Friday, October 24, 2014

A Box of Gimmicks

Was I foolish to take back the task of teaching AP U.S. this year? It's possible. Though I love the course, and though I love history, teaching it and AP Macroeconomics is exhausting. It's not as much the workload that is grueling as it is the starkly different nature of the two courses. Alternating between the thought process behind the disciplines isn't easy. Further, it's hard to treat students in a manner inconsistent with the mentality of the discipline. Teaching economics pushes me to value behaviors, perspectives, and traits (and motivates me to tolerate different quibbles) than does teaching history.

Perhaps the best example of this comes in how I deal with students who don't complete assignments. In economics, I like to give some variety of "it depends" to a student who doesn't finish their readings. I'm confident such a habit will catch up with them eventually, and if it doesn't, well, I guess they got away with something. Students who don't read in history invite my (professional, ethical, stern-look-over-the-rim-of-my-glasses) wrath. 

For some reason, keeping up with prepping these divergent classes has worn me out this year more than I expected. Fortunately, my friend and educational advice guru (Doesn't everyone have one?) recommended that I make a box of simple tools available to my students. Hence the introduction of Mr. Johnson's box of gimmicks. 

He shared it with me as I was consuming my third beer one evening at my favorite watering hole. It seemed instantly brilliant, and I impatiently waited a week until I could visit the dollar store to get what I needed. 

By the way, the investment was a whopping $9. 

The students have bought in completely. They actually like the boxes. As one student said, I've reached gimmickry equilibrium. 

The magic of the box, I've found, is that I can instantaneously improvise and it doesn't look like improvisation. It looks like "ungraded formative assessment" or "checks on learning" or "differentiated instruction." I guess I'm demeaning those worthwhile concepts by putting the obnoxious quote marks around them. 

The boxes have led to some very interesting pieces of work from my students. And it ends up looking really good. 

Students instinctively help themselves to what they need in the box when I'm doing instruction. The boxes permit me to push a video segment right up to the bell without discussion because they can leave their artifacts behind (like in the post-it display above: those were from a viewing of a documentary about John Adams).

It's also led to some interesting things left behind, like one of my student's excellent artwork, some good-natured taunts being exchanged between my seniors and juniors, or the famous artifact of misspelling, a student who left behind a note about the famous "Allen and Sedation Acts" from the Adams administration.

Can't you just hear Secretary Hamilton yelling, "Quick, Mr. President, sedate that Allen!" ?

This was only possible because of an annoying quirk from my students that prompted me to make a change to my room. My students' desks used to be in a U-shape. But this year's students kept rutching their desks toward the center of the room. This odd trend became so profound that by the beginning of October one couldn't even walk down through the middle of the room anymore. I decided that I had to put the desks into tables of six desks each.

And when I told my guru that I had done this, he suggested the boxes.


There are some other big developments in my teaching this year regarding technology in the classroom, namely screencasting and shared drive use. But for $9 (and a visit to the supply closet next door) this change is hard to beat.

The boxes and the new seating has completely changed the tone of the classroom. I love it.

And, most importantly, it might just help me get through one heck of a challenging year.

1 comment:

ken said...

I imagine that if you and your buddy reached a 4th beer, you would have been purchasing egg timers, spatulas, and microwaveable bacon.