Don’t Follow the Yellow Brick Road: In praise of the off-task teacher

“Follow the yellow brick road… you’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of OZ.”

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A dead witch, a pair of shoes, some little people and the “miss my home” blues. Dorothy has a big problem and some pretty big shoes to fill. In order to solve her problem Dorothy needs to meet the Wizard of Oz. She needs to meet him so he can help her find her way home. In order to meet the Wizard she must “follow the yellow brick road.”

While staying on the yellow brick road is her goal, it is her digressions that reveal the truth of her journey.

***

Every day I have an objective in mind. Every day I start near the front of the room and hope to take my students on a journey. Our destination is spelled out by objectives, lesson plans, standards, mission statements, strategic plans, expected school-wide learning results etc….

A few weeks ago I finally picked my topic for our first MLA research paper. We read this article by Dan Ariely on why people lie, go to prison and eat chocolate cake.  The students liked responding to the article so much that I decided we would write a research paper on why students cheat and what society and students can do about it.

My objective is to help my students correctly write a formal MLA formatted research paper. I’m at my podium talking about MLA formatting and all the steps necessary and when I get to the topic of fonts…

I step off the yellow brick road.

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For the next five minutes I’m talking about serif vs. sans-serif fonts- explaining when to use which and how newspapers have traditionally used sans-serif fonts in their headlines and how that led to the use of sans-serif in PPT. I’m spraying black marker all over the whiteboard talking about wood cutting and Japanese uroko or “fish scales” and finish with a final word on why students may want to reduce the leading of their line spacing if using a large font in a headline.

Nowhere in my lesson had I planned a detailed explanation of font styles, but I can see my students’ wheels spinning. I can see floodlights in their minds cranking up as they listened to me. “Hey I know something now that wasn’t in a book, worksheet or state standard- this is something that may help me in the professional world.”

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While this is going on I notice one of my students, Ashley, is struggling to stay awake. She’s a great student, participates, listens, keeps the class lively, but it’s only 2nd period and she can barely keep her eyes open. Her head is bobbing so hard it looks like she’s going to knock herself out on her desktop.

“Ashley… are you okay.”

“Yeah Mr. T., I’m just so tired.”

I go grab my bacon pillow (yes I have a pillow that looks like a piece of bacon, and a pillow that looks like a donut, and one that looks like a toilet plunger… long story) from my class couch and bring it to Ashley.

“Ashley… I want you to close your eyes for a few minutes and just try and relax. I’ll make sure no one messes with you.”

“No Mr. T. it’s okay.”

“Ashley, I’m serious- it’s okay- Just a few minutes and then you can get back into the discussion and lesson.”

So she reluctantly conked out. She was “relaxing” for about 3-4 minutes- then she popped up, flashes that Ashley smile, starts stretching those rusty limbs, and BOOM. She’s ready for learning.

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Now I had every intention of coming up with a scary Mr. T. prompt that shakes you in your boots, but I’m on a big kick, lately, of turning the tables and making my students create the questions we will answer, so I decided right then and there while talking to them that I would have them all submit a possible research paper prompt. They turned in the prompts the next day. We talked about what I liked and what worked and didn’t work and then they brought some more back and before you know it, we had five workable research prompts. I had no clue we were going to do that, but I just decided to take a risk and make the most of it. My faith in my students’ unknown ability to write research projects were rewarded even though I was initially fearful of the outcome.

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Today in class I demonstrated for my students my reflection on a lesson gone wrong. I talked to them about how my teaching and reflecting in front of them is an opportunity to watch what a professional adult does in the work place- how I strive for something special by stretching their mind, jump starting their heart, and asking for their courage as we all engage in risk taking. This can only happen if I pull the curtain back and show them the real man and not the “grand persona” of Mr. Theriault AP/Honors teacher. How can they become an effective adult, if all they see is polished persona: a light show of smoke and special effects- all show and no substance. Nathaniel Hawthorne exhorts us in The Scarlet Letter “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”

The real lesson in The Wizard of OZ is the lesson of risk taking, of stepping off the yellow brick road: helping a scarecrow leave his expected role, helping a tin woodman see the value of compassion, or helping a cowardly lion see that the most courageous step is the first one you take when you don’t know what will happen next.  Each step is a lesson in the belief of another’s potential and a lesson on listening to your brain, your heart, and your gut.

We are in the business of heroic discoveries. We are helping our students on their own personal quest. We set the stage for catharsis, growth, epiphanies, and memorable moments that shape our present and guide our future.

There will be a host of well-intentioned people who remind you about those objectives, mission statements, standard etc… they will softly and incessantly exhort you to “Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road.”

It will feel dreamy and right and they all have a reason for telling you to stay on task. Every instructional minute is crucial.

Yes they are… so that is why you are going to take the time to help your students in need, to find their hidden talents, to take risks- together.

Don’t follow the yellow brick road. Don’t take the road less traveled. Step off the road entirely. Don’t follow a map or a plan. Follow your mind, your heart, and do it with an unshakable courage and conviction.

There’s no place like roam. There’s no place like roam. There’s no place like roam. 

Dorothy

One response to “Don’t Follow the Yellow Brick Road: In praise of the off-task teacher

  1. I just read this because it was in a tweet that was in Eric’s #slowchatED blog post. This completely validates my existence as an off-task teacher! It is so important to be able to read our students’ verbal and non-verbal cues regarding “our lessons.” I always laugh when I look back at what I had planned, as a means to an end, and then what actually happened. I love how you gave your student the bacon pillow and let her rest. I don’t have a pillow but I have given permission for students to have “nap time” if they are truly struggling. The best part about being “off-task” is that I secretly know that a point will be made and a lesson will be learned, but the students just think I’m being cool and off task!
    Thanks for this post, glad I’m not the only one!

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