to the storyline. In previous Zelda games, you had to accomplish goals in a particular order. This is not the case in this game. Yes, there are certain plot points that only get triggered after certain other things occur. Yes, there are enemies you can’t actually beat until you get the right weapons, armor, or power-ups. But the game doesn’t actually stop  you from trying to do things that you’re not equipped to handle. I think an abrupt “game over” screen is how the game designers chose to teach the player that it’s okay to run away from some battles.

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As for the content of the storyline, I think I’ll save that for another post, one with spoiler tags.

 

 

My Little Pony and the Value of Feedback

We had another RESA meeting this week where our mentor led us in discussion of the difference between summarizing and reflecting. Ups to my colleague who nailed it, very succinctly.

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We got a little off track but had a good conversation on how our previous mentors (and some current administrators) are really good at giving feedback. Having a quality mentor teacher, we agreed, was crucial in the beginning of our career.

I even had an experience just in the past couple of weeks where a current admin dropped in at a time I was struggling with a particular child; she gave me a piece of advice and I tried it out. It worked then, and I mentioned that I would try it again when I next had that student. A few days after that, the admin followed up with me to see whether her advice continued to work — she was seeking feedback on her feedback.

Our current mentor had concern, because we were particularly praising mentors who knew what it was like in the classroom, our fellow teachers. She has been out of the classroom and in school administration for long enough that she was concerned her feedback wouldn’t be meaningful to us. “It’s not about time and distance,” I assured her, “It’s about perspective.

And then I further elucidated my point by citing an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Yes, in a professional meeting. Nerd alert on high.

6561441147In the tenth episode of the sixth season (I had to Google that), Applejack and Rarity try to enjoy some time at the spa, but service is backed up. Applejack investigates and discovers a small problem that the spa employees hadn’t noticed. Not only that, but in trying to resolve the issue, the spa employees were actually exacerbating it.

Rarity: Honestly, how in Equestria did it never occur to you to check for leaks?
Aloe: There’s just so many other things to worry about! I suppose ve get used to the vay things are, and we don’t realize there vas problem.
Rarity: You obviously need an outside eye to evaluate the situation.

Applejack insists on fixing the small problem (because she is a pony who has a toolbelt and she can operate tools despite having no fingers don’t question cartoons) despite using up the only bit of time she had to enjoy the spa.

Then they return to Applejack’s farm, where she left Twilight Sparkle in charge of feeding the pigs. (Why do herbivorous ponies raise pigs? Because it’s a cartoon). Despite having an hour, the job is not done. It turns out, the instructions Applejack left were long and overly complicated. She had gotten used to doing things a certain way without realizing her routine now contained inefficient, unnecessary steps.

Not only is this a helpful reminder to me for the next time I leave lesson plans for a substitute, it’s a helpful reminder in general. You can be someone who finds problems and comes up with solutions for others, while being unable to see your own problems and find your own solutions. Being open to feedback is one way I continue to grow as a teacher.

School Week Round-Up: Week Two

Oh my goodness, it’s already been another week?

Lessons
Still largely in the setting-up phase, getting used to routines. This takes a little longer for me than most teachers, I think, because I teach an area where so much is trained more than taught.  I try to instruct students in basics of computer use, but so many technology skills develop through repeated use.

And, I only have students once a week. So the routines of transition and direction and troubleshooting feel very rehearsed to me, because I do them every day. But not so for the students.

Ultimately I will be very excited when the routines become fluid enough that I can start facilitating lessons instead of just reinforcing routines.

Support: I feel like we had a better week all around with this. We are, as a school, becoming more familiar with our technology — kids and grown-ups alike. As I predicted, the issues we had with second grade using Chromebooks helped us better prepare for when third and first graders took the diagnostic.

Things I Did Well: Something happened in a second grade class today. In introducing students to Google Classroom, I asked them a question: “What is your favorite kind of candy?” Students happily responded with many missed spellings of the word “chocolate,” among other things. I also allowed them to comment on one another’s responses. I figured this would be a good way to start learning how we communicate online. Students want to be clear so that their peers can understand them. Anyway, what I call “the inevitable thing” happened – the kind of thing that many teachers fear deep down inside. A student wrote something inappropriate! It has teachers shaking in their boots. I’ve feared it myself. We’re afraid the tools will get abused and misused and it scares some folks off tech entirely. What if we can’t stop that kind of thing from happening? What if kids get exposed to inappropriate things!?

Well, I’ve given up on believing “the inevitable thing” will never happen. Because it inevitably does. I don’t have to invite inappropriate things in my classroom, and I certainly don’t have to celebrate them, but I do want kids to know how to handle them when they see them. And another student did see the inappropriate before I did. And they did handle it well! They told me right away so I could delete it and have a conversation with the child who posted it. Turns out it was a misspelling that got out of control. They typed out “ass” and meant to hit “delete” so they could spell “awesome,” but they hit “enter” instead. And, once posted, a comment cannot be edited! But this child was right chagrined so I believe they were telling the truth. Obviously if mild cusses keep appearing I’ll be glancing sidelong their way, but since you can’t post anonymously on Google Classroom, I don’t think that will be happening.

So, we all survived “Mild Cuss-Gate.” Well learned all around, everyone.

Things I Will Do Better: I also had a classroom management challenge. Sometimes it really is a balancing act, when multiple students need a little guidance, and one or two students need more close supervision, and you’re only one adult. How do you prioritize actual human children? Sometimes I did okay. Sometimes I did less than okay. And at least once I utterly failed. Classroom management was the biggest challenge of my early career; and while I’ve spent a lot of time and effort improving it overall, I still have my struggles in this area.

Cold Prickly: Remember how I was going to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the kids every day? I found a downside.

Warm Fuzzy: This week I told a first grader I liked her hairstyle. She told me if I liked it, I should try to wear my hair that way. So I did!

braidsShe wore it better, to be honest. I think the other adults thought I looked goofy; many kids told me I looked beautiful. I think everyone was correct.

Tomorrow’s a teacher work day, so kids got a four day weekend and teachers get a three day weekend. Well deserved all around, I say! Looking forward to more September!

School Week Round-Up: Week One

We made it through our first week of school! Five whole days, even. Yeowch Francis pants! (That’s a bowdlerized cuss I actually said this week when I hit my arm against a heavy cart handle. It was in my classroom, but it was five p.m. and there was nary a soul within earshot.)

I thought I might do a little round-up of my week. I might try to make a habit of it, so I can go back and re-read later on and maybe get some bigger picture ideas of where my strengths and weaknesses are.

Lessons: Most of the lessons in the computer lab this week was setup and troubleshooting. Basically, I made sure students knew how to log in to their accounts, and when they couldn’t, I troubleshooted. Sometimes it was due to user error (darn the 1’s that look like l’s and the o’s that look like 0’s). Sometimes it was just their machine being uncooperative. Other times, I needed to actually fix something in the system.

Getting the students to log in meant guiding them towards their school email and, if we had time, getting them onto Google Classroom. I did have a simple assignment waiting in Google Classroom if they got in, but for a lot of us, that’s just where we’ll have to pick up next week.

SupportA big part of my job is supporting other teachers using technology in their classrooms. Much of it this week was dealing with updates in software; missing pieces of hardware; remembering the little things we had forgotten, like adjusting displays and finding printers on the network; and so on.

Our second grade teachers also started using the online product that we use as a growth measure to begin preassessing students. It was a rocky start — our Chromebooks didn’t work exactly like we had remembered, and we had plenty of issues with individual accounts to contend with. The first day of this, my head was spinning, but by day two I had it back on straight. We figured out how to work with the quirks and we finished out the week much better than we had started in this regard. Next week will be better with the first and third graders, because the second graders’ experiences showed us what we need to anticipate.

Things I Did Well: I think I am doing a good job of improving on the resources I made last year. I’ve updated some spreadsheets to improve the login cards from last year. I’m excited about a new piece I’ve incorporated that I’m sure I’ll write about once I start using it.

laminator

MVP of the Week: My laminator! Our school laminator is great for big things like posters, but for little things that little hands will hold all year long, my thermal laminator is the way to go.

Things I Will Do Better: Time management is always something I could stand to improve, both in my professional and personal life. Not only did I allow discussions in lessons to go on a little too long, I found myself staying late in the building most nights this week, doing things that most of my colleagues probably would have done last week before school actually started. I’m paying for procrastination now by playing constant catch-up.

Cold Prickly of the Week: I overheard an adult say the hot lunch being served in the cafeteria looked “gross.” I didn’t enjoy hearing this. Firstly, I didn’t agree that the lunch looked gross. Secondly, I know how hard our cafeteria staff work to make and distribute nutritional lunches that are as appealing as possible. Students also have much more choice in their lunches at our cafeteria than I had seen in previous schools where I worked or where I went. Students must take a certain amount of fruit and vegetable servings, and they must take an entrée, and they must take a milk. And while there is only one choice of entrée each day, there are three choices of milk, at least two choices of vegetable, and two choices of fruit. And that’s just usually. Three out of five days this week, there were three or four choices of fruit and veg. Also, a student has to take at least two servings of fruit and vegetable — but can take up to four if they like. So if a child isn’t excited about the entree, they can take more fruit and vegetables. And if green beans don’t tempt you, there’s tossed salad or broccoli you can get instead.

So, I asked if I could start getting the same lunch as the students. It turns out I can, for the low price of three dollars per meal. It’s actually a really attractive option to me — packing a lunch is something I struggle to do consistently anyway, so it’s nice to just not have that concern. It’s probably healthier than eating fast food, more pocketbook-friendly than ordering delivery, and more appetizing than frozen meals each day. Also, I’ve been trying to walk to school as much as I can instead of driving, so it’s convenient to have one fewer thing to physically carry.

Warm Fuzzy of the Week: So, I started having the same hot lunch as the kids.  The portions are filling. I have eaten most of the things I have taken. The first day I had eyes bigger than my stomach and took the maximum helpings. But, I had neither time to finish eating them all, nor room in my belly. Luckily, the food is packaged in a way that means it could be taken back if it wasn’t open. Extras from one day are often put out the next day if they are stored properly and still good, which is one reason there are additional options. (This goes for entrées as well.) I sat with students, too, and it was really great to talk to them outside of instructional settings. It’s something I hope to continue doing at least a few times a week throughout the school year.

Unsurprisingly, my roundup for the first week revolved largely around food. But, I promise you, this week was nourishing in a lot of other ways. I feel great about how excited other teachers are about integrating technology and using the SAMR model. I think my principal did a great job setting the tone and improving school culture. (And I had that opinion before she brought donuts in on Friday!)

Happy first week to everyone else who had their first week of school, and good luck to everyone whose first week is still in the future!

Shakespeare and Straight Outta Oz: A Case for Pop Culture in the Classroom

My spouse and I recently saw a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged at the local university. To be honest, I wanted to see it because my twin sister and I did it as a speech cut for duo interpretation our senior year of high school. I realize now how many of the jokes went over my head at the time!

More importantly, I realized how many things about Shakespeare are still deeply embedded in our culture. Turns of phrases like “my kingdom for a horse” and “to thine own self be true.” Characters like Iago from Othello remind me of political figures currently looming large. Narratives like from Romeo and Juliet have surfaced across cultures throughout all of history, and the lessons we mine from them depend on our context.

I first read Shakespeare when I was in fifth grade, perhaps. I first studied and learned some in class in ninth grade, then again in twelfth grade. We touched on some Shakespeare in some of my college courses, and I was in a couple productions of Shakespeare comedies at that time as well.
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I’ve seen adaptations like Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Things inspired or influenced by Shakespeare like The Lion King and House of Cards. I’ve seen hundreds (yes, literally hundreds) of Bollywood movies and I think about the structural similarities between those and Shakespeare’s contemporary stage productions.

When we teach Shakespeare, we’re teaching students to notice some of the water we swim in – things like references and vocabulary words that we might otherwise take for granted. And when we take them down for deeper dives through such material, we’re hopefully helping them to pay attention and interpret meanings for themselves.

And that brings me to “Straight Outta Oz” by Todrick Hall.

(Some language and visuals in the links may not be appropriate for work or classroom, depending on your work/school culture.)

So, yes, I’m running for president of awkward transitions.

“Straight Outta Oz” is an album by Youtube star Todrick Hall. While I think all the songs on this particular album are original, he has built a large following for himself by playing around with pop culture. Disney princesses singing a medley of Nicki Minaj songs and retelling Alice in Wonderland to a soundtrack of Taylor Swift. So it seems a natural choice for him to use an iconic piece of media – The Wizard of Oz – as the vehicle to tell his own life story.

toddyuzo

Todrick Hall and actress Uzo Aduba, who portrayed Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz Live! (2015). Photo from Todrick Hall’s mobile uploads album on Facebook.

This is not his first time referencing The Wizard of Oz, but this is clearly his most personal turn. He depicts all the major players himself: Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Lion, and even the Witch of the West. He uses events from the narrative of Wizard of Oz to illustrate his own journey through the fame machine. Along the way he explores, through song, reflections on sexuality, masculinity, race, and identity.

Were I a high school teacher with flexibility of curriculum, I might use this album as a way to introduce concepts of literary criticism. There’s a tendency to focus on “high brow” texts and media, things that are well-established in the literary canon. Or, if we include newer things, they are almost always books. I do love books, but they do not have a monopoly on storytelling. Here are reasons I might try to incorporate Straight Outta Oz:

  • Access. The visual album is available to all viewers on Youtube, for free. Many of the songs are available individually, though the voiceover narrative only comes up in the album video. Youtube can be accessed on many devices or at public libraries.
  • Intention. In weaving together autobiography and fictional narrative, Hall is very clearly commenting on culture or illustrating his ideas. The material is there to be mined. There is a clear arc, buoyed by symbolism, laced with themes.
  • Relatability. Adolescents are going through a stage in life where they question the world and how they fit into it. This piece of media would probably speak to many teens on an emotional level. Also, this is the water they swim in. Shakespeare speaks to us today because the stories are rooted deeply in our culture since before William put them into plays. But the language and the settings sometimes get in the way. When we change the setting and language to be more familiar, it is not just an update — it’s an attempt to reduce obstacles to comprehension.
  • Cross curricular potential. There’s no question that music, dance, and costuming are all integral to Hall’s style of storytelling; that brings in the arts. Commentary on current events could fit in with social studies.

I know a high school teacher who last year taught a unit on the first season on popular podcast Serial, to great success. I know another high school teacher who, powered by the momentum of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash hit, has been coaching students through Chernow’s biography of Hamilton for summer reading (and using Twitter to send reminders!). From Khan Academy to Crash Course, a resource like Youtube has found a place in the classroom in STEM subjects. So why not humanities as well?

Now, I make a case for Straight Outta Oz on the basis that I really enjoy it. Obviously my enjoyment of a piece of media is not the sole rubric to measure its appropriateness for the classroom. (Otherwise The Little Prince book would have gone over much better years ago when I taught sixth grade.) What relatively new medium do you dream of teaching in your classroom?

Real-Life Room Escape

What happens when you put six educators in a locked room, where they have to solve puzzles to escape in thirty minutes?

That’s how I spent my Friday night. Real-life room escape is a hot new type of game, where you and a group of friends have to find clues, solve puzzles, and overcome challenges in order to escape a room.

My school principal invited folks to check it out, so we wound up with a self-selected group of six: two principals, three teachers, and a school psychologist. We went to Escape Canton and tried their Cursed Tomb room. We had thirty minutes to get out of an ancient Egyptian-themed tomb that reminded me strongly of temple dungeons from The Legend of Zelda video game series.87821787

Before beginning, we surrendered our phones, for several reasons: one, to prevent cheating (definitely would have used the flashlight function right away!); two, to prevent distractions (we really needed all thirty minutes to focus and think); and three, to prevent the secrets of the room from leaking out on social media. I’ll also try to review and describe the experience without giving too much away.

So, as soon as the countdown clock started, mayhem ensued. It reminded me of the first time you hand out iPads to first graders. Everyone was talking over each other and “searching” for clues in a way that made a giant mess. It was pandemonium, and it took some time before natural leadership emerged from among us. And natural leadership did emerge, between three and five minutes in. But it wasn’t a single person; in terms of time management, we needed people to work on different strands of puzzles simultaneously. Six people one one puzzle would have been too many cooks in a kitchen anyway. So leadership that emerged was based on the challenges before us, not based on the personalities of the people in the room.

There were a couple times when folks displayed excellent out-of-the-box thinking and almost magical clue-finding, but I think my proudest moment was when trying to solve an enormous wall-mounted puzzle. It was the kind of thing that you could solve by yourself, if you had lots of time and lots of patience. We had neither. I had made repeated attempts to recruit members of the group to help me: “Hey guys, I need help… guys? Guys?” Finally, I zeroed in on a single other person and simply said, “I need help with this. This is exactly how you can help me.” I was going to manipulate the pieces while she read the clue and talked me through it. We made an attempt but were looking at the clue from the wrong angle, so we had to start over. As we worked other people came over – another person helped me manipulate the pieces more efficiently, and another person helped the clue-reader finesse how she communicated the information. We had to try four times before we got it right, but we did eventually succeed. How’s that for grit?

We made it to the homestretch, literally the last puzzle, before we ran out of time. But even losing at the game was a positive experience overall. It was such a thrill, a rush. And with the time limit, you don’t have a lot of time to bicker. You have to make your arguments persuasive and to the point if you have a disagreement with another team member. There were some puzzles that brought out different people’s strengths, so if it wasn’t your strength, you could let someone else take the lead. It was a good reminder that a good team doesn’t have all the same abilities and weaknesses, both physically and mentally.

If you have the chance to try and escape room, I would recommend it, with some caveats. It might be good to clarify in advance how “scary” it is. We had a “chicken” on our team who was frank about it to begin with, and we were assured she would be fine. (The other room option available that night, which I checked out later with a smaller group, was slightly scarier.) The venue we went to usually operates a haunted house during the Halloween season, and no way did the escape room experience approach their haunted-house-scariness levels. Some of the challenges were physical in nature, like moving something heavy, or putting or getting things from high or low places. So if you’re not physically the most agile person, that’s fine, but you might want to make sure you have balance on your team. Also, I guess sometimes props might be made of materials such as latex, so if you have any allergies like that, you might need to clarify that with the venue in advance. Also, different escape rooms are going to be different experiences in terms of setting, atmospheres, puzzle types, etc. For example, the Cursed Tomb was dark; the Serial Killer was more brightly lit. That’s not to say that one escape room experience is automatically better than another, just that every escape room will be a different experience, and sometimes those differences make it difficult to directly compare them.

 

Do You Want to Wear a Snowman?

My eight-year-old niece and I are having a silly hair Christmas Eve. We’ll see whether the other adults stop me from wearing my hair this way to Mass. I want to see whether the nuns react.

Structure made of two differently sized hair donuts, stacked on each other. Tissue instead of colored hairspray. Niece drew the buttons and nose, and glued on wiggly eyes and the Hersey kiss hat. Pipe cleaner scarf.

Friday Fun Time

When I was a kid, I was an ace daydreamer. I liked to imagine what would happen if my own personal gravity was turned off, and I could float around a room like an astronaut on the space station. I liked to think about how I would navigate my way around my school and my home. I imagined that a friend or sibling would have to hold onto my ankle when going outside so I wouldn’t drift off like a balloon.

Daydreams serve one well during standardized testing week, at least if you’re the administrator. AS the administrator, you’re meant to be “actively monitoring,” which basically means you walk around the room and watch students take a test. You can sit for “short periods” but you cannot grade papers, plan lessons, or do anything on an electronic device (for a non-test reason). So however you may feel about standardized testing politically or philosophically, I think most of us will agree that it is very, very, very boring.

Which is why I’m glad I honed my daydream skills as a child. I can retreat to my no-gravity wonderland in the garden of my mind for little bits at a time as I roam around the room and try not to examine students’ tests too closely (because according to the manual, that’s not okay either). I can wonder which historical figures, living or dead, would make the most entertaining contestants on Dancing with the Stars (I have a suspicion Albert Einstein would have been surprisingly spry.) I quiz myself on poems I’ve been trying to memorize. (I say poems, but we all know what I really mean is cheesy rap songs from the nineties.)

This year I found myself giving the test to a very small group in a very small room — so small, in fact, that I couldn’t pretend to be a slow motion Olympic speed skater, as one blogger suggests. (It was a carpeted room, though, so I did map out the route a Roomba might take in my head.) But I guess I needed something active without being overly energetic. So, I started tiny dancing.

I just want Elton John to hold me closer.

Of course, the video is a reenactment. Even that much vigor would have been too much distraction for the testing room. (Plus, no non-test related tasks on electronic devices, rememeber?) But I did enjoy challenging myself to try and perform the litany of dance moves in Silentó‘s “Watch Me” using only my fingers.