"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Classroom Comedy of Errors

This is how my third period class went on Friday. It might only be really funny to another teacher, but I submit it for your approval no matter what you are.

Alas, we read the original. Minimal carnage.
In my IB (honors) class, all students are required to complete oral assessments, commenting on a passage from certain texts. This time it was Pride and Prejudice. In order to complete this task in one day, they rotate in groups of three from planning time (A) to speaking time (B) to being a recorder (C). In effect, there are six or seven students recording their commentaries into a digital device at the same time.

I had previously arranged to use a nearby empty room for the planning stage. So I took the first group (A) down the hall, and the room was locked. The teacher had told me she'd be there, but there she was not. I found out later that the main office called at the end of second period and asked this teacher to cover a gym class. (It happens often that there aren't enough substitutes and teachers are asked to cover a class during their planning periods. This teacher told me that the second she agreed to do this she knew it was a bad idea. But the trials of covering a gym class full of ADHD fourteen-year-olds is another story.)

I scrambled, breaking into the break room where teachers of freshmen were lunching, asking if I could borrow some classroom space. The teacher with the nearest room was gracious and opened her door for us (remember, I have a gaggle of students pursuing me through the halls now), but she had a class returning from lunch in under 25 minutes. Since the planning stage took ten minutes each, I was only able to rotate two groups into that empty room to plan before the group of freshmen overran their teacher acting as hall monitor and demanded entrance.

The third group's planning time was taken in the teacher work room, a space sacred to teachers who have other classes in their rooms during their planning time or otherwise need to use an extra computer or just sit alone with their thoughts when they have a spare few minutes. Some teachers might not have their own rooms at all; this is their office space and they keep private belonging in the work room. Students aren't allowed in. But I took a chance and put them there for ten minutes while I monitored the second round of recording. Fortunately, everything went swimmingly. The students planned, they commented, and we completed the assessments.

That was only the beginning. Our class periods are 100 minute blocks; we were 45 minutes in.

Need a student to comply? Try this.
It had been a long week for us all. Not only did they have the Pride and Prejudice oral commentary assessment due that day, but all week long after school, these students were giving 10-15 minute oral presentations on another text of their choice. This takes a lot of studying and planning for a lot of presenting and assessing all at essentially the same time. Because of this, at the beginning of class I plied them with doughnuts, and when the commentaries were done, I offered them chocolate. How cool am I?

It turns out: very. The kids behaved splendidly through the next set of errors.They were jovial and respectful, despite the sugar rush, and they might have even learned a thing or two about Shakespeare.

I collected their Pride and Prejudice books and checked out to each student a copy of Hamlet. The groaning was minimal. I introduce Shakespeare with an amusing quiz about some general Shakespeare trivia. Multiple choice questions like "What were Shakespeare's parents named?" with answer choices like "Barack and Michelle" and "Kermit and Miss Piggy." Or "What was Shakespeare's acting troupe called?" "Monty Python" or "Pink Floyd"? The real answers were in there somewhere, so it becomes info-tainment in it's highest form.

The clickers are so old-school.

In order to participate in this merriment, I used some software called ActivInspire to create what's called a "flipchart" on a "smartboard" where students can use a "clicker" to enter in their answers to each question. It's rather cool technology that's supposed keep the kids engaged while not realizing they're learning. Unfortunately, when I opened the quiz, the computer didn't recognize the software, despite the fact that I checked it that morning and it was working just fine. So I closed and opened computer thingies for about five minutes before it started up correctly. Then the clickers didn't work. At first, it was my fault because I forgot to put the ActivInspire hub in the USB port, but even after I did that, the software wouldn't read the clickers.

I admit that every time I use this software, I have to relearn some things; in fact, the students sometimes know better how to get it going than I do. So, after another few minutes, and with some helpful suggestions from the peanut gallery, the world-renowned Shakespeare factoid quiz was underway. Except that it now did not recognize the correct answers. I swear I did this same quiz last year, and it wasn't this much of a pain. It wasn't a huge problem. I could just tell the kids the right answer after they had entered their choices. But I'd forgotten the answers to a few. For instance, "How many plays did Shakespeare write?" I knew it was 36 or 37, so I just told them it was 36 and moved on. Like anyone remembers Coriolanus anyway.

Quiz over, students getting squirrely, and we still had 20 minutes left in class. I'd planned to show a video about Shakespeare and tragedy that can stream through a website called Discovery Education. Like the flipchart software, I don't want to denigrate this useful educational tool, because it's chock full of swell resources for the classroom, but if you couldn't tell already, Friday wasn't my day. The video loaded so slowly, I thought the students would revolt. Then, once it was streaming, I was informed through loud beeps and whistles that you could only go full screen through Internet Explorer. Seriously? Who makes their interweb applications only work through Microsoft products these days. Corporate stooges, that's who. So after another excruciating few minutes, the video was loaded on full screen and projected onto the smartboard, which is located in the exact worst spot in my room (but that's also another story), and I thought I might could breath for the last ten minutes of class.

Olivier or Hawke? Who's more Hamlet?
About five seconds after I sat down, the video stopped, that annoying "buffering" notice appeared and we waited. It started, stopped, and we waited some more. And again. And again. Like I said, great resource, but they could set it up so their streaming videos actually stream. Otherwise, nobody learns nothin'.

We ended up reviewing the Hamlet text they received, and I admonished them not to simply read the synopsis of each scene at the end of each scene. And not to watch any version on film until later. Shakespeare's about the language, people. Read it and weep. In a good way.

So there you have it: such a series of events. The students handled it with aplomb, and I was able to adapt and do things slightly different for fourth period. Still, since it was the last period of the day, they acted a little more like they were hepped up on goofballs than third period students.


  1. That is a series of unfortunate events.

    When I first opened your page I thought you were going to say you assigned your students to read Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. I'm a little disappointed that you didn't go that way.

    Maybe next time?

    I own it. It's a fairly entertaining book.

    Well done to your students for not revolting even though they were hyped up on donuts and chocolate. And cool points to you for providing it!

  2. Days like this remind me of another great work of literature, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. We all have them.

  3. Chanel: I read about halfway through PPandZ, but got distracted by other books. It was kind of a one-note joke, clever and everything, but it hasn't drawn me back in yet. I'll probably finish it before the movie comes out.

    LeAnne: Alexander did indeed have a bad day, but he kind of brought some of it upon himself. I, however, did nothing and all of this happened anyway. Unfair, I tells ya.

    Matthew: Luckily my students handled it with aplomb and I was able to adapt for the next period. I just realized I meant to write that at the end of the post. I think I need to go revise. Excuse me.

  4. Brent: Let me just say that I am impressed by two things in this post.

    First, I'm impressed that your students were so patient and compliant during that whole kafuffle. Very impressive for that age.

    Second, I am most impressed by the quick "thinking on your feet" that you managed to pull off. Most excellent. I give you and your students an A+++. :)

  5. Thanks, Candice. Don't let anyone tell you teachers are lazy. Now you know the real scoop.

  6. Eeeeeee. That sounds like a NIGHTMARE. At least you handled it like a pro!