Time Machine: Address to the Class of 2015

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As we approach this year’s graduation, I wanted to offer the class of 2015 a reminder of the speech I gave a year ago.  If you are not of the class of 2015, then here is some context: at nex+Gen Academy, where I teach, students choose a faculty speaker each year to speak at the Senior Honors Assembly, which happens a day or two before the actual graduation ceremony. Last year, I was the faculty member selected to speak. The opening comes from the fact that I ask the students all year, “What is your class again?  2016?”  

Back to the class of 2015 – I would love to hear about your path to a substantive existence.

 

To the class of 2016….

Works every time. Every.single.time.   But in deference to you, I’ll start over.

To the class of 2015!

And to the rest of you: it turns out that the faculty speaker is selected by the students in the graduating class, so I am up here, I’m pretty sure, out the fortune of one student asking me one day, “Mr. Gant, if you were the graduation speaker, would you use different accents?” To which I said, of course.

That means, I’d better deliver.

<Scottish accent> I intend to do three things while up here. One, as a sort of retrospective, I’d like to describe you all as a class. Two, I would like to give you some advice.   And three, I’d like to do what I’ve done all year, and that is tell you what to do.

Perhaps I should have said that last part in a different accent: <Russian Accent>   Three, I will tell you what you will be doing. You will not have choice. And you will enjoy it.  <end Russian accent>

So: who are you?

The class of 2015 is one of contrasts and intensity.   Let me illustrate.

I’m going to use an SAT word, so I’ll define it first: indignation: strong displeasure caused by something that is unfair, or wrong, or offensive.

I saw the most indignation from this class from two things:

First, when you all watched the rather sophomoric rants of Lenar Whitney in her campaign speech calling global warming a hoax.

The other time when I saw the most indignation was when you discovered that I hadn’t seen the movie, The Sandlot. I thought that Ryan A. was going to either punch me, or leave the classroom and cry. Ray S., in fact, made me borrow it, and watch it.

You have similar responses to a global environmental catastrophe, and a movie about 11 year olds.

 

Next word: ebullience – cheerful; full of energy.

I saw the most ebullience from this class with two different events. The first was when I heard this phrase:   <very loudly>   YYEEEEAAAAAAHHHHH!

That…. was as a result of winning a game of kickball.

But the second was the feeling in the building after so many of you had finished presenting your senior projects, just awesomely killing it.

 

Of course, at nex+gen, where you speak a lot, I’ve seen presentations from students that were the result of 3 weeks of practice, and other so-called presentations that were the result of 3 seconds of preparation.

This last example of 2015’s contrasts is a little different, though.   It represents a choice, and it is a choice that’s not unique to you – it is a choice that all nexgen students have to make – you eventually come to a point when you ask yourself, “will I learn this material deeply enough to be truly educated, or will I just try to make my presentation sound good?”

In that moment, you face the dilemma of choosing between something of substance, or something made of meaningless words.

<English Accent> I mean, consider: Someone speaking in the most dynamic way to say something for which the esoterica does not reveal itself in the least, but yields to underlying, and simultaneous overlaying truths for which the truth testifies to the trueness of the content displayed in maximized efficiency in which, or for whosoever manifests the manifold perspective belying the obvious rationale precisely whence we offered the idea in the first place.  <end English accent>

Did any of you understand what I just said?   Me neither. I just strung a bunch of words together.

Even when I used big words, spoke confidently, and even used a British accent, there was still no connection with you, because there was no substance.

So here is the advice: as you get older, this choice between substance and making something look or sound nice is a dilemma that does not go away. You’re going to be confronted with this choice over and over, and how you resolve the dilemma will begin to define you.

As you go out into the world, where your voice must be heard, are you going to speak of substance, or are you just going to string together some words that don’t connect?  And what are you going to do? Are you going to do something of substance, or are you going to just string together some random actions that have no purpose?

In the world of Twitter limiting thoughts to 140 characters, or Instagram that doesn’t even require words, and the internet that doesn’t really require that you actually move in order to acquire something, you are going to be tempted into thinking that those things are the substance in the world, because they are pretty or flashy and easy and everywhere.

But here is a tip: being a person of substance is rarely flashy or easy.   It is hard work.   It requires that you think carefully about what you are doing and why you are doing it. It requires that you make connections with others. It brings you to the realization that your fortune and privilege obligate you to help others. It requires perseverance that build confidence that you can get real work done.

 

Finally, we move into third part of inspirational speech, where I tell you what to do, and you have no choice.   Remember, sitting for long periods of time is bad for you, so please, seniors, stand up.

(If necessary) No really, stand up. Come on…stand up!

 

Stand up, to withstand the temptation to go with only the easy and the flashy.

Stand up to start that long walk of perseverance.

Stand up, so that you can help others up, who might have difficulty lifting themselves.

Stand up, so that you can face your future with a smile, because you, you, have substance.

 

The faculty at nex+Gen gives our best to you all.

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A Protocol for Crushing the Critical Thinking Questions

 

Heads up: I’m going to start by talking about science instruction, but this is a protocol that can apply to ANY class.

When I was a rookie science teacher, despite my inexperience, I still knew the kinds of questions that I wanted students to answer: they would require thinking, synthesis of ideas, and the application of those ideas.  This was what I called “critical thinking”.  An obvious place for questions like these was  in the follow up with lab experiences.  At the end of a Chem lab on flame tests, I might ask the question, “Which is the most important – the anion or the cation, to determine the flame color?  Provide evidence.”     At the end of an activity in bio that simulated gene insertion, I would ask, “Why are some people concerned about extra base pairs between the inserted gene, and the beginning of the bacterial DNA?”

I would get the following responses:  1% to 10% might answer the question.  Another 10% would come to me and ask for help.  The remaining 80-90% would leave it blank, knowing that they had done most of the lab, and they were content with the C or B grade they would receive.   With a lot of blank stares at me when I went over the work, I would end up answering the question myself.  As I heard myself answer the o-so-thoughtful question I had formulated, I imagined the slacker-thinkers smiling to themselves, quietly marking another victory in their quest for vapidity.

With some experience under my belt, I have come to understand that questions that require critical thought are one of the best uses of group discussion.  Not only that, interesting questions help students see the value of groups more than almost any other kind of group work.   Because the answers to complex questions frequently require some synthesis of data, knowledge, and even experience, then each group member has an opportunity to help formulate an answer – and students can use each other to develop an answer that might not have been as complete without the thoughts of others.

With that understanding, I formulated a protocol that works beautifully, so that I get 100% engagement, rather than 20%.

  1. Students in groups of 4
  2. Groups should provide letters to each person: A, B, C, D
  3. Present students with the question. When I did it recently, I was asking the question about extra base pairs in biology.
  4. Groups discuss their thinking about the answer, with a time constraint (I gave them 2.5 minutes). Person A writes the group’s answer.
  5. Assign Person C to take brief notes on the share-out from each group.
  6. Person B stands up, and reads the answer from his/her group. Person C in every other group is writing a synopsis of what person B from each group is saying.
  7. ALL groups report out.
  8. Groups use notes from person C to evaluate: which group had the best answer? Again, groups have limited time for discussion so that conversation is directed and efficient.
  9. A group can choose itself for the best answer, but if they do so, they have to choose a second place, and why they chose that group.
  10. Person D records group’s decision and reasoning, then stands up and reads the group’s rationale.
  11. You as the facilitator follow up: what were the arguments you liked? Did anyone not get an answer you were looking for?  This is a potential teachable moment.  You can reinforce some messages, alert students about misconceptions, or use the students answers to bootstrap to the next concept you need to address in the course.

I used this last week. In each class, about 2 – 4 groups would  come up with the point that I wanted them to understand: extra bases worry people because they could code for unexpected proteins.   The other groups identified that as their favorite answer.  There was a lot of, “Oh yeah huh!”   It gave me occasion to then say, “Pull out your notes, and let’s write both the question, and our class’s favorite answer.”

The group conversations ALSO alerted me to misconceptions, and how much base knowledge the students had, or didn’t have.

Since I work at a New Tech school, I could give my students a collaboration grade for the work.

Finally, the share-out provides a great assessment for my teaching.  If the kids can synthesize enough to adequately answer the question, I have probably done some reasonable teaching before the interaction.  If they cannot, then I need to examine what came before, to make sure that what I have been doing has been enough.

This protocol can be used in just about any course.  Here are some kinds of questions that might work:

“In the fairy tale of Snow White, is the apple a symbol?  If so, for what?  And does that have other implications for other symbols?”

“Is 2106 United States closer to the Roman Republic, or the Roman Empire?”  (this is a rather heavy question.  If you teach history, maybe you can give a better example.)

“Provide an English translation for this passage written in Spanish.”

Here are my “leave” questions that will so compel you that the comments section below will stretch into the horizon.  (Right?  Right?)

  • What questions from your own discipline would be appropriate for this protocol?
  • What tweaks might you make to this protocol?

Go!