How John Tesh Helped Me to Help my Students

So, I have a confession to make.  It’s a pretty big one, and may change the way the world sees me.  While I don’t hide this fact from others, I don’t often throw it into regular conversation either, and so, I totally understand if you choose to unfollow me after the big reveal.  Here goes nothing…

I like listening to the John Tesh Radio show on a local radio station in my area.

Crazy and strange, I know.  You’re probably asking yourself, how can you listen to a Top 40 easy listening radio station when you like Coheed and Cambria, Slipknot, and City and Colour?  The truth is, I do change the channel during the music portion of the show and generally only listen to the John Tesh parts.  I mean, he gives great advice on intelligence for your life.  I’ve learned a lot of really cool, and sometimes, gross facts from Mr. Tesh.  For example, remember those fun bath toys we used to play with as kids while we bathed in our own filth?  They are full of nasty germs and stuff including viruses, bacteria, and things that can get you really, really sick.  Perhaps that’s why I was often sick as a child?  Think about it?  Did you play with those squirty bath toys or rubber duckies as a child while bathing?  Did you get sick?  The two are clearly connected.  Anyway, that’s just one of the numerous fun facts that I’ve learned from listening to his show over the years, I mean months.  While this Earth shattering news on Earth Day of all days is quite disturbing, I hope that you can find it in your hearts to understand why I do what I do when I’m not teaching, spending time with my family, or writing this amazing blog, because, I have another wonderful fact to share with you that I learned from listening to Mr. Tesh on the radio.

John Tesh said that looking at pleasant scenes of nature or the outside world for just 40 seconds, can make people more productive and happy than those who do not have the luxury of “seeing” the outside world.  That makes sense, I thought, but what if they look out a window and see the same thing?  Would they be even more productive and happy?  John Tesh really gets me thinking.  I love it.  Thank you, Mr. Tesh.  While his music is really just a rip off of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and other such bands, his advice is original and thought provoking.  Perhaps he should devote more time to finding fun facts to share on the radio instead of recording more unoriginal music.  Just an idea.  Before I digress too far off track…  I started thinking about this idea of nature and how it can promote productivity and happiness within people.  While the study that he shared pertained to adults at work, I wondered if the same would be true in schools.  So, thanks to John’s inspiration, I did a little test in my classroom yesterday to see if John and I were right.

During my Humanities class yesterday, we read and discussed the wonderfully engaging play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  Prior to starting the class, I opened the curtains covering two very large windows that looked out onto Mount Cardigan, the Canaan Street Lake, trees, the brilliantly blue sky, and the natural world.  It was like looking at a Bob Ross painting, magnificent.  So, after looking out the windows for a few moments while I shared a mildly boring story about why we still have the curtains in the classroom, we got right to work.  The students read their lines with emotion, focus, and gusto.  They acted out their lines as if they were performing on Broadway.  The reading of the play flowed like the mighty Mascoma River, quick and dirty.  Well, there are a few curse words in the play that the students get to read.  Don’t worry though, we spent several class periods discussing the power of words and when it’s appropriate to use some words.  I’m not teaching them to talk like crazy pirates of old.  The students performed the play yesterday in class better than they had since we started reading it a few weeks ago.  Even the discussions that we would have, periodically, throughout the period, were deep and fruitful.  The students shared great insight and were really analyzing literature.  It was amazing.  This was, by far, the best period of reading and discussing the play we’ve had.  The boys were on-task, engaged, and super excited during the period.  What’s strange, is that having the curtains open was the only difference between yesterday’s class and previous classes.  I provided the students with the same reminders about reading their lines with emotion and acting them out.

So, is my hypothesis accurate?  Does looking out of a window to see beautiful scenes of nature, promote even more focus, productivity, and happiness amongst people?  While I should gather a bit more data so as to be all scientific and such, I feel as though the answer is, Yes.  I have posters of nature on the walls of my classroom, and they haven’t made much of a difference on a day-to-day basis.  Clearly, allowing the students to look outside before beginning yesterday’s lesson made all the difference.  They were relaxed, focused, productive, and happy.  I had one student come to me and say, “This is the best activity I’ve ever done in school,”  referring to the reading and discussing of the play.  Although I love the play and know how great it is, I do often wonder how much my students enjoy reading and discussing it.  However, yesterday, they seemed super into it.  Was it the rays of sunshine that penetrated the double-paned glass?  Did that help to promote more focus?  Was it the rolling hills?  Did looking at those for a few moments fill them with glee?  Maybe, or maybe it was something else.  But for now, I’m going to go with, I’m right.

So, there you have it.  Listening to the John Tesh Radio Show inspired me to try something new in the classroom, and it paid huge dividends for my students.  They got more out of Saturday’s class than they have in a while, and it was all because of John, sunshine, and my brilliant creativity.

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Teaching Students to Enjoy Drama

Writing has always been one of my passions.  When I was struggling to deal with the death of my grandfather back in my teen years, I turned to writing to deal with and address my emotions and feelings.  I processed my grief, anger, and sadness by scribbling letters and words onto lined paper.  The weight I placed upon myself after my grandfather passed away, seemed to leave my body when the black pen chaotically danced upon the paper, revealing more of my true emotions and feelings.  Aside from music, writing was one of my main outlets.  It served a purpose that blossomed into a passion.  I love crafting creative stories, sculpting poems, and constructing expository pieces.  Writing has always been my jam, like the first song on Thursday’s Full Collapse album.

While I dabbled in multiple writing forms over the years, one genre I tried to avoid, like any country song ever made, was drama.  I just didn’t get plays.  What purpose do they really serve?  The character development is usually quite weak and the setting is so bland and gray.  I used to view plays as the unnecessary form of writing, like any movie starring Brad Pitt.  They seemed so mundane and artificial.  I just didn’t get drama.  So, as a teacher, I avoided teaching a play or even introducing the writing form for many years.  I let my bias of the art form influence my choices in the classroom.  Because I didn’t like plays, I would make sure that my students felt the same way.  Well, back then anyway.  Then, a co-teacher of mine from a few years ago opened my eyes to the genre.  “We should introduce drama to our students.  We should read a play altogether as a class,” she suggested.  So, as I valued her opinion, I listened.  I remembered reading the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose many moons ago when I was in high school and not totally hating it, unlike any play ever penned by Shakespeare.  So, I grabbed a copy and refreshed my memory.  It was short and contained enough roles for every student in our class.  Plus, a few of the boys would have the opportunity to curse.  They’d like that.  So, we went with it.  The students loved it.  You would have thought we gave them an extra free period to play games.  They couldn’t get enough of it.  That was quite a few years ago, and I have taught this play ever since.  Each year the students in my class have a blast acting out and performing this play.  They love examining the symbolism of the eighth juror and the anger some of the men in the jury room possess.  So it seemed that my dislike of plays and drama started to transform into something else.  I’m not willing to say that I like plays now, but I do have space in my writing heart for the genre now.

As we completed reading 12 Angry Men in class earlier this week, I realized that we still had class time together prior to our March Break.  Instead of beginning our new unit on the Middle East Region, I decided to give the students a chance to try creating their own play.  As we analyzed Rose’s masterpiece over the past two weeks, I knew that the students understood the form of drama and how it works.  So, why not have them take a crack at writing their own play?  It seemed like a rather cutting edge idea.  I liked it.  So, I did it.

Today, I explained the assignment that laid ahead of them: “Now you have the chance to be like Reginald Rose.  You get to create your own play.  Perhaps you’ll want to rewrite a scene from 12 Angry Men or update it or maybe you’ll want to craft a parody of 12 Angry Men.  If none of those ideas seem to tickle your fancy, you could always craft an original play about something completely different.  You get to choose.  So, choose an idea that is exciting.  Pick a topic that will be fun for you to write.”  After fielding some questions, the students got right to work.  I could tell that some of the boys were very excited about the prospect of crafting their own play.  One of the students asked the class if it would be okay for him to use their names in his play.  The students gave him the big thumbs up.  While most of the students quickly whipped open their laptops and started feverishly typing as though their life depended on it, a few of the students sat, staring at a blank screen for many minutes.  No ideas seemed to come to them.  They were stuck.  Rather than provide them with ideas, I let them struggle through.  They were getting to what I like to call the sweet spot.  When students begin to struggle with a task or assignment, they either shut down, misbehave, sit motionless lost in thought, or persevere.  As long as students don’t have a meltdown in the classroom or start distracting their peers, I know they’ve hit the sweet spot.  The point at which the neurons in their brain begin to sizzle with creativity.  Sometimes, students stay stuck in this sweet spot for a while, until the right idea comes to them, but when it comes, oh man.  It’s awesome!  You can almost see the mental wheels begin to turn.  The creative juices flow through them like sweat from the brow of an athlete in the heat of competition.  After twenty minutes of staring at a blank computer screen, those three stuck students, found their idea.  They worked through the struggle to find that one special idea.  Then, even they couldn’t be stopped.  They kept writing and writing.  Some students had several pages of their original play finished by the end of the sixty minute work period.  They were on fire.

Many of the students were so excited by what they had begun to create, that they felt the need to share what they had with me or a peer.  During the Morning Break period, instead of taking a break to get a snack, use the restroom, or check their email, several of the students stayed in the classroom working on their play.  At that same time, I noticed a few of the students gathered around one student’s computer screen.  Usually, this means they are playing a game or doing something they shouldn’t be doing.  I waited a few moments before checking on the situation.  Giggling erupted from the group of students as they stared at the computer screen.  “What are they doing now?” I thought to myself.  Then, when I walked over to find out what was going on, I realized that they were reading a play that one of them had written.  It was titled 12 Angry Bunnies and was a parody of the play we had read.  Bunnies were in cage deliberating on a case involving another bunny.  It was quite original and funny.  The boys were so into this playwrighting exercise.  I was in awe.  The genre that once felt like a thorn in my side, was now being enjoyed by my students.  They had so much fun writing their own, unique masterpiece.  It was amazing.  My students were taking to drama like I took to Coheed and Cambria and City and Colour.  Was it me?  Did I help to inspire them?  I may be a really cool educator with a lot of fantastic talents, but an inspiration?  Really, I doubt it.  I think it was 12 Angry Men.  They enjoyed this play so much that it inspired them to want to create their own play.  When at first some of the students seemed stuck or even a little frustrated about having to write a play, they all ended the period enamored by this genre that I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them continued working on their play over the upcoming break.  Who knew that something I used to loathe could turn into a teachable moment and fun for my students.  Maybe I’ll some day learn to like country music and share my new love with my students.  Yah, no.  Country music is not for me and never will be.  Frankly, it should really not be for anyone, unless there are people out there who like when their ears bleed.

Getting Students to Think like Members of a Jury

Several years ago, I was called for jury duty.  At first I tried to get out of it because I didn’t want to miss time in the classroom with my students, but then I realized that I could use my experience on the jury in our mini-unit on 12 Angry Men.  I could share a real-life experience with my students to help them understand what goes on in a jury room while also getting them to understand the motivation of the eighth juror in the play.  So, I did it.  I was selected to hear a criminal case regarding domestic abuse charges involving adopted children.  Being the father of an adopted son, this case hit home for me.  While I did not allow my prior knowledge, emotions, and biases to cloud my judgment, I did use my background to better understand the case, the facts, and the law that was supposedly broken.  I listened carefully to the facts presented by both sides.  When the jury deliberated, we all agreed that the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to show that any abuse had taken place.  Although the mother of the children emotionally explained her side of the story, there was very little evidence to support it.  Without proof, we could not rule in favor of the plaintiff in this case.  We, as the jury, came back with a “not guilty” verdict based solely on the facts.  While it was hard to listen to the various pieces of testimony in this case, the facts drove our decision.  As a member of the jury, I had to keep an open mind and make my final vote because of what the facts and the laws told me.  It was not an easy case in which to be a part of, but I did my civic duty to the best of my ability based on what was right and just as well as the facts presented.

Freeing one’s mind of bias and possibly inaccurate prior knowledge can be quite difficult, but it is the only way to approach jury duty.  It’s also a great way to broaden one’s perspective when learning new things.  However, it’s also important not to forget what’s right and just as well.  While the facts are the facts and the law is the law, not all laws are right and just.  Helping my students see this fact as they develop a growth mindset in the classroom is crucial.  I try, each and every day, to remind my students of this very fact.  I want them to understand how important it is to look at the facts but to not forget about analyzing the equity of the facts and laws involved when learning new information and developing as a student, person, and thinker.  I want them to question everything.  It’s been especially important as we’ve been digging into the play 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  I want the students to be able to understand the motivation of the eighth juror.  Why did he do what he did?  Why did he choose to stand alone in a room filled with 11 other men who all seemed to disagree with him?  Why did he take the time to explain his point of view and perspective to a generally close-minded group of individuals?  I want my students to see why Reginald Rose crafted this character the way he did.  The eighth juror calmly reviewed the facts of the case presented by both sides and helped the other jurors see the truth through the veil of their biases.  It is not an easy job for any of the men in the room, especially the eighth juror who has to deal with jurors yelling at him and accusing him of various things.  However, change comes about because of the facts of the case and the courage involved in helping others to see what is right and just.

To help my students practice this same skill employed by members of a jury, I found a current event involving a court case to discuss in class.  The case I used involved the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Native American groups trying to prevent it from going through their land.  As we had already introduced this topic to the boys back in December, they had prior knowledge of the case.  To begin our discussion, I had the students review what the issue was all about.  I then had the students state their opinion and thoughts on the issue.  Which side is “right?”  We then discussed the court case that is still awaiting a final verdict from the judge.  I had the students ask clarifying questions and share their thoughts on the case.  Following this short discussion, I then explained to the students that in order to discuss this current event and the case like members of a jury, they need to free themselves of their judgements and preconceived notions.  They need to look solely at the facts of the case.  So, I handed the students a written explanation of the Trust Responsibility principle used by the Supreme Court to handle issues involving Native American groups and their dealings with the United States of America.  We looked at the part that explained how most tribal land is still controlled by the American government despite the fact that the native groups have sovereignty within the boundaries of the reservations.  I explained to the students how the judge in the case might be using this portion of the principle to make his final decision in the case, which is due this coming week.  While the students seemed to understand the law and what it stated, they were outraged by it.  “The Native Americans were here first.  They are the only true Americans.  We are all immigrants and Europeans.  Why are we controlling their land?  How is that fair?” one student asked.  Another student responded, “This law is unjust and not right.  Why does it seem that nobody cares about this issue?”  My students were angry, like the men in our play.  They were upset with the facts of the case.  We had an amazing discussion.  The students were using examples from history to support their claims as they discussed this case and the issue at hand.  I was so impressed with how insightful and compassionate my students were being.  Even though they understood the law and know that the judge has to rule with the law in mind, they were discussing the facts of the case and how unjust this whole case seems.  I closed this discussion by praising the students for their phenomenal critical thinking.  I told them, “One of the main reasons we discuss current events like this is to make you angry while also empowering you to want to make a difference.  We want you to see how unjust some things in this world can be so that you will want to bring about change within the world.  Perhaps one of you will go onto become a lawyer and fight for the people like these Native American groups who can’t always fight for themselves.”  The students seemed enthralled and motivated.  I can’t wait to see how they change the world in the coming years.

Getting my students to think like members of a jury while also getting them riled up helped them to understand the web Reginald Rose created in his play.  I wanted them to see how difficult it can be to “see” the facts through the haze of issues, biases, and fairness.  What is right isn’t always the law and what is the law isn’t always just.  I want my students to see and understand this concept as we work through this amazing piece of literature created during a turbulent time in American history, just as we seem to be living during another tumultuous time in our country’s history.  Being able to think like a juror while not forgetting everything else is the key to developing a true growth mindset and becoming a changemaker in our world.

Sometimes the Hardest Things are the Easiest

When I was just a wee lad growing up in Lebanon, NH, I used to sit and watch my grandparents and parents spend hours playing this bizarre game they called Cribbage.  It seemed so strange to me back then.  You have cards and move pegs on a wooden board.  What?  At first it seemed so boring to me.  My grandmother would sit in one spot for hours doing nothing but moving plastic pegs around on a board and saying strange things like 15-2.  Back then, I would usually watch my grandparents play for few seconds before I grew bored and played with my Matchbox cars.  Then, as I grew older, more sophisticated, and a bit smarter, I started paying more attention to when my elder family members played this weird game.  Then, one day I asked my grandmother to teach me how to play.  So, she did.  It turns out that this once cryptic game was actually quite easy to play once I learned it.  Years later, I’m still fascinated by this game and often find myself sitting, for hours, moving plastic pegs on a board, happier than a clam in its shell.  I realized, that what I once thought would be too hard for me to do turned out to be quite easy when I tried it.  Sometimes, the hardest things can actually end up being the easiest things to do.

My goal for today’s Humanities class was to introduce my students to our next class read-aloud 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose.  As this is a play and set in a time with which the students are unfamiliar, I was worried that they might not be interested.  I thought that perhaps they will find this play boring and won’t at all be engaged or excited about acting out their assigned parts.  In the past, some of my students have dreaded this activity when it was introduced.  They didn’t see the relevance.  While they always did come around once we got into reading the play, they were not always super excited at first.  So this year, I made sure to think about how I would structure my introductory comments on the play.  I wanted to be sure that all of the students were inspired to focus on reading the play in class.  I prepared numerous slides to provide the students with background knowledge on the play and the context of the history in which it is set.  I wanted to make sure that they understood the idea of America’s judicial system, how it works, and the type of court cases decided by juries.  I went into today’s class a bit nervous but feeling prepared to introduce my students to 12 Angry Men in a relevant and exciting manner.  I was ready to motivate and excite my students, no matter how hard it might be.  I was willing to put in the effort.

Then came the lesson.  I started out by telling the students how we haven’t taught this play in the sixth grade for two years because we haven’t felt like we’ve had a group that could handle such a mature storyline and challenging task, until this year.  At this point, the boys started to sit up a bit straighter in their chairs.  Perhaps they were trying to show me how sophisticated they are.  I then started explaining what the play is about and how we will read it in the class.  “Each of you will be assigned a different role.  Some will have more lines than others, but everyone will need to play his role very well in order for this activity to be successful.”  This seemed to excite some of the boys as they realized that they would all be partaking in the reading of this play.  I then explained how they will have the option to act out the scenes according to the stage directions.  Several smiles filled the room when I told them that.  I could almost see their mental wheels turning.  They were thinking about how they might act out their parts.  They seemed genuinely excited, and I hadn’t even gotten to my other slides on the background information regarding the play.  As I could see how excited the boys were about the play, I started sharing some of my excitement with them.  “What I love about this play is the different types of characters included.  Reginald Rose crafted very different and unique characters.  Some of you will have lines that you will need to shout out while a few of you will have to say some naughty words.”  After I shared this tidbit with them, they were all hooked.  The class broke out in chatter and excitement.  They couldn’t hold it in any longer.  They were pumped to start reading this play.  I could have stopped my introduction right then and there and I would have been fine.  But don’t worry, I didn’t.  I kept going to make sure that each of my students had the context needed to comprehend the play that we will begin reading in class tomorrow.  At the end of the period, I handed each student a copy of the play along with their assigned role so that they could peruse their lines and be prepared for tomorrow.  I wanted them to feel comfortable as we read the play aloud together in class.  Well, when I did this, you would have thought that I was giving the students $100 bills.  They couldn’t open their copy of the play fast enough.  They started reading and finding their lines.  At the start of the next period, I had to remind students to keep their copy of the play in their cubby so that it wasn’t a distraction as several of the students were trying to read it during STEM class.  Yes!  I was so excited by how enthusiastic the class seemed about the play.

Despite all of my hard work and preparation, what I thought would be a hard and difficult task ended up being super easy.  So, I didn’t need to stress, worry, or be nervous about my lesson today, but I didn’t know that.  I was prepared for the worst as I wanted to be sure every student was ready and prepared to start reading the play tomorrow in class.  I had many inspirational and fun things to say about the play, but really only needed a few.  As this year’s class loves reading and enjoys doing things together as a group, just telling them what we are going to do was enough of a build up to get them excited about the activity.  It’s funny how sometimes reflection or over-thinking something can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety.  I was so worried about getting my students excited about the play that I forgot to remember how much this class loves to read and work together.  Because I was so focused on preventing what happened in the past from happening again, I was unable to see what I already knew.  I didn’t need to spend hours preparing this elaborate introductory lesson, I just needed to show the students the play and tell them that we would be reading it together as a class.  That would have been enough.  I find it so interesting how things that at first glance seem hard, end up being super easy, and how easy things can sometimes end up being a lot harder than than one thinks.