Vic Mackey: Teacher of the Year

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.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. This is a conversation I’ve had with a few teachers this year. After the 3rd time in two years that revised our tardy policy, I commented that if every teacher started class with an engaging, meaningful opener and proceeded to pose an essential question that put the lesson in context – man what a school this would be! Kids would be tripping over each other to get to classes.

    Case in point, I have a teacher in the building who teaches science. Kids will ditch school all day and show up JUST FOR HER CLASS because they don’t want to miss it. I’ve seen her have students paint their own starscapes with glow-in-the-dark paints and then tell them to look at their work and make up a new constellation, complete with myths and all.

    By continuing to ask, “What else can we do about tardies?” I think we’re missing the point. Hitting kids with a bigger and bigger stick addresses the symptom, but not the disease.

  2. Right, it’s this idea, totally new to me as of this year, where any investment I make into engaging lessons, quality instruction, and fun, totally random interludes, doubles as investment into class management and attendance.

    When I make my class a place where my kids want to come, actually giving teeth to this idea that “it’s a privilege to be here,” then they show up in greater quantities and my discipline rarely extends past, “hey, take a few minutes outside,” because they’d like to be inside.

    As you note, it’s way more effective than any policy we can cook up. Bummer, it’s also a lot harder.

  3. Hooray, sounds like another of those immediately useful threads. What further ideas are out there for”engaging, meaningful openers” and “essential questions” in high school or middle school math?

  4. If you’re a teacher, odds are you dig learning, right? If you dig learning, odds are real small you only dig your own content area. Yet so many teachers get all territorial and insecure about their subjects, like student interest is a zero-sum system or something and they’ve gotta convince them that math/English/history is the only thing that matters in life, when I don’t think any of us really believes that.

    So in order to keep the grind engaging, I don’t hesitate to pull in my interests from across the board.

    When David Foster Wallace wrote his essay Consider the Lobster (pdf, sorry), a fantastic piece of non-fiction which taught me more than I knew about Maine and more than I ever wanted to know about the lobster trade, I read it to my classes.

    I was likewise obsessed, for a certain stretch, by the flags and currency of other countries. So while we were playing some basketball math — get a problem right, shoot the ball — I tossed a country’s flag or its single denomination up on the projector, gave it equal weight with the math, and watched my kids go blue in the face guessing.

    As a matter of daily routine, I include a miscellaneous question in my openers. I have a list. I also play a two-minute clip of something interesting I found off Ticklebooth or Say No To Crack.

    Not for nothing, Esquire’s current issue has a list of 60 Things Worth Shortening Your Life For. Some of the entries are too fascinating to keep to myself. That’ll happen tomorrow or the next day.

    Nope, these aren’t content-area standards and, yes, I could probably get a few more graphs in with all that time and, yes, I felt awkward when my principal walked in to find the venerable flag of Madagascar up on the board, but this is the stuff that keeps them coming back — my enthusiasm for capital-L learning and my ability to deliver them a hit off the same pipe.

    (This is the point where I’m obliged to mention class management and how tightly it’s gotta be wired in order to justify all of this fun.)

  5. How wonderfully different from the usual “warmup”, a boring mini-assignment that has to be be graded and recorded to force students to do it, and that is always too easy for some students and too hard for others. Thank you.

  6. Lori Jablonski

    April 30, 2007 - 9:33 pm -

    Hooray! I’ve always done this; of course with my subject area, govt and history, it’s easy to weave in just about anything without raising the eyebrows of administrators. I recently had our stats teacher open my world politics class with a short lecture on figuring population doubling time. The students seemed almost disoriented to see a math guy in my room (can’t blame them, I actually count with my fingers). That afternoon I hosted a school council mtg in my room and just let everyone think the mess of numbers and symbols on my white board came from me.

    Two weeks ago, I opened with Vonnegut’s obit from the NY Times and a short excerpt from Man Without a Country…Slaughterhouse Five is no longer on the our English classes’ reading lists…most of my students had never heard of him. They were so interested I followed up the next day with his guest spot on John Stewart, four minutes of gold.

    Thanks Dan, this is the stuff.

  7. That’s fun stuff. I’m struck by how easy this Internet thing makes the process. A search for “vonnegut daily show” on YouTube and — blam — you’ve got your multi-disciplinary hook and I’m left wondering how all this happened Back When.

  8. …or happens in those very many classrooms that do not have projectors and other equipment.

  9. I should be more empathetic. The transformational effect of a projector has been like Gutenberg’s on publishing, though, and I can hardly remember what teaching was like without. I got mine through Best Buy’s te@ch grant. If it ever went kaput it’d be the first item on my wish-list. I probably wouldn’t rest until I had written the grant that got me another one. Or mugged another teacher for his, I guess.

  10. I have a SmartBoard interactive white board. The projector is mounted on the ceiling. I’m moving schools after this year and every time I see the new principal I drop a hint about how nice it would be to make sure I’m in a room with one. Today I found out I would be for sure.

    You can’t toss tennis balls at interactive dice for base and exponent (or numerators and denominators, etc.) on just a projector. The teacher next door probably doesn’t like it, but we only “play” it on some Thursdays (admins are at the district office Thursday mornings). I need to learn more about Flash so I can make some other dice that have more than just 1 – 6 on them. The SmartBoard has changed the way I teach (for the better I hope) and I can’t see moving anywhere that doesn’t have one anytime soon.

    The whole state of Arizona has a subscription to UnitedStreaming, but lately I’ve been using more stuff off YouTube and Google Video then the “educational” stuff.

  11. From what you and another commenter have described, a SmartBoard will be the next thing to jump my game up a notch. Also as you describe, though, I’m leery about hinging my practice on anything that is subject to administrator approval or supply availibility. I build everything off a laptop and projector, both of which I know I could procure pretty easily if I have to move. Dunno how much longer I can hold off the SmartBoard movement, though.