Monday, September 30, 2019

Students vs Tree

"Imagine you are running through a forest as fast as you can. Because you're so focused on running as fast as you can you've got your head down and you you're charging straight ahead, arms and legs pumping. Suddenly BAM! You run headfirst into a tree. It staggers you, knocks you down. You get back up, shake your head, take a step back, and resume running at full speed. BAM! Right into the same tree. Over and over you repeat this. BAM! Get up. Run forward. BAM! Are you ever going to knock that tree over?"

I wait and my students all shout through their laughter, "No!"

I wait, milking it, because now they're with me and waiting to find out what the point is.

"No! Of course not. What should you do?"

"Go around the tree?"

"Go around the tree!" I shout. "Look up, take a step to the side, and go. Around. The. Tree. You're never taking that tree down with brute force. You have to be smarter than the tree."

They laugh again here. "Smarter than a tree" is a laugh line. Trust me. I wait for the laughter to die down again. Then wait a moment longer.

Because drama.

"So...why are you all getting stuck on number three here? You've got six more problems after it that you need to get to. You don't know how to do number three YET (you gotta hit 'em with the YET, growth mindset and all), and you're going to let that tree stop you in your tracks? Be smarter than the problems. Look up, step around. We'll come back to it later." This, by the way, is where the metaphor could fall apart, because metaphors always fall apart. They're good for an example, a quick way to remember something, but they're nothing to build an entire style on. However, you can duct tape the metaphor together if you really want to and extend it to, "So the next time you're running through this particular forest (math or whatever), and you come to this tree, you'll know how to get by it without bashing your head in."

If you come into my classroom you will hear a student explain why they skipped a problem as a "tree". It's shorthand we have. They ran into the tree, couldn't get through it, so they went around it instead. They'll come back to the tree after the run (the assignment, you see) is over and take a closer look at it and try to figure out what it was about it that stopped them. But only after everything else is done. This is a life skill and a test taking skill and a common sense skill all rolled into one, if only I take the teachable moment to call it out. There are few problems that should stop you dead in your tracks completely.

We all know that students love to find ways to delay work. Teachers do it too. I will happily get into the weeds of planning with my team to kill five or ten minutes before moving forward. Students will use, "Well I don't know how to do number three" as an excuse for days. "I can't do it, so I have to sit on it." No. Look up, step around the tree, move on with your learning/life, and come back to it when you've got everything else cleaned up. Think of things in your life that you haven't done because there was one piece of it that you weren't clear on. Was there a way to step around that tree?

Sometimes there's not, by the way. It's a metaphor, it's not a Truth. You can't apply it to everything like a magic spell. There are plenty of times when you need to figure that tree out right then and there before you can move forward. But often even in there you can find pieces that can be stepped around. Prioritized. Seeing the Big Picture even inside the smaller picture.

I need my kids to see the trees they can't get by, it shows a level of metacognition and reflection that will make them better learners. It's ok to not get it. It ok to say you don't get it. As long as you ask for help or go back to it when you don't have quite so much pressing on you and can take the time to dissect it better.

This should never be read as an excuse to give up on something hard. Yes, I tell them about running with their heads up so they can see the trees. Yes I tell them to step around trees when they need to. But I also tell them a story the Twelfth Doctor told us in his best episode- "Heaven Sent". I'm not going to spoil the context of the story (which is perfect) because it would be a major spoiler for the episode.

Personally, I think that's a hell of a bird. Because time and hard work can accomplish anything. It's not always fun. It's not always easy. It's not always fast. But it still gets done.

Sometimes my students can be smarter than a tree. Sometimes they need to be a hell of a bird.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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