Sunday, February 16, 2014

The LEGO Movie, Teaching, and Creativity *Now with BONUS Benny*

**WARNING- I'm completely going to spoil The LEGO Movie, up to and including the ending. Go watch the movie. Seriously. Go. This will wait. The internets are forever.**

Everyone watched it? You good? Because I need to spoil this thing to make the points I want to make.
The LEGO Movie is about everything that is happening in education right now. Obviously, filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord didn't do this on purpose, and they probably don't even realize how wonderfully their message fits into the current climate of American education. But it does and that in and of itself says volumes about how smart this ought-to-be-really-very-silly movie is. 
The LEGO Movie's major conflict revolves around following the instructions (Lord Business) and building your world the way you see fit (The Master Builders). Lord Business plans to fix the LEGO universe in perfect place with his super weapon, the Kragle. The Master Builders are against this and act as the resistance. 
I'm now going to make a possibly unfair leap:

Arne Duncan is

Come on. Any teacher who saw the movie made this connection. The guy who wants everything to be standardized across the (Lego) board? The guy who sees Legos not as toys but as important building materials? The guy trying his best to bring about Taco Tuesday and, therefore, the end of the world as we know it?
Woah, slow down cowboy. Ok, that last one was too far. I'm in the moderation camp and I hate hyperbole that goes all the way to OMG COMMON CORES AMS THE END OF THE EDUCATIONS WORLD AS WE KNOWS IT ARGLE BARGLE!!!!11!!!ONE!!1!1. People who use hyperbole like that are literally worse than Hitler.
But the "Arne is Lord Business, Lord Business is Arne" business is only part of the education connection, and, because I'm a look at the positive kind of guy, it's the least important connection.
The important connections come with the movie's main theme of following the directions vs being free to do as you wish. 
Let's go back to the fiercely anti- Common Core teachers. Many love to talk about how the emphasis on testing will create a generation of zombie adults only good at bubbling in test questions and regurgitating learned information on command. Student like this-
And to those teachers I ask, What are you doing in your class? How are you having so little impact on your students that the only thing they learn is-
Teachers, we are the Master Builders. We are the creative ones, who can see all the pieces, who know the plans, and who can create new ones.
(I work with a lady who is Princess Unikitty)
And here's how The LEGO Movie is the perfect metaphor for education. The blocks exists for a reason. The instructions exist for a reason. Following the instructions (the standards) will net you exactly what you're looking for some of the time, without variation or flex. You want a firetruck? Follow these instructions and you'll get a firetruck. You want kids to be on grade level? Here, this book is specifically designed to do that. (I know the books don't actually do what they are advertised to do, give me a minute.)
What we learn from Emmett at the end of the movie, what we actually learn from the boy and his dad at the end (which was one of the best "WTF, really? You're going here?" moments of a movie in a long time) is that we can't build crazy interesting things without the standards, without the instructions. You need something to start with, a baseline.
Think about the submarine. When our heroes are escaping Bad Cop and his baddies they decide the best plan of action is to dive into the sea. So they all start using their Master Builder powers to build a submarine.
At the same time.
Each with his or her own vision.
Without talking to anyone else, aside from Batman, who "only works with black. Or very dark grey."
And what happens?
An adorable mess that almost immediately springs a leak and nearly kills them all.
Teachers, we need guidelines. We need standards and directions. To say the common core is completely without value is to throw away building blocks (pun!) we could use to build something great. Our students need guides. The real boy says that without his dad's Legos none of the world he created could have been possible. He needed something to start with, something to build from.
We are the Master Builders. We know the pieces and we know our kids and we know how all of those things can be put together. This kid needs a motorcycle. This kid needs a tower. The space cadet in the front row needs a spaceship. I know how to do that. I can use the book (see, told you we'd come back to it) as my instruction manual, as my jumping off point, to build those kids what they need. That doesn't mean I need to slavishly follow every single thing in it.
All of us have this kid. SPACESHIP!!!
There is no "right way" for students to learn. There is no "right way" for an education to be built. But there are tools that everyone can use. We need to stop looking at standards as a forced lock-step procedure* and start looking at them as the pieces we need to build what best suits the lesson we are trying to teach. Gluing down learning styles is a tragedy, and undoing that takes a lot more than some water. We need to work with and within what we are given. That is possible. We are the Master Builders, and we can do that. We need to help Arne see that the things we can build using his toys can be amazing.
The last lesson we all should take from The LEGO Movie is how amazingly fun it is. This is a movie that revels in joy. One of the main characters is a kitty that is also a unicorn! Another is Batman, but a Batman that sings this song. The LEGO Movie manages to whip a big lesson on the audience and keep us laughing and loving it the entire time. There are serious tear-jerker moments in there, the destruction of an entire world, and the death of a main character (which leads to a hilarious rebirth, but still). Heavy stuff. And yet the movie doesn't get bogged down in any of it.
We've got a lot to teach. Important stuff. Heavy stuff. Fractions. And in no way is any of that an excuse for school not to be fun. Teaching and learning should be a joyous overall experience. That is our job. Our students have to spend all day with us for 180 days. They are going through stuff at home, trying to figure out who they are (there's the WildStyle callback), and dealing will all kinds of Micromanagers. Heck, who knows what the dad in the movie is going through that this is his escape. Probably the chaos that is two small children (I love my kid, but he's El Destructo the Chaos Bringer).
Help your students see that education is a toy to be played with. Words are toys. Numbers are toys. Thoughts are toys. Put those things together in interesting orders and see what you get. Get a double-decker couch? Fine, at least you got something. And that's better than nothing at all.
There is no better way to close this and to reinforce the idea that all of this should be fun and we, the Master Builders, should be creative* than with the movie's main song, the earwormiest thing you'll hear all year.

*yes, your districts and principals have a lot to do with that. But in your room, you are the Master Builder. Act like it. Take control.

*Note: Love to Film Crit Hulk and his wonderful write-up about the movie. It's helped solidify some thoughts I was having.*


 I was thinking about about Benny, the 80s Spaceman, who also is becoming one of the internet's (at least my little corner of the internet's) favorite stars of the movie. I can't disagree. "SPACESHIP," is a catchphrase I can get behind. This week I taught my kids about the Apollo 11 mission and had to resist shouting it at them every time the words "Eagle" or "Cololmbia" came up. And the joke I made in the original post about all of us having a Benny in our class still stands. It works and it's funny.
But there's more to Benny than that. So, using the power of the edit button, I'm giving all you wonderful people Extra Bonus Content Not To Be Found Anywhere Else.
Benny is stuck in the past. From his beat up spacesuit and cracked helmet to his inability to make current gen technology work.
Benny is a Master Builder. Benny is like a lot of the Master Builders I know in other classrooms. Master Builders who's building skills are fantastic, and they can make any lesson work with the tools they've been using. But throw something unfamiliar and new at them, from standards to technology, and their entire skillset breaks down in a tornado of button pushing and shouting at the infernal machine.
Benny couldn't adapt to use the computer in the film until the plot gave him 1980s technology to work with. A lot of teachers have learned this technology, and that's what they know and that's what they want to use. Not all teachers, but we all recognize that there are some. Some teachers have trouble with the evolution education naturally takes. The pendulum swings. I'd never argue every swing is for the better, but every swing is an evolution.
We can't be Benny, stuck in the past. We've got to move forward with the times, adapting to newer technology and newer ideas and using our Master Builder skills to make those new things work for us. We are not the slaves to technology or education theory. We are the experts, the Master Builders, using those instructions and tools to create something we thing will best benefit our students, our classes, and our schools.

1 comment:

  1. Our goal as educators: make sure as many students as possible see themselves as master builders!! Epiphany!!!!