I've been watching The Shield compulsively lately. I'll have an episode tucked into one corner of my screen while I design handouts or plan lessons or whatever. I've got some great television on deck too, the season finale of Friday Night Lights, for instance, but I haven't watched and can't watch any of them, simply because the twisted morality play of The Shield is engrossing to the exclusion of all other drama.
At the start of every episode, like so many other shows, they roll a recap of previous episodes. With 24, this recap tends to be so totally comprehensive, re-introducing characters only the mouthbreathers had forgotten, that I can't help but check out.
The Shield, in contrast, plays only five or six choice vignettes, sometimes cut from seasons long-gone, and even though I just watched that episode last week, I can't help but pay close attention.
Once again, there's 24's sloppy, encyclopedic approach to story review and then The Shield's, where every moment of every recap pertains directly to the episode you're about to watch. You know that every flashback is gonna blast through the current story arc like an asteroid.
How this matters to education in general and this blog in particular is this: if The Shield were a teacher, his classes would be too satisfying to cut.
I watch a lot of TV, screen a lot of movies, listen to a lot of rap (watch out for that post) and I can no longer ignore the obvious — that when I'm properly tuned in, those hours double as professional growth. Payroll doesn't seem to agree, but nevermind.
See, substitute "opener" for "recap" and "lesson" for "episode" and you have some really sturdy teaching, teaching I can rally behind. If you aren't rocking some sort of opener, then do so (next year?), if not for the immediate management benefit of having something for your kids to do when they come into class, then because you absolutely must set up the day's story.
On my best days — these days — I handle Algebra like a story, a story whose main character, an unassuming guy named "X," goes on a long journey, encountering a truckload of supporting characters and enduring a new conflict daily. I use my opener to plant payoffs, to introduce the forgotten characters and long-past story arcs that'll affect X today.
Let's keep on with the model. After The Shield's recap, it goes through the cold opener, a nerve-jangling complication to set the episode ablaze juuuust before the theme music comes crashing in. After my opener, I set up a question, one which is usually more sensational than the lesson deserves, but which nevertheless generates the instructional friction this sunny Central Coast spring absolutely demands.
"If the Earth were this tennis ball," I asked last week, "how far away and how large would the Sun be?" I took bets on various sizes and distances, some kids one-upping each other by only a few feet, Price Is Right-style. If I had a theme song — something like The Shield's primal screaming — I'd have queued it up right then.
We're all tripping over this issue of rampant student disengagement and falling towards overly complicated solutions. Manipulatives are great, as is technology, personal learning environments, and (maybe) instructional video games, but those solutions are unnecessarily complex and bury the problem in other yards.
The truth, if you're a speaker addressing an audience, is that the only way to get your audience more engaged is to become, yourself, more engaging. There is no shortcut. The solution is simple but not easy and the difference between those two adjectives lies somewhere on your TiVo.