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MST3K: Learning from Bad Teacher Theatre

Last week I tried to be a bad teacher. Now I’ve been a bad teacher before, so it’s not a stretch. Normally it’s not something I pre-plan- it just happens:  mostly when I haven’t planned enough.

My school has been participating in Instructional Rounds for the last few years. My principal and our staff are committed to exploring and investigating best practices in the classroom. My friend Sean Ziebarth is our instructional rounds leader. He created the website Steal Like a Teacher (homage to Sean Junkins and Austin Kleon for being the fathers of the idea) to facilitate our Rounds process.

On Monday teachers and admin from various schools in our district (including our District Director of Curriculum) were going to attend a half-day training on Instructional Rounds in our Library. Sean asked if they could stop by my room for an observation. Three groups of five to six teachers would be entering my room every fifteen minutes to objectively take notes on what they saw so that they could get in post-observation groups to discuss effective strategies.

Rounds

I thought: what an awesome time to try something I’ve never tried before. I mean even if it fails spectacularly it will give them something to talk about.

***

Things I love

  • Comedy, especially satire
  • Late night weirdness
  • Things that are groaningly bad- not evil or mean, just poorly done.
  • Nerd culture especially robots and space

For about the past fifteen years I’ve wanted to try my hand implementing a MST3K in class. What’s MST3K?

MST3K: Mystery Science Theatre 3000 

Here is a description from MST3K from Wikipedia “[A TV] series [that] features a man and his robot sidekicks who are trapped on a space station by an evil scientist and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, often (but not limited to) science fiction B-movies. To stay sane, the man and his robots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws and wisecracking (or “riffing”) their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of the man and robots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen.”

So my plan was the following. Students would find a clip from a bad film. Get together as a group. Create funny lines mocking the film. Perform the sketch, in class, in front of us and the observers.

There was only one problem (well- maybe more than one) I told them about this on Monday and we were being observed the VERY NEXT DAY.

Now my students are not professional comedians. Good comedy is hard work. I was not setting up my students for success by giving them just one night and I knew it, but I forged ahead anyway. I figured:

  • The worst that will happen is we will watch spectacularly bad film clips
  • The observers will have something to talk about and will probably feel better about themselves as teachers
  • The best that will happen is some of my students will rock this and that will create a memorable educational event
  • My students will learn about MST3K and improve their nerd cred

So I drafted up a quick lesson plan, found some clips to show the students what MST3K is and how to apply it and then opened up my Common Core State Standards. I mean there HAS to be a standard that deals with satire and comedy right? I mean comedy is one of the sixteen Habits of Mind, it helps us survive the world. I even created a what is funny packet that we use to create a common language to analyze comedic techniques in literature and film. Well there’s not a specific standard (I guess being funny isn’t important for college and career readiness) If you stretch it, you could say that Reading Standards for Literature : 2.5 “kind of” cover comedy but Reading Standards for Information Texts say NOTHING about satire or comedy. I guess there are ZERO non-fiction writers who try and be funny. I’m not sure if I want to go to the college or work in the career that we are preparing our students for: it must be a dreary future.

Well… I’ve never let a standard get in the way of a learning opportunity. In fact I’d rather let something like the results of this Student Perception Survey help guide my instructional strategies.

So on Monday I explained the project to my students and why I had always wanted to try it in my classroom. Then I showed them a few clips like this one

Then I tried to demonstrate it myself using a part of this clip

It was hard to do it spontaneously. I actually tried to do it with another clip, but the scene above had more comedic potential than the first clip probably because there was more focus on pathos/bathos in the clip. I encouraged students to get together using a Google Doc or Google+ hangout (or just Facebook). I created an editable Google doc so they could paste their names and the link to the clip so I could preview it the night before for appropriateness.  Then I did what I do best. I hoped for the best.

THE DAY OF THE OBSERVATION

First I created a small sign outside my door just to create some excitement. Then the students walked in and away we went.

cell phone April 2013 117

I put my couch in front of the room, booted up the digital projector and the students took turns creating their satires. Some were pretty fun, some were not so funny. There were some students who barely said anything during the activity, some didn’t even make one joke. Even though some of my bosses were watching I just kept plowing through figuring well “even the worst of us can serve as a bad example.”

That was one of my favorite clips

At the end of the activity I asked my students four questions. Below are the questions and some of their answers:

Questions Answers
What worked and why?
  • When a comment was funny it actually pointed out what went wrong with the film-maker’s intentions
  • Students who had enthusiasm or took risks were funnier
  • Great way to teach satire
  • Everyone likes watching movies and bad movies are fodder for satire
  • Students who prepared and planned were funnier
  • We had the freedom to choose whichever videos we wanted
  • This was a chance for us to do something different than sitting at a desk
  • We were encouraged to have fun, be creative, and be funny
  • If you make fun of something in class you are usually reprimanded, but in this activity you were encouraged to make fun of stuff.
What didn’t work and why?
  • Limited vocal inflections/no enthusiasm/comments need to be louder (5)
  • If the clip was too funny it was hard to make fun of it. Bad movies or acting work best.
  • People who didn’t practice
  • Some clips were too long
  • You didn’t give us enough time (2)
  • Some students are too shy
  • The spectators from the district were distracting
  • We couldn’t say what we really wanted to say (4)
  • It felt awkward if the class didn’t laugh at a comment
What would make the activity better?
  • Doing it individually or in pairs instead of in a group.
  • Letting us pick our own groups (1)
  • There should be a different option for shy students (3)
Which of your comments got the biggest laugh and why?
  • “Pimp my ride”- in regards to George Clooney’s Batman movie- it got the biggest laugh because everyone knows that saying and the comment was timed perfectly
  • The ones that were loud enough for everyone to hear
  • “I’ll be back” everyone could relate to this quote

Students wrote down the answers for each and then we discussed them as a class. Often I love the reflection more than the activity. It’s important for me to model and for students to engage in reflection towards the idea of improvement.

My notes on their comments:

(1) They were actually in their self-chosen student blogging groups, but they confessed that they picked their blogging groups not on friendship, but rather on their ability to trust their team members to be productive.

(2) Not giving them enough time was EASILY the biggest complaint. Most said they could’ve done it with two nights.

(3) After I thought of a possible solution: students could use the commenting feature in YouTube where you put comments right on the video itself. The only problem with that would be they would have to upload the video (and probably illegally)

(4) Many students complained that double entrendres and working “blue” are a staple of their comedic tool kit.

(5) Having students mic’d would probably be the best solution, but instead we tried moving the students to different corners of the room. This helped a bit. Perhaps moving the couch back would help. I’ve also thought of creating card-board cutouts of Joel and the crew and putting them on the couch. It’s a work in progress.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 image

Later I asked Sean what people thought about the lesson. Many were curious about how I introduced the concept and how it fit into my over-all curriculum.  I was pleasantly surprised when he pointed out that in creating these Satires my students were engaged in the highest level of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

blooms_taxonomy_comparison

But it definately wasn’t my best lesson. It wasn’t even close. So why did I allow myself to be anything but the best? Why did I let other teachers watch me participate in a lesson that needed more pre-planning and more time for my students to be truly successful.

I really like helping other teachers improve their teaching and if I have to make my classroom a living embodiment of Bill Selick’s “Things that Suck” so be it. As a master teacher I’m constantly reminding my student teachers that this is a learning lab and I demand that you take responsible risks in the pursuit of greatness. We don’t know what works well until we try it twice. In other words, you need to give yourself permission to be less than perfect when you try a less. If you truly care about students and make your students the center of the lesson- they will learn something about themselves whether or not your lesson was a smashing success. And most importantly we need to share our less than perfect teaching with others. If all we do is show our successes than young teachers or teachers who are new to a new strategy will approach it with fear and timidity. We need to encourage teachers to be bold, to take risks… as the narrator of The Scarlet Letter says towards the end of the novel:

“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”

It’s very had for people to imagine themselves becoming a teaching super-hero if they never see the teachers held up as “models to copy” with their costumes off. Take off the cape, take off the mask- and share your class with the world.

3 comments

  1. You had me at “movie sign!” I introduced a class of seniors to MST3K earlier this year. I incorporate a similar lesson in Communications, using humor as a means of getting comfortable speaking to an audience, working on spontaneity, and practicing our vocal delivery. Students are hesitant at first but nearly always want a second round. We perform live from behind the audience which helps them overcome anxiety (all eyes on the screen). I’m glad you included the comments about complex thinking skills in your reflection. Not only does that justify showing classic (awful) movie clips in class, it recognizes the value of comedy and satire as intellectual expression.

    From one less-than-perfect teacher, thanks for the insightful post!

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