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“… Today marks the fifth anniversary of the initial outbreak of hostilities between the United States of America and the so-called ‘Free States.’  It is also the third day of a tentative ceasefire, and despite all predictions, it appears to be holding.” … “For the few remaining residents of the beleaguered island of Manhattan, a formal ceasefire is of little consolation when faced with the realities of the war zone they live in: looters, roving gangs of neighborhood militia, insurgents, car bombers, contract killers … this is daily life in the city.” … “Tune in for what will be, we’re sure, unforgettable television.”

So begins Brian Wood’s DMZ with “Every day is 9/11!” scrawled on a wall.  A second American Civil War is in full swing and Wood gives readers an indictment of the role of media in active combat areas, criticism on our inability to talk to each other in this country, and the everyday lives of non-combatants.

Wood hits all the right universal questions: When is it appropriate to rebel against a government? What is the proper role of the media in a war zone? What is the appropriate role of government during a civil war? When it is (in)appropriate to use deadly force, or suicide bombing? And perhaps most importantly: what does it mean to be a non-combatant in the middle of a combat zone?

DMZ is highly usable in an American Government class, or current issues course, and it could probably be used near the end of a U.S. History course.

Modern Civil War:
The obvious topic here is whether or not the United States will have a second Civil War, but this is not necessary a unique topic.  Orson Scott Card explores this in his Empire series very effectively and a quick search will find plenty more examples.

The concept, as explored by Wood, is that a second civil war would not divide by North/South, or East/West, or even by specific states.  Wood’s second civil war would divide along ideological lines that do not nicely correspond to geographic lines – a topic that feels more plausible now than when it was first published in 2006. Wood’s divide is red and blue. Urban and rural. The vast majority of the story focuses on the island of Manhattan as a demilitarized zone microcosm of the greater war.

DMZ is about far more than a second civil war though, the piece lives through it’s characters and their experiences as non-combatants within the context of war.

Morgan Spurlock captures this in his introduction to the 8th volume Hearts and Minds:

Insurgencies.  Suicide bombers.  Nuclear Armed States.  These are all scary scenarios that could be ripped each day from the world’s top stories, but in the hands of Brian Wood and [artist] Riccardo Burchielli, they create something much more frightening. …They open our eyes and our ears to events that, while fictional in the frame of this groundbreaking creation, are links in the chain of our global existence.  Each story, each character and each page is undeniably tied to the whorl in which we live, and for me – that is DMZ’s greatest triumph.”

And that’s just it.  DMZ resonates.  DMZ reads like truth in a way that can only be achieved in fiction and is reinforced by the combination of words and images that can only be found in comics.  Brian Wood makes sense from the first page through to the last panel of issue 72.

At its core, DMZ is about telling the war story of the non-combatants.  The people who have to live in a war zone they never asked for.  The people who are trying to survive despite everything working against them.  This story goes untold all too frequently.

There are plenty of war stories about soldiers, and politicians, and reporters.  Since World War One, and again after Vietnam, our narrative about war shifted in a strong way away from honor and glory, and into the realm of horror and brutality.  For soldiers. We’re still missing stories of civilians.

Wood gives us regular people.  He gives us war on Main Street.  He shows us the doctors, the teachers, the lawyers, and the small business owners.  These are the people who live under nightmare circumstances and can’t put a spin on it.  They exist amidst constant terror and their behavior reflects that desperation. And from a 2017 perspective, they are the kind of people fleeing violence in Syria and coming to use for refuge. DMZ is the everyday reality that a war zone creates for the non-combatants.

In Class:
The beautydmz21ff-cover of using fiction to discuss political issues is that it forces students to get beyond our sound bites, spin, and the 24-hour news cycle.  You don’t have to discuss Republicans, or Democrats, or specific – highly polarizing – political policies.  You can discuss Matty Roth, Parco Delgado, and the Free States of America.  The hope would be that these fictitious symbols for very real ideas can free students to discuss the ideas in a civil manner, investigating ideas and making reasoned judgments. The concept works in English class when we use Of Mice and Men to examine race and class. It can work in social studies too.

DMZ spans a total of 72 individual comic books, collected in 12 trade paperbacks.  Unless you’re running an entire class on the current political climate as depicted in comics (which sounds fantastic) it’s unrealistic to use the whole run.  So what do you use?
The piece that sticks strongest in my mind is the “Day 204 Massacre” collected in the Friendly Fire volume.  The volume explores justifiable use of force alongside issues of perspective.  The story centers around whether or not soldiers should have fired into a (potentially) peaceful protest.  This is the same question as who shot first on Lexington Green, but Wood’s setting and storytelling are exactly right for the current time.  He is brutal without being excessive.  He is honest without losing nuance.  Wood speaks the language of the millennial generation – students who are uninterested in sticking to pre-defined categories. Unpacking the perspectives in the “Day 204 Massacre” align directly with how social studies asks students to understand multiple causation and the reliability (or not) of eyewitness accounts.

There’s strong language and plenty of violence throughout so a high school teacher will have to take care when using DMZ. I argue that there is enough thoughtfulness and commentary to justify the violence. There’s no more violence here than in All Quiet on the Western Front, or The Things They Carried – DMZ just has pictures.

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Welcome back for part 2 of “Teach Like a Superhero.” If continuity is your thing, go back and read part 1 before continuing.

Ok you made it back and you’re ready for the big reveal. Which superhero should you emulate as a teacher?

Hawkeye!

“Seriously?”

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from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

Yep. Hawkeye. First of all there are two Hawkeyes, male and female. Most of you are likely familiar with Clint Barton as Hawkeye from the Avengers movie. You may be less familiar with Kate Bishop a female Hawkeye who is equally brilliant and doesn’t have to take the name “Lady Hawkeye” or “Hawkeye Girl” or any garbage like that. She’s just Hawkeye. Consider the existance of equal male and female versions of Hawkeye as a bonus point. A good start, but there’s a lot more than equal gender representation that makes Hawkeye a good choice for teachers.

(Note on pronouns: Every reference to Hawkeye from this point forward applies to both Barton and Bishop collectively, and since english pronouns are gendered I’m picking male for the sake of consistency.)

Back on track. You’re probably thinking: “Why teach like Hawkeye? I saw the Avengers movie, and he gets mind-controlled almost immediately and then just sorta hangs out and shoots stuff. How is this at all good for teaching?”

Hawkeye has a unique set of skills and traits that make him a good model for teaching. Other heroes may have one or two of these, but it is the specific mix that corresponds well to good teaching. These are: humanity, skill, , knowledge of resources, adaptability, and efficiency.

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from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

First and foremost Hawkeye is completely human: no faulty gamma radiation, no mutations, no radioactive hawk spider bite. This is a person in which we can see ourselves, as opposed to some artificially created super-being. Hawkeye is highly skilled and he’s honed all of his skills through extensive practice and training. There is no magic to Hawkeye’s success.

In addition though Hawkeye is human in that he is fallible. He makes mistakes, figures out the consequences and then perseveres through finding the right solution. Teachers have to do this as well. No teacher is perfect and no amount of preparation or planning will create a perfect, surprise-free lesson. The great teacher is not the one where everything goes according to plan; a great teacher is the one who smoothly adapts to unexpected situations, falling back on their practice and theory to use unexpected circumstances to their advantage.

With this in mind Hawkeye also has a fantastic knowledge of his resources. He has a wide range of arrows in his quiver each tailored to a specific task much like how highly skilled teachers can call on a diverse array of teaching techniques to appropriately address the needs of their students both expected and unexpected. Teachers regularly have to refine their practice in order to best meet the needs of all their students, and like Hawkeye, must continually develop new techniques to successfully solve problems and adapt to changing situations. There are absolutely some methods that teachers rely on more regularly, and each teacher will emphasize certain techniques more than others to customize their quiver, but all high quality teachers see their quiver of techniques as a living collection that is regularly assessed, modified, and tailored to their current needs.

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Hawkeye’s arrows from Hawkeye by Fraction, Aja, & Hollingsworth. Property of Marvel Entertainment.

Lastly Hawkeye must be efficient with his skills and resources, as a teacher must be as well. Hawkeye is limited in any encounter by the arrows in his quiver. While Cyclops can blast lasers from his eyes for an eternity, and Wonder Woman’s super strength never diminishes, Hawkeye can run out of arrows. (And he did in the Avengers movie.) To this end he must choose carefully, and it is in this selection that Hawkeye demonstrates his greatest skill that teachers should aspire to develop.

Teachers are not limited by arrows, but by time, be it the structure of a school year, the time in a day, or structured planning and grading time. It is absolutely essential that teachers use all of their available time effectively and efficiently every single day. Like Hawkeye, when our most essential resource is exhausted we become substantially less effective. Hawkeye is skilled in hand to hand combat, and a teacher can assign homework or send an after-hours email, but it is Hawkeye’s time with the bow, and the teacher’s direct time with students that are the most valuable and it is essentially to effectively maximize our impact while still in possession of this resource. Using every minute of a class period with purpose is an important hallmark of quality teaching.

Teachers are tasked with a great responsibility to shape and grow the future generation of leaders for the world. Superheroes are constantly tasked with saving the world. Our roles are not that different and as such our preparation and dedication should be equivalent as well. The teacher that aspires to be like Hawkeye, and pursues that aspiration with effort and dedication, will be a great teacher indeed.

I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing.  Here’s my attempt at retelling it:

Quick Background before we begin:  The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool.  He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old.  He can  be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious.  We’ll call him Andy today.

Andy was having a rough day.  He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.

The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick.  The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high.  Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him.  (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.)  Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.

With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head.  In walks Paul.  Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old.  Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome.  Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool.  Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.

“Hi Andy.  Do you like Angry Birds?”

“What?  Oh, hi Paul.  Umm… I guess so…”  Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.

They talked about Angry Birds for a bit.  Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes.  Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to.  Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.

Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?”  Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general.  Is he a happy person?  Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.

Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course!  You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.

I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin.  He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better.  He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.

I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul.  He didn’t really think so.  He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second.  It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.

That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected.  Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome.  Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds.  I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.

Andy did a very simple thing.  He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value.  Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required.  That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people.  It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have.  The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.

Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being?  I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence.  Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.

The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation.  You have the time.  Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.

I’ve been out sick for the last two days, and writing sub plans was a miserable experience.  I know some of it is the fact that I was sick and just completely uninterested in work.  I pretty much spent three days on the couch drooling on myself.

The other part is that I’m still not sure how to make a sub day worthwhile.  Part of it is finding a good sub, but that’s pretty tough right now since I’m new to high school, and a good sub in middle school is not the same as a good sub in high school.  It’s also just difficult to know what a sub will actually get through.  I’ve had subs finish my plans in 20 minutes, and I’ve had them only get through half my plans.  There’s also the case that a sub will say they got through everything well, but the kids disagree and are totally confused.  (This is definitely something they don’t teach you in grad school.)

The common default is show a video.  That way the sub can’t really mess things up.  Ok fine.  You know what they’re getting, but are they actually learning?  My default in AVID was to run a peer study group (PSG).  That’s because it’s 100% student directed, and the sub doesn’t even need to be in the room. The students have issues to bring to the table, and they also have a vested interest.  Best of all the students write a reflection as part of the PSG so I get an additional 30 sub reports.

What do you do in a content class though?  This year so far I’ve mostly gone with read book and take notes.  It’s not the most interesting day, but since the students will have a quiz on the material, and they’re getting class time instead of homework there’s some motivation to do the work.  It’s not a great plan but it gets the job done. 

The hard part this time was the two days in a row, and then coming back into a block day.  The whole week has to be built around our block days (2, 4, 6 on Wednesday, and odd numbers on Thursday).  It’s extremely hard to go into the block days with no real knowledge of what happened on the previous two days.  I guess it’s one of those lovely eternal problems of teaching.  I can’t help but think that someone has figured out a real solution to the sub issue though.

Had another chat with 7th period.  Things had been going downhill for a while.  Attitude issues, compliance with getting work turned in and things of that nature.

In particular I’ve been pushing a project-based approach with government and yesterday I introduced a new project: a mock legislative session.  I’d planning it well, students we taking issues that they’ve already chosen, researched, and written about.  Then they’re going into committee and they’ll have discuss, debate, and compromise in order to write a bill.  Sounds great.  Model the legislative process instead of talking about it.

Oh man did I get pushback.  Kids were off task, many of them just completely canned the idea out of hand, and in general I did not get the benefit of the doubt from the class.

So today we had a talk.  We talked about attitude, we talked about graduation requirements, and we talked about providing constructive criticism.  In general I was really pleased.  Many of the students really went to bat for me honoring the hard work I put into the class and thanking me for making the class more than just lecture, notes, and tests.

In particular my two newest students took the chance to be vocal about their views on the class.  On international student mentioned that in his home country you can’t ask teachers for help, or ask them questions.  All you can do is taken notes during lectures, and take the tests.  He mentioned rampant cheating and the general feeling that no one learns anything.  He said that he was really happy to be here because now he knows how to do real things like write a proposal, research, and find solutions to problems.  The second new student mentioned her old school in Pennsylvania where her entire grade was based on four tests, telling my students “you shouldn’t complain, you don’t know how good you have it.”

I hope that these comments coming from students will help to add weight to them.  I gave students the opportunity to voice concerns in a constructive way and the feedback was largely positive.  I’m sure some students are still upset, but maybe they will at least see that others do find value in the work we do.  Maybe it will give them cause to give the class another shot.  My hope is that my transparency can continue to lend some authenticity to the class and let the students feel like they have some agency.

I also told them that if they don’t feel comfortable talking to me or the class they can write me an unsigned letter, write a note to our principal, or put a note on my car.  We’ll see what happens.

I have two classes of seniors this year.  1st period and 7th period.  Today I had two very different discussions with them regarding motivation, accountability, and the importance of being prompt.

First period has the classic issues of high school.  Class starts at 7:30 and by 7:28 I have between two and four students in class.  Many more pile in during the last two minutes and by the time the bell rings at 7:30 I have roughly half the class.  The remainder trickle in during the first thirtyminutes of the class.  To remedy this I will be implementing daily graded assignments that will be completed in the first 5-10 minutes of class.  This is a lot of work on my end and is definitely a top-down way of handling the attendence issues in the class.  For students who are regularly prompt they’ll have little trouble keeping up and will essentially be getting credit for showing up to class on time.  I have no problem with this remedy though it is inelegant and I would prefer a more bottom-up option.

During seventh period I had a similar discussion.  I discussed my issues with my first period class and applauded them for generally being on time and doing the work of the class.  I was caught off guard when students though my solution for first period was unfair. 

Their claim was that first period now has many more chances to earn credit in the class and as such it would be easier to earn a high grade.  By giving one period credit for making it to class and participating, but not the other one I was not being equitable.  I allowed their reasoning and we discussed options.  After brief discussion we decided that the best solution was to implement a regular participation grade for doing the work of the class.  The class was on board with this and so there will now be a weekly participation grade in seventh period to mirror the regular “warm up” assignments in first period.

My hope is that because they were part of the solution seventh period will be more invested in participating in class now.  In theory their ability to impact the grading in the class should help increase their buy-in and work to myadvantage to increase participation beyond it’s current level.  I plan to informally track the participation levels of seventh period and the attendence patterns in first period.  My hypothesis though is that the option that students worked with me to implement in seventh period will have a greater effect than my top-down approach in first period.  I’m now wishing I’d had the presence of mind to bring the topic to the students first before implementing a solution.

We began our unit on politics and elections to day in government.  I’m havin students actively debate the current Washington state ballot measures in an effort to show them how difficult it is to be a truely informed citizen.  As a way to hook them today I had them vote on a copy of the actual ballot.  The reactions were as I expected though much stronger.

The immediate reactions were that the initiatives were difficult to read.  I had many students say “I don’t know what I’m voting for,” and “I don’t understand any of this.”  After the exercise we debriefed the activity.  When I informed students that a large number of people go to the polls in their exact same situation, trying to vote just based on the ballot, they have the same reactions.  The students coped with this issue much in the same way as adults do.  The had unfinished ballots, made assumptions, voted along party lines, based their votes on advertising, and voted the same way their family does. 

What was different is that they were upset with themselves for doing it.  The students had a very visceral reaction and made comments that if we don’t know what we’re voting on we shouldn’t be voting.  This statement will inform my objevtives for the unit.  I hope to give students the tools and skills to overcome those negative feelings and inform themselves instead of giving in to the negative feelings and becoming apathetic and non-participants.