Category Archives: teaching

Teaching Outside The Box

I was always known as the English teacher who gave strange homework assignments. I would tell my students that there was a method to my madness, and that my job wasn’t about telling them what to think; it was about getting them to think, especially for themselves.

As a teacher, I wanted to reach the whole student. Sure, I followed the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy when developing lesson plans, but I believe education is much more than remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing information. It’s about making connections to worlds other than one’s own.  And by the end of the year, my students felt that they had learned much more about themselves and others because of my “crazy” assignments.

Oftentimes, I received phone calls and emails from parents, thanking me for such assignments because it allowed them to reconnect with their children and with themselves. Here’s a list of some of those assignments.

Assignment 1: Learning gratitude. Imagine what your life would be like with no elbows.  Immobilize your arms in such a way that you cannot bend your elbows. Try to perform an activity like washing a plate, or changing your clothes. Journal about your experience. Thank your elbows and show them some love by rubbing some lotion on them as you give thanks (replace elbows with knees for another variation).

Assignment 2: Learning POV (point of view). Write a letter from the perspective of your hair. Think about what your hair goes through on a daily basis. What would it tell you in that letter? And what will you change as a result?

Assignment 3: Learning symbols. Anything can be our teacher when we contemplate it long enough. Sit under a tree, facing it preferably. Study it. Listen to it. Touch it. Ask what it can teach you. What could a tree represent or symbolize in life? Journal about your experience.

Assignment 4: Learning responsibility. Adopt a plant. Or plant a seed and watch it grow. Give it sun. Give it water. Play music for it. Notice the changes that occur over a few weeks.

Assignment 5: Learning appreciation. Gather all of your electronic gadgets and have a party for them. Give them a good dusting and cleaning. Check to see that the cords are in good shape. As part of the party fun, give out awards according to their “personality,” like “Most Likely To Be Borrowed By My Brother When I’m Not Looking.”

Assignment 6: Learning organization. Spend some time making your room a more soulful place. Make simple changes that are more reflective of your attachments, interests, and commitments. Books on the Chinese art of feng shui explain this system of gauging energy flow in an area and making changes using plants, mirrors, wind chimes, arrangement of furniture, a water feature, and other elements. Note how you feel after making these changes. How does your room feel to you?

Assignment 7: Learning comparisons/contrasts. Have you ever been in a place that you felt was “sick,” ill, or negative? Describe its symptoms. How would you help it “heal?” Compare/contrast this kind of place to one that you felt was healthy? What did you notice?

Assignment 8: Learning connections. If you were a color, what color would you be, and why? Explain in one to two pages. How does this color represent you?

Assignment 9:  Learning characterization. Make a collage that captures your understanding of your family. Use images to capture each family member’s personality. Explain why you chose those particular images.

Assignment 10: Learning teamwork. Plan a menu with your family and cook a meal together. Who will be the head chef? Who will be the sous chef (assistant)? Assign a role to each family member. Document this with photos and create a booklet that tells the story of the evening.

My goal was to design assignments that created meaning, assignments that took students beyond the four walls of a classroom. I wanted them to develop “heart knowledge” as well as “head knowledge.”

I’ve always believed that learning should be a fun but challenging process. To students, these assignments took them out of their comfort zones, but they allowed students to open up to the world and to themselves, getting them out of their own little universe. These activities were about expanding their awareness.

Of course, these activities are not just for students. Anyone can work with them, especially if they want to get in touch with the depth of their souls and the breadth of their connections with others.

Give them a try, and see what you discover.

English Class, Criticism, And Penises

It takes a lot to surprise a veteran teacher. But every once in awhile, a student does just that. And sometimes you have to illustrate the absurd with the absurd. A teacher has to plan her attack of criticism and correction very carefully.

I had been teaching Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem about freeing oneself from the chains of society, discovering one’s identity, and celebrating that individuality. As part of students’ overall grade for the unit, I required them to keep a reading journal while following specific guidelines for their entries.

The day came for me to collect their journals. Students passed up their notebooks and I placed them on my work table next to my desk.  As we prepared to discuss the novel for its themes, one particular student rushed up to the front of the classroom with his notebook. He (let’s call him J) slid it in-between the others, rather than on top, apologizing for not having it ready for collection. I paid no mind as I had to get the lesson started.

When I got home that evening, I sat in my favorite chair, a glass of wine in hand and a stack of journals in my lap, all waiting for my comments.

And then I came to J’s journal.

There, on the front cover, were penises he had drawn all over it. Penises. Really? Not only did they grace the cover, but they were drawn throughout his entire reading journal.

At first I was surprised and disappointed. Never would I have expected this from J.

And then I found myself laughing so hard that I spilled red wine all over his words and art.  Oops. One of the hazards of grading papers at home.

So, I mused about how to handle this. I didn’t want to react out of anger. I guess he had made some *personal discoveries* and wanted to share some of that passion.

I read through his journal, commenting on his thoughts that I found quite engaging, insightful, and eloquently stated, as penises in all shapes and sizes danced throughout the pages. This boy absolutely connected with the novel’s message in ways that I had never seen students connect.  He had tied in other novels by Ayn Rand that I had mentioned in class but never assigned; he read them on his own at my suggestion. I was impressed with his intellect and initiative.

But that didn’t excuse him from his display of phalluses all over his work. I knew I had to address this.

So, when I handed back everyone’s journals near the end of class, J approached me, asking why he didn’t get his.

“Well, J, that’s something we need to discuss,” I said. “Your unique display of artwork, while very realistic and lifelike…I’ve never seen so many different depictions of penises…is not appropriate in an English class,” as I flipped through his journal in front of him. J stood there, mouth agape.

“Y-You…said…penis,” he stuttered.

“Well, I do know what they are and what they are intended for, and so do you apparently, but they have no place in class, unless, of course, you are in health class. Maybe I’ll show this to your health teacher,” I continued, knowing that his health teacher, who was also his coach, would take severe action.

“No! Please don’t, Ms. McD! He will kill me and make me run suicides in practice today! And then he’ll suspend me for a few games!” J pleaded.

To drive the point home, I said, “You know, studies show that men who obsess over penises are really overcompensating for their own small equipment.  I’d be more careful if I were you.”

J’s eyes grew wide with concern. “Really?” he asked. “I guess I better stop! I don’t want to send the wrong message to people. I’m sorry Ms. McDaniel. It’ll never happen again! Thanks for enlightening me.”

“I’m just looking out for you, J,” I closed.

J extended his hand, and we shook on it.

Situation resolved. Dignity intact. Lesson learned. Even though I made up that study.

Criticizing and correcting behavior is something that comes with the territory of teaching adolescents. Kids will be kids, and they will test the boundaries.

But the lessons of criticism extend beyond the walls of a classroom. Anyone can be a critic, but to do it effectively takes skill. Effective criticism should be positively intended, specific, objective, and constructive, not destructive, with the goal of improving a situation. Here are some tips:

1.  Identify the behavior so you can develop your strategy around it.
2.  Be specific, not general in your criticism. Rather than say, “You’re always late with your work,” say, “You didn’t turn in yesterday’s work.”
3.  Make sure the behavior that you are criticizing is changeable.  If not, you may have to get help from an outside source.
4.  Use “I” and “We” statements that are non-threatening. This shows that you want to work out the problem together.
5.  Don’t belabor the point. Keep it short and to the point. Address it quickly.
6.  Don’t set a tone of anger or sarcasm. This puts the other person on the defensive. Tempers will flare and make things counterproductive. Avoid personal attacks and blaming. Using insulting and hostile language will only inflame the situation.
7.  Use the “sandwich” approach. Say something affirming and redeeming before sharing your criticism, and then reaffirm your support and confidence in that person.

Effective criticism can change what people think and do when done with respect. The next time I collected reading journals, J came forward and personally handed his to me. “No penises, McD. I saw the light,” he said, beaming a smile. “But I did draw these for you.” With those words, he turned and bounced back to his seat.

When I glanced at his journal, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.  Wine glasses.

Your comments are always welcome! What experiences can you share about handling criticism?