The toughest assignment I have had of late

Most folks think I have it pretty easy as an academic. And they’re right: tenured professors at a big university in a nice Midwest college town ain’t exactly breaking rocks for a living. But occasionally I am stretched a bit.

figurineafraidYesterday was one of those days. An Iowa school district asked me to come talk to its high school students about the laptops they’ll be getting next year for its 1:1 initiative. Although my work primarily is with adults, I was fairly nonplussed at the time of the invite. After all, I taught 8th grade history to students from housing projects and have had several recent occasions to work with high school students. What was there to worry about?

Thursday evening, however, I got the full skinny about what my visit would be like. 300 students jammed into an auditorium. No opportunity for group work. No real opportunity for hands-on work. And, of course, no chance that they could access any materials on the Internet. Just me on stage with my laptop and a projector and speakers. And 300 of them, arms crossed, minds skeptical, waiting to see if I was worthy of their attention.

On the last day of school. For the last 90 minutes of the day.

How’s that for a recipe for success?!

The students were great. I apparently did well enough that they didn’t throw stuff at me or mock me mercilessly. And then they were off to the buses and whatever summer plans they had…

The whole thing reminded me a bit of a quote I once read from 1998 National Teacher of the Year and Disney American Teacher Award recipient Philip Bigler:

I have personally seen $400 per hour K Street Lawyers, who are comfortable debating the most intricate and obscure point of law before their peers, quiver in fear in front of a group of 16-year-old students.

Have YOU been stretched lately?

Photo credit: Faces of fear

17 Responses to “The toughest assignment I have had of late”

  1. So I guess that answers the question: What could provoke more anxiety than giving a TED talk?

  2. Over the past six years, I’ve been charged w/teaching 600 students, 25 at a time, 84 minutes/day, for 18 weeks. I can’t think of a task more stretching than teaching high school math. I’m looking forward to administration next year where there won’t be turnover every 18 weeks. 🙂

  3. Scott – First, my empathy. Second, my hysterical laughter. Third, my outrage.
    Yes, I feel for you. That is a tough gig – enough on that topic.
    Next, you know I’m rolling on the floor picturing you addressing 300 HS students on the last day with NOTHING for them to do (but did you access their cell phones?? Hmmm?)
    Lastly – I really don’t want an answer, but what administrator would “invite” you to do your own eulogy so to speak. Seriously? Ninety minutes on the last day of school. Did they expect a “hari-kari” type of thing where you fall on your own laptop?
    Now, knowing you, I’m sure you pulled it off, it was impressive, and there were opportunities for great learning and growth for the students. The last question…did that learning really happen given the situation?

    • I’m not sure it was impressive, but I think it was at least adequate. Who knows what was in their heads as they left, my ideas or dreams of summer? Next up: I attempt to speak with 600 elementary students on the night before Christmas!

  4. You had the chance to talk to a room of 300 high school kids for 90 minutes?


    I totally envy you. What a fantastic opportunity.

    What did they have to say?


    • That’s the correct question, isn’t it, Shelly? I wish I had done a better job of structuring my time so I could answer it. The setup wasn’t exactly conducive, but I could’ve done better… =(

  5. Well, you can look at it one of two ways (or both if you are so inclined) – be thankful that there is another school that is looking toward the future, thinking a little outside of the box, and inviting a “radical” such as yourself to the school to speak to students 😉
    -or- all of the above, but somewhat sad that it was very poorly planned and will have the least amount of effect, inspiration, for students who were just waiting that last 90 minutes of the last day of school, for this speaker (although pretty cool)to get done so they could start their summer. Personally – about a week prior to handing out the laptops, or within the 1st month of students having them would have been better.

  6. This isn’t going to end well.

    If this is how they’re starting the program, imagine the mess it’s going to be one month in. Might be a good idea to schedule a free revisit in October to get them back on track.

  7. In answer to your question: Remember that toy, Stretch Armstrong? You could pull his arms and legs far and wide and the re-formed their normal shape when letting go. That’s about how the pattern of my stretching has been of late.

    Recently my stretches revolve around collaboration and delegating, e.g. sitting next to people doing almost the exact same thing I was recently hired to do and seeing them as a collaborative partner instead of competition and then taking action to join our smart brains together to make the world an even better place.

    The overarching theme I see in your experience and those of the folks commenting is “perspective”. How I manage my stretching all depends upon my perspective: do I see the crazy situations I put myself into as opportunities or as doomsday missions?

    Knowing my perspective at the outset, and after all is said and done, what did I personally learn to make the next stretch a better experience?

    So, what did you personally learn to make your next stretch a better experience?

    • I love how you all are stretching me even further! What did I personally learn? To find out more info earlier so that we could engineer a different kind of setup in a different kind of location, one where we could model some of the practices we hope they engage in next year: technology-infused participation, collaborative small group work, project-based learning, etc.

  8. I can relate! I used to be one of those 300 students at Indiana University. It was very different for me as I was fresh off the boat from India. In India, classes were never larger than 50 students!!!

    You’re right. It is tough to present in front of 16 year olds.

  9. As a teacher for almost 5 years I am fortunate enough because I have no toughest assignment so far. Maybe tough but can be handled.

  10. I like your post. Even thought I’m not a teacher yet I can some what relate. I just graduate high school 5 years old ago and I can remember when we would have an assembly. We would sit in the auditorium for about an hour listening to someone talk. If they were interesting we would sit their quietly and listen, but if it wasn’t we would begin having our own mini conversations. The look on the person face when they realize that most of the students are not listening. I would see how a person could feel stretch.

    Here the links to my blog and my class blog

  11. I had a similar experience. Picture it:
    Last day of school for the teachers.
    In-service Day – a makeup day, to boot.
    AND, they had to return after the Memorial Day break JUST for this in-service day.
    I was the only show. A morning session, and an afternoon session.

    I stood between those teachers and their summer break – on a MAKE-UP in-service day.

    As it turned out, they were great, but I was FOR SURE stretched!

  12. 300 students and last day of class? I think the teachers who sat with the students in the auditorium were streched also and WOW it sounds like it was tolerable. Great to hear the discussion of what can be learned from this event. Perhaps looking to the students who must have been interested is a very positive thing. If they could listen in the situation they were in that day just think what you could expose them to if the group was smaller and the timing better. Great intentions by the administration that set up the event, great effort on your part Scott to make it meaningful, great compliments on how the staff and students behaved as the audience. If I had organized the event i would of been satisfied with the result but also realized the stretching that had to be done. I do hear that streching is great exercise as I see from this blog.

  13. Definitely a tough assignment, Scott! Sounds like some learning came out of it for you, too. Not bad.

    I may have just completed one of my toughest assignments ever. Being the new teacher (I began on June 1) at a new school (for me) during the last month of school, in a year where the students were in class 1 week longer than other years. Teaching K-6 French as a 2nd language – yes, not teaching in my mother tongue – as the 3rd French teacher this year!

    Needless to say, I am really enjoying this first day of nothing to do 🙂

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