We try. We fail. We try again.

There are the soul-crushing failures that break your spirit and send you into a spiral of doubt and self-recrimination

And then, there are failures that are more interesting.

One of my goals for my teaching this year is to integrate skills and concepts from other disciplines into my lessons; there is a reason why Art, Music, Physical Education, Health, etc.. are referred to as "Integrated Arts". At a conference several months ago, I sat in on a session about using Phys Ed as a resource in content courses, and I've been mulling that idea over in the back of my head ever since.

I've got a great group of 8th graders this year - very polite and friendly and as goofy as a basket of puppies. But they are a very kinetic group of kids - always wiggling, often distracted, sometimes difficult to keep on task. A lesson that involves a lot of movement would seem to be perfect for them. Because I taught most of these students last year in 7th grade, I knew them already and had time to prepare a lesson over the summer.

Here's what I came up with:
The How-A-Bill-Becomes-A-Law Obstacle Course... 
I don't do a lot of rote memorization in my classes (although I believe that it does have a place in a well-rounded curriculum), but there are a few things that I need my students to memorize - the steps in a bill becoming a law being one of them. It's an 8-step process (or 7, or 16, depending on how you count the steps) that can be confusing to anyone at the best of times.

There are, of course, traditional, time-tested mnemonic aids:
But I'm always looking for something else.

Over the years, I've come up with a dance to help my students remember the sequence of steps involved - a waltz, actually - and it's been pretty effective:

INTRODUCE (step to the side) and vote (step back), COMMITTEE (and step...) and vote (and back...) DISCUSS (step...) and vote (back...) 

and SWITCH - to the Senate (twirl around)...

INTRODUCE (step to the side) and vote (step back), COMMITTEE (and step...) and vote (and back...) DISCUSS (step...) and vote (back...) and 

SWITCH - to the White House (twirl around)...

This dance seems to help SOME students nail down what happens in what order. And, of course, the sheer goofiness of taking a group of students into the hallway of our school and waltzing them around the corridor, while reciting steps in the legislative process makes this a little bit more fun.

("Fun", of course, being a relative term. Because - let's face it - the Legislative Waltz will never be cocktails on the beach with Minnie Driver.)

But this dance, though awesome in its own dorky way, could probably be improved upon. So I came up with the idea of an obstacle course. Working with my Phys Ed colleague, I set up a series of obstacles on one of our playing fields, and had my students come to class, wearing gym clothes.

Lesson #1 - This was not explicit enough. I should have specified a CHANGE OF CLOTHES. Most of my 8th graders spent the rest of their day in soiled, wet clothes.

I pulled the name of each of the students from the Awesome Jar of Destiny, then had him or her go through the steps of how a bill becomes a law. At each step, if he or she made a mistake, I had the entire class run an obstacle, then come back to the easel, where I had the questions written out, and started from the beginning of the process with another student. 

The idea was that the more times we ran through this, the more repetition and reinforcement the entire group would get. The movement would appeal to this very wiggly group of students, and thus the whole exercise would have positive connotations for them.

I maintain that this was a sound theory.
Except it wasn't.

Lesson #2 - Plan for inclement weather.

It rained like hell. I was soaked. The kids were soaked. The ink ran off my carefully written chart and the paper disintegrated. Undaunted, we plowed through the first period lesson anyway. Yes, the students were very distracted, but I chalked that up to the rain.

Lesson#3 - Listen to your colleagues

I work with very smart people, who know much more about this sort of thing (and indeed, most things) than I do. I was warned. Simply adding movement to a pre-existing lesson does not make it a movement-based lesson. But with a month or so of planning sunk into this lesson, I decided to handle any issues that came up, on the fly.

Lesson #4 - You can plan a lesson meticulously, or you can wing it. You should probably do one or the other, not both.

Lesson #5 - And this is the big one, one that can't be summed up with a short title.

By the third time I ran a class through the How-A-Bill-Becomes-A-Law Obstacle Course, it was clear that my students we just not learning anything from the exercise. The rain had stopped, so I couldn't blame the weather, but my guys were getting more and more distracted. By the end of the last class, they were so hyped up that they were almost crawling out of their skins. The boys would not - in fact could not - stop horse-playing. The girls were giggling so much that they couldn't have told you their own phone numbers. One of the boys was actually on his hands and knees, grazing on the grass.

They did not learn the steps to how a bill becomes a law.

So what went wrong?

Essentially, I fundamentally misread the whole situation. My students are kinetic and movement-oriented, so I thought they'd respond to physical exercise. They did, but not in the way I had planned. They are SO movement-oriented that that's what they focused on - the leaping of hurdles and running through the agility ladder, not the concepts that I was trying to teach back at the easel. 

The physical actions had no intrinsic connection with the concepts I was trying to teach. I was running them around, getting them all excited, then asking them to stop on a dime and remember a complicated sequence of abstract ideas - the equivalent of asking a ballerina to recite the owner's manual to her refrigerator while going through the steps of a dance. 

They were having trouble seeing the forest for the trees, and I was throwing more trees at them.

I was very frustrated at the time, but strangely, I'm not so much now.

There are failures and there are failures. 

This one involved taking a group of goofballs out into the rain, where they had a LOT of fun. Some of the students did learn more about the legislative process - the sheer repetition got through to a few of them. Nobody dropped dead. Nobody was crushed by a falling satellite. Nobody's life was ruined. It was a good-faith effort that just didn't work.

That happens sometimes.

I'm okay with that.

Next time, I'll do better.
Betty Ann
9/28/2011 07:55:39

I am glad you tried to incorporate movement into your lesson and did not just say good idea but not for me. Until you give it a try it is difficult to anticipate what might happen but now and I hope you will try again in the future, you will have a better understanding of how to alter the activity. Keep me posted on your next adventure.


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