When All Else Fails…

| September 15, 2010

While sitting in John Browne’s Teaching of Reading class, I had my first brilliant lesson idea.

I had spent the past few weeks trying to figure out how to spice up my cooperating teacher’s lessons on summaries.  Each day, the students would read a short piece of literature, take notes, and write a summary of the piece.  It was tedious and dry, and I could tell that the students, though perfectly cooperative, were bored.  As John discussed the advantages of using multimedia presentations in the classroom, I thought to myself, What if I have my students summarize a different kind of text?  What if I use something they’re already interested in—cartoons, maybe—and have them write a summary of that? Genius.

I stayed up most of the night trying to find a short cartoon clip on Youtube for class the next day.  I was looking for something somewhat obscure, with setting, characters, action, and drama, and, most importantly, content without actual words.  Sure, they had mastered writing a summary from something they read off a page.  But here was something that would interest, excite, and challenge them—a Mindy and Buttons cartoon clip from the 1990s TV series Animaniacs!

The next day I had the Smartboard set up and ready to go as my students filled into the room.  “Miss Z, we’re watching TV?”

“Yep,” I told them, smiling.  “And we’re writing summaries!”

I told them to pay close attention to what they were about to see on the screen and think about the characters, plot, and main points.  “After watching this clip a few times, we’ll try to figure out how to summarize a text that isn’t written.”

I pressed play.  They watched.  I heard giggles and excited whispering—success! I couldn’t believe how well my lesson was going; the students were truly engaged.  When the cartoon ended, I asked them to write what they had observed.  Then I played the clip again.  Then they wrote again.  And as I was about to press play for the third time (so that everyone had a chance to think critically about how they would summarize the cartoon), I saw a hand go up.

“Um, Miss Z?  I think we get it.  There’s a baby who calls her mom ‘Lady,’ and she crawls away from home and her dog has to get her, and they get into all this trouble but in the end the dog saves the baby but the mom blames the dog for bad things happening.  Right?”


“Yeah, it’s like Tom and Jerry.  Or Sylvester and Tweety.  Like the mom blames the wrong guy.  Right?”


“Can we just write the summaries, please?  We get it.”

I couldn’t think of a single reason why I wanted to show the clip a third time.  I looked at the clock and realized we had 30 minutes remaining.  I then did something really horrendous—giggled, maybe, or played with my hair—and told them to start talking in small groups about what would go into their summaries.

“Okay, but didn’t we just say what the summary was?  Like, just now?”

More giggling.  More hair.

“Right, so just double-check with your group, and then get writing,” I said.

“Okay, but Miss Z?  Should we just write what we said?  What we just said a second ago?”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see my cooperating teacher start to stand up: his Do you need me to fix this? gesture.

What was I doing up there?  How had my lesson spiraled so horribly out of control?  Why couldn’t I stop playing with my hair?  What made me think I’d ever be a good teacher?

I had experienced what every teacher, whether new or veteran, eventually faces.  Call it poor planning, a “tough crowd” of students, or just plain failure.  My lesson, despite my best intentions, hadn’t worked.  The excitement for Mindy and Buttons died out.  I hadn’t adequately planned a full period’s worth of activities and was stuck with 27 minutes looming endlessly ahead of me.

On my first day at TC, John Browne told us it’s okay to cry.  “Oh yeah, I cried,” he said, recounting his first year as a teacher.  “And you’ll cry! Maybe not as much as me.”  We had all laughed, nervously, because if John Browne cried, what were we up against?

John told us about his tears not to depress us, but to empower us.  The question isn’t if you’ll screw up—because we all will, sooner of later—but when you falter, how will you bounce back?  Mistakes are part of the game.  We over-plan and leave no room for student creativity.  We under-plan and have 30 horrific minutes left with nothing to do.  We choose activities that are too challenging or too boring.  And sometimes, we plan a great lesson that just doesn’t take off the ground for completely unapparent reasons.  Maybe the students are too exhausted by eighth period.  Maybe I’ve thrown them for a loop by wearing glasses instead of contacts.  (Yes, this actually distracts middle schoolers.)  The point is that you will make mistakes.  But then what?

Teachers College has given me the tools to think on my feet, improvise, and know when (and how) to ask for help.  A great teacher is one who can confidently switch gears and follow the flow and energy of the class.  A great teacher asks colleagues for help with lesson planning, classroom management, book ideas, and happy hour recommendations.  A great teacher knows that students won’t leave class every single day thinking, “My teacher is incredible!” but that, sometimes, they will.  We aren’t great teachers just yet, but TC has shown me how to get there.

On the fateful Mindy and Buttons day, I knew I had to make a decision.  My coop stood, ready to bail me out.  But what would I have gained from being rescued?  I already saw how to improve the lesson for future classes: choose a different clip, plan more interesting activities, challenge the students to do something besides write yet another summary.  I subtly waved my hand—my I’ve got this signal to my coop—and found a way to finish the lesson.