Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Pit of Despair

*This ”Wayback Machine”  is a silly name for when I repost – this time from two and a half years ago. I felt moved recently to revisit the same ideas and I decided use one of my own favorites from the past. Who says we can’t learn from history?

I am not much of a movie person, but my all-time favorite movie is The Princess Bride, from 1987, based on the even-more-hilarious novel by William Goldman. This movie starred Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, Andre the Giant, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, and a bunch of other great stars. It is the fairy tale with sword fights, giants, an evil prince, a beautiful princess, and even some kissing!

If you’ve never seen it, it’s hilarious and tragic and exciting. I highly recommend it. :)

There is a part of the movie where the hero, a farmboy-turned-pirate named Westley, gets captured by the evil prince and taken to the Pit of Despair for torture.  As he arrives, he meets the caretaker of the Pit, called “The Albino”.

Westley: Where am I?
The Albino: [raspy voice] The Pit of Despair! Don't even think...
[clears throat]
The Albino: ... don't even think about trying to escape. The chains are far too thick. Don't dream of being rescued, either; the only way in is secret. Only the Prince, the Count, and I know how to get in and out.
Westley: So I'm here till I die?
The Albino: Until they kill you, yeah.
Westley: Then why bother curing me?
The Albino: Well, the Prince and Count always insist on everyone being healthy before they're broken.
Westley: So it's to be torture?
The Albino: [nods enthusiastically]
Westley: I can cope with torture.
The Albino: [shakes head enthusiastically]
Westley: Don't believe me?
The Albino: You survived the Fire Swamp, so you must be very brave, but no one withstands The Machine.

Please forgive me, but I think a lot of teachers can commiserate with the idea of the Pit of Despair.

No, no, not that your school or classroom is a Pit of Despair (I hope). But there is a gap or a pit for each of us. In my head, that pit is the reason that we-teachers (as a stereotype) complain to each other so much.

The pit is this -- it’s the gap between our goals and what we actually achieve.

Teachers have impossible goals. We want all hundred-plus of our students to learn everything about social studies that we teach. We want them all to improve their reading, writing, and historical thinking, and improve by a lot! We want to build relationships with them all. We want to be mentors, role models, and inspirations for our students. We also want to be able to spot signs of child abuse, bullying, eating disorders, drug use, gang behavior, depression, and other issues. We want our students to be well-behaved but active and engaged in learning. We want our classrooms to function as well-oiled machines. We want to teach all hundred-plus kids character and civic virtue. We want every kid to grow up to be successful and productive and active in their community.

But not all kids will always choose to do and learn and be all the things we want for (or from) them.

And therein lies the Pit of Despair. Or maybe the Gap of Frustration. It’s what I call that area that lies between our goals and our success at those goals.

It’s the space between “my kids learned it” and “those handful of kids didn’t”
It’s the gap between  “my kids are becoming better readers, writers, and thinkers” and “some kids don’t seem to be improving”
It’s the place between “most kids are growing into great young men and women” and “some of these kids are crazy”.

It’s the space of frustration, the Pit of Despair.

And i want to ask you what you do with your Pit of Despair.
·         Do you use it to lower your expectations so you don’t have so many lofty goals?
·         Do you use it to complain and shift the blame from you to “them”? (whether “them” is the kids, the administration, the county, the politicians, or whoever – is it THEIR fault?)
·         Or do you use that gap to challenge yourself to make small, incremental improvements in one area or another? Do you take it as a personal challenge?

Hear me loudly and clearly -- no one, not even Super-Teacher can do and be all things to all students. This is a fact that often crushes new teachers. We want to reach every kid. And we just don’t reach every kid every time.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, there is a kid you can’t reach. There is a concept your kids don’t get fully. There is a skill your kids only halfway master. There is a character concept you forget to focus on. There is content your kids learn for the quiz and then forget.

You can use those shortcomings as “failures” and view them as so. You can use them to fuel your frustration with yourself or your kids or your colleagues or your administrators or your politicians.
Or you can take them as a personal challenge. Westley never wavers from his goal of finding his princess. Even in the Pit of Despair. You can take it as a “Let’s see if I can ‘beat’ my current ‘score’”?

In the movie, every time Westley tries something, the “brain” character, Vizzini calls it “inconceivable”. But Westley does whatever it is, every time. Westley finally tells Vizzini about “inconceivable”: “I do not think that word means what you think it does”.

When teachers say (out of frustration) “These kids can’t...” I want to say, “I do not think that phrase means what you think it does”.

What you mean is, “These kids can’t YET.....” or “We haven’t had time to do ... yet” or “These kids struggle with...” or “These kids need different motivation to do ....” or “I don’t know how to reach them yet…”

We can view the Pit of Despair as something that frustrates us, something to complain about.

Or, we can view the Pit of Despair as a challenge. What small things can we do to close the gap, just a little, teeny-tiny bit? We will never, individually, close that gap all the way. The world isn’t that neat or perfect of a place. But we can choose to shrink the gap between the ideal and the actual, just a hair, just a smidgen.

If our kids can’t DO something, we can try to find another way to teach them how. If our kids aren’t motivated to do something, we can try to brainstorm other forms of motivation.  

Complaining is a coping mechanism. We all use it and there’s nothing wrong with letting off some steam. I do it and many of you probably do, too. Go ahead. Get it off your chest.

But if we stop there, we are just frustrating ourselves. We have to fill the Pit of Despair, the gap of frustration, with some hope, some new ideas, or we’ll just go crazy. If we don’t view that Pit of Despair as something to be lessened or shrunken, we will live in that Pit and be miserable and despairing ourselves.

This week, think of your own Pit of Despair and how to shrink it so it doesn’t swallow you up.

How do you cope with the frustration of the gap, the Pit of Despair? Do you deflect blame onto others? Do you complain? Or do you take it as a challenge? Do you try to reach just one more kid, teach just one more skill? And do you love the Princess Bride as much as I do? As always, I love to hear your thoughts on this! Email me at

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Who Said it?

I’m not on Facebook anymore. It turns out that in addition to being inordinately annoyed by learning what people ate for breakfast (why does that annoy me so much?) I am also hugely annoyed by people sharing stupid things.

I don’t mean sharing puppy faces or sales or sunsets.

I mean information and articles from questionable sources presented as absolute facts.

Don’t your students do the same thing? Doesn’t it drive you NUTS? My students always swore that Martin Luther King freed the slaves.

Oh, come ON, you guys!

People will believe anything if they don’t know anything about the sourcing.

The biggest big-deal research done in Social Studies Education was done by Sam Wineburg in 1991. His landmark study has been referenced by everyone doing research in SS Ed since then.

It goes  like this.

Dr. Wineburg gave a bunch of historians some documents. He then gave the same set of documents to a bunch of high school kids.

Turns out that the historians and the teens got different things out of the documents.

Big surprise, right?  Veteran, multi-degreed historians SHOULD get different things out of the documents than teenagers would.

But here’s the thing. The biggest difference wasn’t in vocabulary or basic understanding.

It was that the historians looked at the back, the bottom, the side of each document to source it. The historians looked at who wrote it, when, where, and for whom.

THEN, they read the actual document, after they took a moment to source it and put it into context.

The high school students, in contrast, read the document from beginning to end, like a story, without paying attention to sourcing.

The understanding the historians gained was pretty hugely different from the understanding that the teens gained -- but mainly because they looked at who wrote it and why.

Sourcing matters.

I give this example when I teach:
Imagine you found a note on the floor in the hallway and it said terrible, awful things about you. And about your mama (ohhhh! burn!!)

You would read it and deal with it differently based on who wrote it and why.

You would deal with it one way if your ex boyfriend or ex-girlfriend wrote it on the day after you two broke up.

You would deal with it another way of it was written by your sibling (talking about your mama? Whaaa?)

You would deal with it differently if it was written by your best friend, today, while you were thinking that everything was okay.

You would deal with it yet another different way if it were written by someone who doesn’t even know you.

Sourcing matters.

It matters on Facebook and Twitter.  

It matters in history and politics.

It matters on the EOC and the AP exams.

Who  wrote it and when can help you glean a little of the why.

Teach your students to source everything they come across -- on Facebook, on Snapchat, on the news, and in history class.

I love using the top half of the Doc Analysis sheet from the DBQ Project  for this  but you can use any format or tool you like.

Try One of the Doc Analysis sheets from the National Archives and Records Administration or one from the Library of Congress

Get your kids used to figuring out the who, when, where, and why and you have already created wiser news consumers, more media-savvy social-media-participants, and more thoughtful voters and citizens.

Don’t wait until you do a DBQ. Use Doc Analysis sheets all the time -- for bellwork, classwork, homework, wrap-up. Use it as formative assessment and use it to teach. Explain it, model it, practice it again and again until it is second nature.

It is part of your benchmarks in history courses, part of the standards-commonly-known-as-the-common-core, and a skill helpful on analyzing stimuli on the EOC.

Source every document that comes through your classroom. It will pay off on tests and in real life. And on Facebook, (where everything important happens) :)

How much time do you spend on sourcing? How often do your students practice sourcing? Are they good at it yet? As always, I love to hear! Email me at

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Sand Mandalas and the Utility Room

Image result for sand mandalaLast Monday on my trade day, I ended up at the Museum of Fine Arts in downtown St. Pete. It happened to be the day that the Venerable Losang Samten, a renowned Tibetan scholar and former Buddhist monk started his sand mandala in the museum. 

A sand mandala is an incredibly intricate work of art created by sand that takes days and days to complete. He used a ruler and a compass and math and drew out his plan on a huge board. He did a chant and blessed the sand and then allowed the museum visitors to add tiny amounts of sand to the mandala. He then spent six hours a day for the next two weeks (still ongoing) creating this incredible work of art. My daughter was so enthralled by the chanting and the artistry and the math and the sand! (she’s a little artsy...)

On this Saturday, Jan 16, Losang Samten (and others) will “dismantle” it. Sweep it away. Two weeks of math, science, and art. Gone.

Isn’t that what it feels like in the classroom sometimes? We work day in and day out to create something amazing and intricate and beautiful and then we sweep it all away and start over.

It can feel overwhelming and frustrating and futile.

But it can be really, really awesome when it’s “right”, in the “now”.

I am an artist. I am a scientist. I am a social studies teacher.

M. Colleen Cruz, author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, says this.
                        I believe, as many people do, that teachers are both scientists and artists.
                        Yet, so many of us, myself included, wish time and again that once we have learned something, once we have mastered a lesson, a teaching method, a unit, a rubric, a parent letter, that it should be preserved in amber -- never to be touched or changed again. This is very understandable. You work so d*&% hard. Why can’t our work be preserved and used again and again for always?

            The answer is of course: we are scientists and artists. And just as we would be horrified by the notion that a scientist today was still using radioactive materials without protective equipment the way Marie Curie did, or repelled by the notion of someone killing and stuffing an endangered animal to paint it the way Audubon did, we should feel just as horrified by the notion that a teacher in her thirtieth year would be teaching exactly the same things in the same way as she did when she started. We have all heard stories about those teachers. There are even sayings about them: “He’s been teaching the same year for twenty-five years”

I know most of you aren't teaching the same “year” for twenty five years. That's impractical, out of date, and would possibly involve a filmstrip machine and a slide carousel from 1965. Plus - how would you make a scale for that's? (Ha!)

But we can all learn to live more comfortably in the “ now” of what we do and to understand the relative impermanence of our lessons. It's not that “those administrators” or “those coaches” or “the big District Blobby Monster” are trying to come up with new ways of teacher-torture. It's that the world changes. Kids change. Research teaches us new things about education.

We build a new sand mandala, which is a beautiful, perfect work of art, and then we start all over again.

For goodness sake, work smarter not harder. Use the sand from the last mandala to build a new one. Don't reinvent the wheel (ha!). But don't use the same old tire that's worn out, either.

I don't have a garage in my house. The people who lived there before me enclosed it into a big utility room. Or as I call it, the futility room. Because it's futile to try to keep it permanently clean and organized. It is a constant task to organize and rework the shelves, containers, and miscellaneous stuff in there.

It's annoying, and always a mess. But it's also a little bit of Harry Potter’s “room of requirement”. The room turns into different things as I need them. This month I need a place to stash all my holiday gift wrap, gifts, and whatnot? The futility room! Need an extra bed for an additional houseguest? The futility room! Need a place to organize tools and craft supplies? The futility room!

I hope as you think about the new semester (and the new year), I hope you can find a little peace with the impermanence of your craft, like the sand mandala. I hope you can reorganize and update your tools out of necessity, like my futility room. I hope you don't capture your lessons in Amber, never to be changed. I really hope you aren't using radioactive materials like Marie Curie did. Or filmstrip machines or slide carousels.

In second semester, as 2016 dawns, think about the art and science of your classroom. And update what you do, knowing that the last sand mandala (or lesson)you created was incredibly beautiful. And the next one will be too.

Use your artistic and scientific sides to be more flexible and adaptive. It will pay off in your classroom.

What are your New Year's resolutions? Do you capture your lessons in amber or do you make new sand mandalas all the time? I love to hear what you're trying out, changing, and adapting this semester. Email me!