One Story at a Time

I received two email questions this week that I've gotten more than once. In thinking about how to respond I realized the same Mickey's Commandment applied to both; Tell one story at a time.

The first question was about how I structure a given period in my class.

In a talk at Google Imagineering legend Bob Gurr explained that one of the biggest changes in Imagineering and attraction design in the last ten years has been dealing with the ever shrinking attention spans of guests.

“50 years ago people would do any kind of an activity and it would be kind of simple, kind of slow. They would spend quite a few minutes at something. The attention span of some people, I think, is right around 20 seconds. You can be bored in about 20 seconds if something is not really interesting. The interesting thing about that is the stuff is that we spend such a short time at are usually mind blowing technical achievements. And that goes back to this curve I was trying to describe. It’s like how much more do we have to do in the face of people who, maybe in 10 years, they’ll be down to 15 seconds before they are bored? That really impacts storytelling because you can’t get people to sit down and savor a story - savor all the subtleties of something… They are so tightly woven into their electronic world that they don’t even see a world around them. You’ve got to remember, a theme park, those are the customers that come in there with that type of life and that type of expectation. What do you do to get their attention so that they’ll savor the whole idea?”

It's a great talk available here:

I've heard estimates of attention spans throughout my career. 15 minutes, age plus 7, age plus 12, etc. None have fit my experience as a teacher. Sometimes I can't keep their attention for a full minute (usually while going over directions). Others I have them locked in for 45 and groaning in anguish when I say we have to stop (usually while lecturing... seriously!)

This summer I went to Disneyland with my cousin to celebrate his 8th birthday. Trust me, attention was not a problem. After 12 hours at the park the three adults couldn't focus on anything other than getting off our feet and getting some sleep. He could have gone another 12! At one point we left the park to visit The Lego Store in Downtown Disney. We thought it would be a good break for us adults. He ended up working on building a single car for nearly an hour. We had to finally stop him and beg to return to the park! He certainly wasn't struggling to maintain attention.

Early in my career I assumed getting their attention was the easy part. I learned all about anticipatory sets in my teacher ed courses. They were easy. They could be a picture, video clip, thought provoking question, review of yesterday's surely thrilling content or one of many other short tasks. Since I was also told that 15 minutes was the most attention I'd get out of kids I planned my lessons, whenever possible, around 15 minute chunks where I was told I'd have their attention. I tried to have some type of anticipatory set for each chunk.

What I was not told was that getting their attention was significantly more difficult than maintaining it.

I quickly learned that transitions were the worst. Moving from one activity or learning mode to another within the period was almost always where I lost my kids. (And, like most first year teachers, I lost them a lot. I mean, like a lot a lot.) I really couldn't figure out why. I was doing all I'd been taught. Save me Harry Wong!

No, forget him, save me Imagineers!

The key is Bob's last sentence. We just have to get their attention. Bob doesn't say it is hard to hold attention. He just says that if people aren't engaged in 20 seconds you aren't going to engage them period. Boredom is the enemy, really - not attention span. In education we far too often conflate the two but they are absolutely not the same thing and should not be addressed in the same manner. We surely have to address both in our classrooms but they require different tools (or Commandments!)

So, back the question about class structure. My classes are all basically the same in design. They are built to avoid transitions as much as possible. I want to grab attention and then let my other skills hold onto it.

They all look like this:

1. Opening Bellwork (5ish minutes)

2. Learning Activity (44ish minutes)

3. Goodbye! (1ish minute)

Before I get deep into the whys and hows I fully realize this works largely because I have 50 minute periods and not 90 minute blocks. We've had blocks on and off with varying times. When we had 65 minute blocks once a week I designed a single 60 minute lesson and it worked fine. When we had 90 minute blocks for 3 weeks during testing I just did them as 2 separate periods complete with new bellwork and all the trappings. Two 45 minute lessons seemed to work fine. I would ensure that both are not lectures (I don't lecture on back to back days anyway unless we have a weird schedule hiccup) but a lecture followed by a processing lesson should be just fine (as that is how my calendar is set up now.)

So, the bellwork is one part engagement and one part settling into class. In most cases it is a look back at the previous day. Many times it is just interacting with the week's notes whether it be writing questions on the side, completing a summary or underline key points. It is not particularly difficult to get kids going on this opening task. It really doesn't have to be interesting so why waste my tricks? My class doesn't have a problem starting tasks as it is something I emphasize heavily with discipline the first couple weeks of school.

Then we begin the activity. If it's reading I plan it to last the period. If it's a lecture same thing. Stations? Yep, rest of the period. Within the structure I shake things up from time to time. While reading we do text marking, discussion questions, pair share, quick sketches, etc. All of those side activities though go right back to the story of the day - reading. I make sure I'm telling only that story (reading) that day. When I do it that way it works. Kids stay focused and engaged. They go home knowing exactly what they did that day. When you tell too many stories (do too many tasks in a day) kids suffer from confusion and that's why they misbehave. Cut the transitions, tell one story at a time!

The second question was also about story but from a different angle. Someone said she loved my PowerPoint presentations but was struggling to use them because she didn't know what additional stories I told during the lecture. That is by design. I can't tell you which stories to tell because I don't know the story of your unit! My PowerPoints are a framework. They include the key points that I know need to be included every year. However, the approach I take each year tends to vary and it is almost certainly not the approach another teacher would use (though it is possible if they were using all of my materials I suppose.) None of us knows all of history. I want teachers to use the stories they know and love best to share with their students. Telling someone else's story just isn't nearly as effective. Pick your one story and use your knowledge!

For example, with my Christendom unit, which covers topics ranging from St. Benedict all the way to the Black Death I'm telling the story of influence over the people of Europe. With that in mind, when I talk about the Black Death I highlight how the Pope hid in a room surrounded by candles while government officials instituted quarantines and sought to control the disease. If my story were instead about determining how dark the Dark Ages really were I'd focus more heavily on the individual stories happening to families and people as a result of the disease.

Without knowing your one story you can't know your supporting stories. That's what it means to tell just one story at a time. Every detail of your story should fit just right. So, if anyone wants to tell me what their one story of the unit is then I'll happily share some supporting stories (if I have them) to support it!

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