Three Lessons I Learned from the Oscars

Last night, I watched the Oscars for the first time in a long time. I had seen probably less than 10% of the movies up for an award but my two teenage daughters really wanted to see Idina Menzel perform Let It Go from Frozen live so we all stayed up late (Idina did not come on till after 11PM Eastern Time) and enjoyed a great family bonding experience. Usually, my experience watching a television program would not be the subject of a blog posting but in the spirit of the Mishna in Avot, איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם, Who is wise? One who learns from all people, I feel there were many valuable lessons that could be culled from this particular Oscar night.

Here are three of my favorites.

1. Use Social Media to Activate a Passive Audience
Ellen Degeneres did a tremendous job as the host of the Oscars transforming what is sometimes a pretty drab event through her funny and endearing antics. My favorite was when she decided, seemingly on a whim, to take a selfie with some of her favorite movie stars. She stated that she was posting this picture on Twitter and challenged the audience to make this the most retweeted picture ever. This was of course accomplished in minutes as Ellen's tweet surpassed a picture of President Obama celebrating his reelection which had some 781,000 retweets. Ellen's picture now has over 3 million retweets and counting. You can see her tweet below.(My daughter and I were amongst the first 100,000 people to retweet this post.)

Ellen with her tweet was able to transform an innately passive experience, watching a television show, to an event where the audience could become a part of the show. Viewers were required to go onto Twitter just to see this selfie from the camera's perspective. Then they were asked to take action and help make history by retweeting this pic to their Twitter followers. The audience was activated by this combination of television and social media, passivity and engagement.

I wonder how this same power of social media can transform our own classrooms. I have one idea which I have been blogging about for years (for example see posts here, here, and here).Teachers often can only activate a portion of their students through traditional classroom discussion. Some students are just quiet by nature or suffer from extreme anxiety when called on in class. These students can be activated and technology can often be a wonderful facilitator for this. Using a real time response system like Infuse Learning, Socrative, or Nearpod is one method to get every student to respond. You can also conduct an asynchronous discussion forum on a blog or wiki. Or you can even use Twitter or a Facebook group. There are so many possibilities based on the age of your students and the willingness of you and your school to engage them "on their turf" using Web 2.0 tools and social media. If Ellen could activate 3 million TV viewers using social media, can't we activate our 20-30 students using similar tools?

2. Sometimes You Have to Just Let It Go

This lesson is less about the Oscars per se than about one of the Oscar award winners, the movie Frozen which is our family favorite. As a teacher, I often struggle with how much control I need to take in the classroom and how much I can relinquish my control and give it over to my students. On the one hand, I am a big believer that as the teacher, I need to take a pivotal role in crafting the year long curriculum, working in tandem with my administration and others in my department, setting the learning objectives for my class, and fashioning the learning activities that we will use a daily basis to reach these objectives. On the other hand, I want to give my students as much control of their learning as possible. I seek to balance these two competing values by creating a varied curriculum with some units taught more directly, never frontal but filled with class discussion and traditional textual analysis, and others learned in a more project based learning mode.

However, even in my PBL units, my teaching instincts lead me to try to be in control at all times. I give students choice of group partners or topics but want to to still have some level of control over the student learning. This is not always the ideal approach and in my current project my biggest challenge is to learn to let it go and allow the students to take the leadership role in almost every aspect of the process and product.

Let me explain...

My Nach class is in the midst of a project where they have researched chapters 7 and 26 of Yirmiyahu with the help of various resources that I gave them and Flipped Classroom videos that I created for them. They then each wrote screenplays on this story working in groups of 2. I allowed students to write screenplays either as a traditional retelling of the story or as reimagining of the events set in a different time period like the modern day.

At this point, traditionally I would grade the various screenplays and decide which one was best to perform as a class. Instead, I let the class have greater choice and vote on the 2 best screenplays to film. The class then divided themselves into 2 teams to produce the Jeremiah on Trial movies, one a traditional retelling of the story, the other set in the modern day. You can view an excerpt from one of the screenplays which was posted on our class Edmodo group below. Ultimately, the videos will be performed for the entire grade in a Jeremiah "Film Festival" which will be followed by a facilitated discussion on the overarching issues and essential questions in these two chapters.

Many times during this process, I have had to let it go. I have two groups filming in various locations during the classroom period while I go back and forth to watch what they are doing. This is not what I am used as the teacher who runs all of the learning activities. And yet, all of the students are engaged and utilizing their creative talents. It is almost like a mini-Shiriyah on a class-wide scale.

This does not mean that I have completely let my students have free reign. When one screenplay, a tremendously creative one set in the modern day at the inauguration of a modern US president, won the vote, I was nervous that the group although having a great concept did not include enough material from the actual book of Yirmiyahu. So I provided guidance to my students by meeting with them privately and learning the chapters together. The students realized that in order for this video to be screened for the entire grade they needed to make it more substantial and were very amenable to editing and adding to what they had originally created.

I am also a bit nervous that students might have missed one of the big ideas of the trial. So later in the week, I plan to conduct one traditional class where we go over the commentary of the Malbim on the story. This is the challenge of educating effectively in a more student driven assignment, knowing when to take control and more importantly knowing when to let it go. This leads to the third and final lesson that I learned from watching the Oscars.

3. Celebrate the Uniqueness of Every Student

While my previous lesson focused on letting go on the macro level to help grow the class as a whole, this lesson, which I always believed was the true message of Frozen, is a similar one but on the micro level. As teachers, we need to learn to celebrate the unique abilities of each of our students. This point was driven home for me by the talented and adorable husband/wife team of Oscar winners Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez in the shout-out they gave to their two young daughters while accepting the award for their song Let It Go.

Frozen is not a movie about a young lady who turns things into ice. It is the story of a girl who has been taught to hide her talents since they make her "different" and "strange" and do everything possible to conform even at the cost of taking away what makes her special. This character has to go through a quest in the film to learn how to let it go while utilizing her talents constructively for the betterment of society.

How many of us as teachers, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community, have tried to enforce conformity on our students who learn differently? Rabbi Dovid Abenson in a poignant blog post in Baltimore Jewish Life describes this as the "Box Child". We strive too often to teach classes of children who all follow directions and conform to the traditional classroom setting. Rabbi Abenson wonders if this is stifling our out-of-the-box thinkers and thus preventing the raising up of a new generation of gedolim, Torah giants venerated for their original ideas.

When I first started teaching, this is what I strived for. Perfectly set rows of quiet students. But then I realized that real learning is messy and quiet students are not necessarily engaged students. They might be just zoned out, disinterested, and apathetic. Now I strive for talented, unique students who learn that every ability that G-d has blessed them with can be utilized in the service of Torah, even if sometimes they are a bit loud in the classroom.

These are the lessons that I learned from the Oscars. To actively engage audiences even during more traditional lessons through the great tool of social media. To let it go whenever possible by allowing my students to take a more active role in their educational process. And finally, to celebrate the unique talents of each and every one of my students, not just the traditional achievers but those who might not excel in academic subjects but possess a tremendous creativity in other areas that can be harnessed to serve their creator and help their fellow human being.