If Charlie Brown lived in 2017, he’d probably have a “Melancholy Christmas” playlist on his Spotify.
I feel you, my dude.
Christmas is a complicated time just in general, between cultural expectations, family obligations, tenuous finances stretched thin, and the darkness that envelops the world 15 hours a day. It’s pretty easy to get shrouded in gloom.
Then there’s Christmastime at school.
Sometimes, both in one day. And by “sometimes” I mean every day.
I had exactly that pillar to post experience Friday. My Introduction to Engineering Design classes are working on a long-term project known as Ballandia gifted to me by my department chair.
The object is to create a 2-foot square world made of found materials, a mashup of Rube Goldberg and Roller Coaster, in which a ping-pong ball will travel for 45 seconds. It’s not super-complicated but it is a lot of work, and there’s no template. Trial and error is the foundational concept. Students build their own design from the base up, meaning for a lot of my kids they are being pushed way out of their comfort zone.
But when they nail it, hitting all the criteria and constraints of the job, oh is it ever joyous:
Like, how often is there a fist pump and a “Yesss!” in my class?
But, like Ralphie Parker recalled,
“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”
OK, that’s a bit overdramatic. But the euphoria doesn’t last long. In any season. We’re in the homestretch in Algebra II, learning the last few topics of the semester before finals, meaning a) it’s the hardest math we’ve done all year, and b) my students are distracted and unmotivated.
I know better than to try to stand and deliver at this time of year, and there’s no better way to get a student hooked in than by creating an opportunity for them to discover a concept by trial and error.
We did a polynomial function discovery activity (via Jon Orr) in Desmos, giving students a chance to scale up prior knowledge, extending a pattern from quadratic to cubic, and theoretically beyond. Not ideal, but considering the time constraints, it had potential to get us all what we wanted and/or needed from the day.
Some got it. Most didn’t. Crud. Only some unintentional student humor saved the day:
Maybe I needed more time for them to explore. Maybe I needed to re-engage prior knowledge better first. Maybe a page of practice problems and traditional notes would have been better for this group of kids and this topic.
But it’s plain as day: They just want out. That two weeks of sleeping in is so close. I’ve avoided a “Christmas Break Countdown”, except for making note of the days remaining to outline our schedule for review days and Final Exams. But the light is growing dim.
I know we’re not supposed to count the days. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think our kids aren’t counting.
Bob Knight, for all his faults, was a master of understanding human nature. He famously pushed his players right up to the breaking point multiple times during a season, always knowing exactly the right moment to pull back and sneak in a break.
That’s the challenge for teachers at this time of the year. I’m tempted to drive all-out until Finals Week. (“You guys, we have to cover this material. Its on The Final!”) I know better. We build in Friday Fun all year long. The trick is to recognize when my students need a cutback day, to create the opportunities for learning that fit their needs. Notes, practice sets, Desmos, games, everything.
Maybe the trick (in teaching, and in navigating Christmastime in general) is to manage expectations, be cool with Less-Than-Perfect, to prioritize, and to make a plan in advance.
Because it’s a long December. In every sense of the word.