Superheroes Struggle, & So Should Students

Has He Lost His Mind

I recently had a conversation with a first year teacher that caused me to reflect on the value of struggle in learning. It isn’t a new concept, but the balance of making a learning activity challenging but still attainable is a tricky slope. Some educators fall down the slope, trying so hard to make students struggle that they get caught up in trying to be the  tough teacher, and then forget that it isn’t about us. If an entire class does poorly on a test, that isn’t a valuable struggle. It’s poor test writing, didn’t assess what was taught, or a combination of both. That slope is a tough one to master, but just like that gritty Russian grizzly cub in the YouTube video that went viral, we have to keep climbing.

Can He See Or Is He Blind

Now you might be wondering where superheroes fit in to all of this. If you follow me on Twitter at all, or if you know my family personally, then you know we’re pretty big Marvel fans. Okay, that might be an understatement. There are lots of things in these superheroes to admire, but they aren’t perfect. Stan Lee, creator of my superheroes, had his own themes and messages for each comic book that they produced. He wasn’t looking for perfect, and he didn’t make life easy for his characters. DC comics also have the theme of struggle for their characters. Very few superheroes get to exist without problems. They struggle in life and with the bad guys. As I watched a TV replay of Iron Man 3 (disliked by many, but it has nuggets of value for me), I had a thought.

Can He Walk At All

Step One: Catalyst

What if I take the typical superhero movie plot and apply it to my lesson planning? To start the lesson, I need a beginning. A catalyst for the greatness to emerge. I am guilty of overlooking this step, but as Dave Burgess points out frequently, both in his book, Teach Like A Pirate, and any time he speaks, you wouldn’t throw your steaks down on a cold grill. You preheat it first, so why do we throw our content down on a cold grill? Why not preheat it? (Dave says this more eloquently and passionately, but you get the point here I hope). So, give your superhero of a lesson a beginning, a catalyst, a preheated grill.

Step Two: Struggle

You know it’s there. You know it’s coming. Every superhero movie, or any hero adventure movie really, has that moment where it looks like the bad guy or odds will totally overwhelm our hero. He or she doesn’t stand a chance. They are beaten, broken, and bloody, or they’ve slipped so far down the hill that the effort to climb back up seems like too much for them or that baby grizzly bear. Students need this too in order to cement the learning of our content. Here’s where we tend to break down. Either we feel badly for them and eliminate the slope or lessen it, or we make it entirely too steep to climb, ever. Find that balance. The student should see the need to climb the slope, like the baby bear trying to reach its mama, or the hero trying to save the world from certain destruction. Once students see the need, then they have to be able to make the climb but should expend a bunch of effort in doing so. There’s a lot to be said for doing something you didn’t think you could. It’s powerful. Let’s strive for that for our students.

Step Three: The Win

Finally, in superhero movies, there’s the moment we’ve been waiting for; the emergence of a stronger, better hero. I love this moment. I can’t wait for my hero to come out swinging after being bested. I want them to hit the bad guy with all they’ve got, to finally defeat evil so good wins. I love the fight. The victorious feeling. The theme music. So why don’t I think of that while I plan my lessons? I do sometimes, but now I plan to do so intentionally. That moment of celebration when they finally crest the top of the slope needs to be recognized in a big way. Celebrate with them. Make that journey something they love, not something they hate. I used to think of that moment as the light bulb moment. It’s why I do what I do. It is now my Save the World moment.

Or If He Moves Will He Fall

Not every student will enjoy the journey or make it up that slope. I’ll lose some, because that is also the nature of what we do, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t be jumping up and down at the top of the slope, cheering them on. I will climb that slope with them and model that it can be done. They can do it. I will equip them with the tools needed to bring the thunder, deflect bullets, control emotions and smash their way to victory. If both the students and the teacher give it their all, we will save the world. We don’t need fancy tools, because even if all of that is taken away, remember this tweak from Tony Stark’s famous quote, I Am Their Teacher. Suit up.

Headings used partial lyrics from Black Sabbath’s Iron Man.

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