It takes the right teacher to make a student's winning effort enough

This is the fourth in a short series of posts about Coach Morgan Wootten’s influence in the classroom for me. It includes thoughts on his coaching lessons but mainly contains reflections on my experience as a student in his classroom where he remains one of the best classroom teachers I ever had.

A couple other activities that were part of Wootten's class brought many other learning concepts into play.  On Fridays, students, on a rotating basis, would present Current Events (local, national, and international news stories) to the class. We were given freedom to present what we wanted and how we wanted to do it. In a way, it was Google’s 20% time long before Google was even a thing. Again, the effective learning methods of student choice, students teaching other students, relevance, public speaking, accountability, and authentic audience all came into play in his classroom.

But, that was just the lead into a far bigger activity.

As a significant part of the course, we each were assigned a large project to do to present to the class during the 4th quarter.

Looking back on these two activities now as a teacher, I see it with a different perspective.  He basically had every Friday off AND was off almost the entire 4th quarter? That’s not just great teaching, that’s genius.

Beyond the basic requirements for the projects, we were encouraged to be creative when we presented the material. Wootten would “grill us” with questions when we were done and his content knowledge was legendary. One of Wootten’s last classroom students (whose project was on World War II) said that he did his project last minute and he, “Fried me.” He followed it with, “But he was an expert on WWII.”   I chuckled at that because one of my classmates and best friends did his project last minute, too and received a low grade. To this day he swears it’s only because he was unlucky because “Wootten was an expert on Winston Churchill.”

Once again, Wootten used strong factors in teacher success: content knowledge and holding his students to high, attainable expectations.

One of his coaching quotes was, “The big thing is to make a winning effort. I’m not obsessed with wins.” If anything says the Growth Mindset, 30 years before the Growth Mindset, this is it.

It was when I gave my project that I saw how this mindset played out in his classroom.

My report was on World War I and I had taken slides (the ones that are like pictures but displayed with a projector) and even had a matching quiz done with a board, wires, and a buzzer. I asked a fellow student to help me prepare and he was in charge of loading my slides in a carousel to be displayed. He ended up putting several slides out of order and even a couple upside down. He had One Job! Of course, I didn’t find this out until my presentation was well under way.

My slides were pictures of plastic army men used to recreate battle scenes, a few maps and diagrams, and even some pictures from our textbook and other sources. To use up the last picture on the roll, I took an extreme closeup picture of my face and planned to use it as a joke somewhere in the presentation to show an “unheralded and unknown but prominent US general who became an unsung hero.”

I tell you about this slide for two reasons: First, that may have been the first selfie ever and I must admit it and apologize for what my role may have been in that obsession for many. Second, that “joke” fell completely flat when that picture appeared much earlier than expected in my well-timed presentation. I think it actually showed up during my mention of Archduke Ferdinand and even the guys in class who hadn’t paid ANY attention at all had a faint inkling that the face on the screen didn’t look much like his picture in our textbook.

At one point, while my presentation, grade, and summer plans were slowly unraveling, I looked over at Wootten to get a read on my imminent demise. I distinctly remember to this day that even taking into consideration the issues happening with me in front of the room, he had his usual confident and assuring smile that helped me keep going. It was a look that told me everything was fine, these were things that were out of my control. Of course, I was a naive freshman and it could have been a look of “Krawczewicz, I’ve had you all year and so I know that this is something to expect from you.” As it turns out, it was my initial impression that was actually correct. He saw that I had and was making “the winning effort.” Sometimes, there are other forces that are just a little better that day.

The "quiz board" ended up working well and so I felt that it was a strong finish. It never occurred to me until I began looking back on it but that project may have been the start of my road to becoming a teacher. There's little doubt in my mind that Morgan Wootten's look of assurance may have stayed with me long enough to keep me on that path until it actually started.


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