Bells & Whistles &/or Nuts & Bolts

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Bells and whistles.

Wow!  Look at that!  Whoa–get a load of the stereo in that car!  Blaupunkt–wow–turn it up!  That stereo rocks! I can’t wait to drive around campus listening to that. I can imagine those thoughts racing through my brother’s mind before he bought the stereo along with the car. Oftentimes, as consumers we are wooed by the bells and whistles, the extras that make something stand out. I learned the hard way that Hunter remote control ceiling fans will not last as long as the simpler ceiling fans with an old school string to pull, but I indulged in a ceiling fan with that “bell and whistle” that seemed so cool at the time. What I have found is that bells and whistles often overshadow the essentials of so much.

The bells and whistles  of a lesson may have the potential to transform a lesson from good to great; however, if the original lesson is not solidly formed with all its essentials, then there is not a solid foundation on which to build.  Of course, I am attracted by bells and whistles–the shiny stuff that glitters: the engagement factor, the perfect video clip, an engaging and timely text, the perfect real world connection, and the infusion of technology. Yes, these things have the potential to increase engagement and impact learning; however, bells and whistles are a cacophonous noise of distraction if the essential components of a lesson aren’t present.

At some point, you or someone you know well has been lured by the “bells and whistles” of something:

  • In the 80s, my brother bought a lemon, a Volkswagen Passat. While there were some warning signs, the bells and whistles wooed my brother; the car had a rocking Blaupunkt stereo. As a family, we joked that at least he had the stereo to listen to the many time he was broken down for hours on the interstate.
  • In the late 80s, I bought a bedroom suite of cheap black lacquer furniture that shined and shimmered, with trim of a grey marblesque design, a  geometric sort of design of mirrors, and shiny gold pull handles. My sister’s boyfriend criticized me for buying junky furniture, but I didn’t get it. All I saw were the bells and whistles of having furniture that looked good. I failed to notice the cheap construction of furniture that would begin falling apart after one move.
  • Last year, I decided I really wanted to improve my lesson closings, so I blogged about endings that would WOW my audience and wow me to the extent that I would never want to end a day without closing my lesson: Endings that Don’t Suck, Engage, It’s All the Rage, Thought Provoking Questions to End a LessonEndings that Don’t Suck, Part II, QR Closings, and From a Fizzle to a Finale. Even as I tried to frame my closings around the nuts and bolts, I found myself searching for the wow factor/the bells as my first priority.  In the end, I didn’t create lasting change in my practice. I created a some cool tools that I could plug in occasionally to end a lesson, and I fell short of impacting lasting change.

Fast forward to February of 2016, the students survey data indicates that there has been no improvement in the areas of closings on student surveys under the item, “My teacher takes time each day to summarize what we have learned.”

I could give you a litany of excuses to why that score is again lower than I would like:

  • One class surveyed was the lunch class–there isn’t time for closing.
  • I run out of time.
  • With all the differentiation going on, I’m not sure how to close a lesson.
  • We do different sorts of closings, so I’m not sure if the kids see it as a summary.
  • Summarizing a lesson seems like regurgitation, and that’s boring and falls short of the challenges I set forth in each lesson.
  • Did I mention that the lunch class was surveyed?

All that said, I believe my excuses need to be laid to rest along with my search for bells and whistles in everything I do. If I have too many bells and whistles, the kids miss the point as they are distracted by the noise that I’ve created. Furthermore, they won’t find what’s essential.

Admittedly, I have been distracted by the bells and whistles as I look for what shimmers and what shines. The bells and whistles are the add ons, and I can’t add on to something that’s junk.  In other words, I need to ground myself in the practice and habit of good closings before I try to add to them. If I fail to do that, then, I, too, will fail to find what’s essential. If I try to refine a practice I haven’t mastered with consistency, my bells and whistles are like the cacophony of a Blaupunkt stereo attached to a lemon of an automobile.

Before I get distracted by the bells and whistles of engagement as I try to fulfill my vision, I need to focus on the substance of the work that needs to be done. I need to be deliberate about creating a routine of consistent closing practice that focuses on making sure my students get what they need to master the content/standards. Once I’ve established that with fidelity, only then should I add the bells and whistles. I could suffice it to say that I am continually realizing that the nuts and bolts of lesson construction must come before (or at least work alongside) the bells and whistles, and perhaps I’ve found the root cause of the lesson of dots that I cannot connect and the underlying cause of a lesson that my principal refers to as “too busy.”