Friday, September 30, 2016

Top Five Lessons I Learned from Students and Sway

The past couple of years, students enrolled in PreAP English II at Olathe Northwest High School have read Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. This book is a short Malcolm Gladwell-esque look at why we humans do all of the stupid things that we do. The great thing is about this book is how it sparks so many valuable discussions about bias, labeling, politics, group dynamics, etc.  My work with students reading, writing, and talking about all of these topics have made me realize that my experience with students in teaching this text has taught me more than I would have ever learned just reading the book. Here are these top five lessons:

Lesson #1: Cheater, cheater: loss aversion eater!

Early in the book, the authors articulate a simple definition of loss aversion: "our tendency to go to great lengths to avoid potential losses" (Brafman and Brafman 17). They develop the readers' understanding of loss aversion through examples such as Captain Van Zanten's fear of "losing time" resulting in a the fatal crash of KLM Flight 4805 and customers' fear of "something bad happening" resulting in paying extra money for unnecessary rental car insurance. These examples, along with the many others the authors cite in the book, clarified what "loss aversion" means--but it really didn't hit home until I was face-to-face with high matches on turnitin.com similarity reports.

I'll be honest: my first reaction to these obvious instances of  plagiarism was "seriously, kids?". The snarky side of my teacher brain screamed, "Do you guys NOT know what turnitin.com does?". After talking with the other teachers, the students themselves, and administrators, I've come to a much deeper understanding of why some students plagiarize. It's not that they sit down, make a conscious decision to commit academic dishonesty, and then do so as a mental "screw you" to the educational establishment. Instead, my students are a lot like Captain Van Zanten. Sometimes, they find themselves in a situation in which their brains short circuit because of their preoccupation with losing something they value: points on assignments, meeting a deadline, or even their own personal time. This short-circuit in their brain clouds their thinking, which contributes to their faulty decision to copy/paste. Luckily, their faulty choice in this context doesn't result in the same kind of fatal consequences as Van Zanten's decisions. My job as a teacher has been to provide them to opportunity to reflect on what went wrong in their thinking and to ensure that they face appropriate consequences that communicate what academic honesty requires.

Lesson #2: Reflecting on implicit biases & vulnerability

To prepare for a Socratic Seminar about Sway, I asked students to read a short excerpt of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. The excerpt asserts that people have unconscious biases, but they can work toward changing their biases by becoming more aware of them. One method of achieving this goal is to take the at least one of Project Implicit Bias Test and reflecting on its results. So, of course, that's exactly what I asked my students to do.

Honestly, I would have been a happy camper to just read my students' reflections on their results. But, my students surprised me--which, at this point in my career, shouldn't surprise me at all. I had several students in every hour who were open and vulnerable about what the test revealed and what they thought about the results. A common theme was that students were surprised that the tests revealed some biases, despite their upbringing to treat everybody equally. Another common theme was they acknowledged the role that living in the "JoCo bubble" may play in forming their unconscious biases. It was refreshing to hear students consider the varying roles their backgrounds play in the way the see the world--both consciously and unconsciously.

Lesson #3:  It's about purpose and audience, stupid!

Every year, I torture myself over teaching writing. I chide myself for not grading enough or grading too much. I agonize over how much they need to write and how much I can read. I stay up at night thinking about what kind of writing I am asking them to do. This year is no different . . . with one exception. I am doing a much, much better job of asking my students in write for different purposes and audiences. I know that developing writers need to try different types of writing for different audiences--not just "academic writing."

Students are writing about Sway in a few different ways: informal quickwrites, blogs, and academic writing. Some of my students feel much more comfortable in the academic writing lane. They like having templates and sentence starters to help them compose. They are comfortable with their audience being the teacher. Other students find this kind of writing stifling, so the addition of their blogs this year has helped me open up audience more. For Sway, I asked students to write about five lessons they learned. We looked at a sample "Top Five" blog and talked about its structure--but I didn't give them a template or sentence starters. I am curious to read the final results of these blogs, but my observation in watching them blog last week is that many of them find their own voice in that freedom. I am excited to have parents and other students visit their blogs and hear their reactions!

Lesson #4: The "ouch" and "wow" of connections

One element of the summer reading assignment this year was to find five sources that connect to five different chapters in Sway. As I read students' submissions, I was underwhelmed by some of their connections: yes, both Allen Field House and Chapter 2 of Sway relate to sports. But for every "lame" connection, I found a really interesting one.

A student in my 4th hour found an article about how two KU fans paid over 4 million dollars for the "original" rules of basketball. He tied this gross over payment to an experiment delineated in Sway called the twenty dollar auction.

What did I learn from this besides people do stupid things with their money? I learned that as a teacher, if I want students to make interesting connections, I have to leave them some room to make some not-so-interesting ones as well.

Lesson #5: Claims, quotations, definitions, statistics, anecdotes . . . oh my!

A core part of the summer reading assignment was to identify claims and connect these claims to the evidence the authors present in the book. As I flipped through students' books this year, I was a little taken aback by the trouble some students had with the assignment. But, instead of just blaming them for being "stupid" or "lazy," I took what I learned from looking at their work and created a plan for reteaching (or just teaching) them those skills. In devising these lessons, I learned something myself: identifying claims and evidence isn't as easy as it seems. There is a lot of nuance in real writing, and I was asking them to filter through a lot of information and hone in on the key claims.

I can't say that 100% of my students are 100% confident with these skills even now, but I can say that the vast majority of them have learned a great deal. Many of them came in before/after school to revise their annotations to show improved learning. I found these one-on-one sessions even more valuable in bettering my understanding of what each student needed from me to apply these skills. I wish I could do more one-on-one work with all of my students . . . now I just have to figure out how to manage that!


At the mid-point of each year, the sophomore teachers gather together to discuss next year's summer reading assignment. The lessons my students taught me this year by reading Sway has strengthened my resolve to have students read non-fiction. It's time for our team to move onto another title, but I definitely want to find some that allows them to learn some of the same lessons they learned with Sway.

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