The productive frustration of hearing an argument that's missing your perspective...

Eventually, this will be about teaching: specifically, reading and discussion

On a recommendation from a friend, I was listening to an episode of Dan Carlin's Common Sense podcast in the car yesterday. From what I gathered, the show consists entirely of Carlin's commentary on current events. He began the episode with a story in Newsweek about a demand by Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director general of the Rabbinical Centre of Europe (RCE), for all European governments to alter their gun laws so that Jews could legally carry guns, in order to protect themselves from terrorist attacks.

Carlin was presenting this as a case study about why European attitudes to guns are too rigid, and he was making a case that the right to protect yourself is a "human right". 

Now, on one level I just want to write a post about how wrongheaded Carlin's premise is, but I'm not going to write that blog post. All I'll say on this subject is that based on Rabbi Margolin's reasoning (that gun laws should be relaxed for groups of people who are in danger of attack based on their religion), then the only people in Europe who need this exemption more than Jews need it are Muslims, and I doubt Margolin would be receptive to a deal in which Jews & Muslims were both exempt from European gun laws.

OK, enough of that. I don't want to write my reaction to Carlin's argument - I want to write about my reaction to Carlin's argument. First, a confession: I turned it off before he was finished. I'm not proud of this, but I became aware that I was so frustrated by the podcast that it was ruining my mood, and I was on the way to visit a student at his internship site, so I didn't want to carry my frustration to my meeting with the student. Since then, I keep thinking about the podcast - so much so so that I brought it up with two different people afterwards. This got me thinking about why I was thinking about it so much, and here's what I think it boils down to:

I get incredibly frustrated by listening to an argument in which...

  1. I care about what's being discussed
  2. I'm unable to contribute, and
  3. I can see an obvious point that is not being articulated
And this, finally, brings me around to teaching.

The frustration of listening to an argument in which no-one is making the point you want to make is a beautiful educational tool - because it's almost impossible not to engage with the text, and articulate a response, when you feel this frustrated. If I knew I was about to go to seminar about Carlin's podcast, I A) would have kept listening, if only to make sure I didn't look stupid by leaving out some important aspect of his argument, and B) would have been desperate to get in the room and talk about it. Now, this feeling of frustration is not sufficient to lead to good reading, good discussion, or good writing (it's entirely possible - easy, in fact - to get angry about a piece of writing without reading it properly) but it's a heck of a good start. 

Next steps...
I'd love to build a library of articles that have this frustrating, "I've got to respond to this or I'm going to explode" effect. Let me know if you want in on this!

On "Fauxthenticity"

"Fauxthenticity"* is faux authenticity, specifically within project-based learning.

A fauxthentic project is one that looks profoundly authentic when summarized on a presentation slide at a conference, but which students experienced as being no more authentic than a book report. 

If you are a project-based teacher, you know what I'm talking about: projects that you meticulously designed, that engaged with big questions and issues relevant to students, that expanded their horizons into hitherto-unfamiliar areas of inquiry, but that somehow lost their spark in translation to your actual classroom and turned into a series of tasks that students executed more-or-less dutifully because you were their teacher and you told them to. 

To some extent, this describes every project I've ever done: there is always a point where I think "I'm sure this seemed meaningful when I was designed it - what happened?" and temporarily losing sight of your greater purpose is a natural part of projects for everybody: I'm absolutely certain that at some point during revisions of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson turned to Benjamin Franklin looked at each other and said something along the lines of "I feel like I've totally lost track of the point of this document." In this situation, you need mechanisms to help you get back on track and reconnect with the big reasons for what you're doing.

However, there are other projects that are fauxthentic by design - they contain basic conceptual flaws that guarantee that they won't feel authentic to students. As teachers, we could come up with dozens, if not hundreds, of warning signs of impending fauxthenticity, but I want to jot down a few right now:

1. "Students are going to make and sell..."

The same error that bankrupts entrepreneurs has screwed up many, many projects: starting with a product to sell, rather than with consumer demand. I think there's a tendency in project design to use selling a product as a substitute for finding an authentic audience, because (just like for an entrepreneur) it's possible to imagine a horde of customers fighting to get your product. But you need to start from demand, and create a product that meets it - which means if you can't find demand, there's no product for your project.

The question of demand is the first issue. The second is that it's unlikely that, given the time constraints of most projects, students will be able to develop a product and produce it to a high enough quality to bring it to market (not to mention produce lots and lots of copies to the same standard).

I've seen amazing projects where students have created and sold products, but I think it's very easy to use the idea of selling a product as a substitute for real authenticity, so I always feel nervous when I see the words "Students are going to make and sell"

2. "Students will make recommendations to the City Council..."

There needs to be a whole lot of ground work in order for student recommendations to have any more impact than a letter to Santa Clause. Again, amazing projects have happened with this as an outcome, but it does not, on its own, mean you have found an authentic audience. 

That's a start - I'm really curious to know what other warning signs of "fauxthenticity" you've seen.

Using "mentor texts" for writing Part 1: the "reverse-engineered outline"

"Mentor texts" in writing are endorsed by Kelly Gallagher, Ron Berger, and, for what it's worth, me. The basic concept, as I used it most recently, is this:

1. Student decides what they want to write about.

2. Student chooses a "mentor text" with a structure and/or subject matter the student would like to emulate.

3. The student studies the mentor text, takes it apart, isolates different aspects of it, and uses what they find to inform their own writing. 

4. The student acknowledges the mentor text in some way when they publish their own piece. 

I've got a structure for Step 1 (taken straight from Kelly Gallagher) that I like a lot. I've laid it all out here. As for Step 2, I've got a collection of potential non-fiction mentor texts here and of science fiction short stories here (if you'd like access to these and you don't work at High Tech High, get in touch with me. There are lots of tricky aspects to Step 2, but I'm not going into them in this post. 

This post is about Step 3. Specifically, it's about a concept I've been working on for a while: the "reverse-engineered outline". The idea is that students look at the structure of their mentor text and make an outline out of it (hence the term "reverse-engineering"). You can see examples of past students' reverse-engineered outlines here, and an example of a variation on the "reverse-engineered outline here. You can also see an example of the most recent version of a reverse-engineered outline I've done here

I've never felt entirely happy with this process, but at a meeting with my Director, Lillian, yesterday, we came up with a process for "reverse-engineering" a mentor text that should help students apply to what they learned about the mentor text to their own writing. Here it is:

The next step is to test it out myself! If you give it a try, I'd love to hear how it worked for you!

Writing Descriptions - here's what I should have done today

This started life as an entry in my journal. Some context is necessary if you aren't me or a student in Team Run DMC. That context is here. We're currently on Step 9.

It turns out I do not yet know how to teach the art of writing descriptions in fiction. 

I planned today's lesson because I noticed a tendency for people to "tell, not show" in their stories. So I wanted students to take time to focus specifically on writing vivid descriptions of setting, character, and action in their stories. 

Well, the impetus was unimpeachable. The execution wasn't so hot.

I started out (in the second class - the first class had been even worse and I won't go into it) with students highlighting the descriptions in their drafts in three colors: "descriptions of character" in yellow, "descriptions of setting" in orange, and "descriptions of action" in pink. 

I then told students to look at what information they provided about each. This was the wrong move. I was conflating description with conveying information - which was an especially egregious mistake since the problem I'd noted in students' drafts was that they were doing too much "telling" (in other words, "conveying information") rather than "showing" (in other words, painting a picture in the reader's head).

Here's what I should  have done:

First, students identify a "golden description" from their piece (or at least their favorite description, if they don't feel like any are "golden" yet). They give it a star.

Then, students, identify a description that feels a bit bland to them, and that they want to make more vivid. They draw a piece of white bread next to this. 

Students share their "golden" and "bland" descriptions with there table, and the full group hears a few golden ones. 

Now that this is done, the students take some time to analyze where each color appears in their text, and how much of each there is. I could break this into four specific questions:

  • Which color is there most of at the beginning of your piece?
  • Which color is there most of in the middle of your piece?
  • Which color is there most of near the end of your piece?
  • Which color is there the most of overall?

This could go in "Write Club" notebooks, but also would work as a graphic organizer, either on paper or as a googledoc. 

After that, students could highlight descriptions in their "mentor text" science fiction short story the same way (which would mean they would all need to have a specific science fiction short story that they were using as a "mentor text", which would have also been a good idea!).

They then identify a "golden description" of character, one of setting, and one of action, in their mentor text, and share this with their table (it'd be good for people to write these on the whiteboard too. We haven't done enough graffiti discussion in a while). 

Then they fill in the same four questions about their mentor text (these could be side-by-side on the graphic organizer):

  • Which color is there most of at the beginning of your piece?
  • Which color is there most of in the middle of your piece?
  • Which color is there most of near the end of your piece?
  • Which color is there the most of overall?

This analysis would be less critical than the identification of the "golden descriptions", and I wouldn't want to spend too long on it, but I think it would lead to some interesting insights and conjectures. 

The key thing (and the part I often struggle with most) is to identify the characteristics of the "golden descriptions" that make them so effective. One question I've used in the past is "can the reader draw what you're describing, based on your description?" This is helpful for "showing, not telling", but less helpful for economical description using a single telling detail, and not at all helpful for metaphor and simile. It might be that what would be most helpful for this would be to start developing a taxonomy of "golden descriptions" over time. It might be that coming up with "categories" of descriptions is as helpful as coming up with "characteristics. 

So I'm not sure how best to identify the characteristics of these descriptions in such a way that students can put those characteristics in their own work and then easily check to see whether their work has them. This is something that Ron Berger makes look easy, but which I continually struggle with. 

However, students did this lesson and then just had time to work on making their descriptions more vivid based on the golden descriptions they identified in their mentor texts,  it would be a huge step forward from what happened today!

Last night I saw Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, live and on their own

I'm writing this particular post for one simple reason: I witnessed Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing piano together last night, and I want a record of it. 

First, the basics: the concert was at San Diego's Copley Symphony Hall, I was sitting dead center in the highest balcony. The stage had two grand pianos with their lids removed, set up so the players would face each other, with an synthesizer set up at a right angle to each piano (both set up to the right of the musician's right as he played piano, which meant Corea was facing away from the audience when he played synthesizer). There was a sign in the lobby indicating that there would be no intermission. The program said "program to be announced from the stage". 

Here's what my view looked like, just as the house lights were going down (I turned my phone off after this naturally):

The crowd greeted Hancock and Corea with a standing ovation. Normally I'm not a fan of this kind of knee-jerk effusiveness, but these two have earned it. The two of them walked out together from the same side of the stage, giving together the (probably accurate) impression that they'd just been hanging out and chatting until they got their cue. Hancock wore a sharply-tailored blue blazer and slacks - 100% the jazz elder statesman. Corea sported jeans and a denim jacket. I suspect he sometimes gets mistaken for Hancock's sound engineer. They stood at the front of the stage for the ovation, Corea giving three bowlegged curtseys, and then wordlessly sat at their pianos and started playing. 

I have no idea what they were playing - they had sheet music out (Hancock's propped on the music stand built into pianos for that purpose, Corea's set directly onto his piano's exposed interior) - but I don't think they were paying it the slightest bit of attention. This was two guys riffing off each other, building singular creations together and then transmuting them, and, much of the time, playing fast as hell. I want to own the evening in album form. I'm aware that the ephemeral one-offness of the music is part of the magic, but I want it anyway. 

After the second tune (or rather, the second shared improvisational journey - I'm looking for an unpretentious way to write it, but for the time being just take my word for it that it didn't feel pretentious in the venue) Corea got up, took off his denim jacket, and, in a gesture whose theatricality and opaqueness rivals Beckett's later work, pulled on a different jacket, this one with white sleeves, and sat back down again. Maybe the lights where hot but not quite tee-shirt weather, maybe this was just schtick. I have no idea. 

Three tunes in, one of them started playing the underlying riff from "All Blues". You could feel the crowd relaxing into recognition, but the players were having none of it - they twisted the chords and the rhythm (I should mention that the evening hardly ever had a "time signature" I'd want to try to count, it just had a pulse - Hancock and Corea, it appears, never need to count off unless there's someone else with them). Finally, they came back, played through the head of "All Blues", and shortly after, got up to talk to the crowd. Hancock admitted he was exhausted after a gig in San Francisco and four hours of sleep. Corea said "the older I get, the less sleep I need". The two of them consulted a chart and decided to play it. "We'll tell you what it is after we play it," they said. 

Hancock carefully set up the chart on his music stand, and the two of them tore into an extended improvisation that was DEFINITELY not charted out on two pages of sheet music. They finished, played something else, and then Corea said, "Oh yeah, we forgot to tell you, that was "Directions" by Joe Zawinul. It was a transitional piece for Miles's band. Herbie, when did you record it?"

"I never recorded it."

"Oh, OK, it was after your time? I never played it back then, so I just play it my own way."

Later on, Hancock told a story of calling Corea mid-recording session to play him a beautiful melody his band had just recorded, which he played for us on the piano, to illustrate the point. At the time, over the phone, he said "Chick, is that your tune?" 

At this point Corea spoke up: "I told him, 'No, that sounds like a Herbie Hancock tune to me.'"

They ended the set with "Maiden Voyage", which was as beautiful as you'd imagine (I've since found out they recorded "Maiden Voyage" together on two pianos back in 1978). I alternated between being transported by the music, and thinking "I cannot fricking believe I'm hearing Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea playing "Maiden Voyage"). 

Then, for their encore, Corea announced they needed the help from, the "San Diego Choir". He split the men into two parts and the women into three, to sing a chord together whenever he told us to (he voiced each note one by one each time he asked). The effect was beautiful and a bit silly all at once. Then it turned out they were playing "Concierto de Aranjuez", the first track off of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. Then this turned into a bossa tune I didn't recognize, and Corea started doing call and response with the entire crowd, playing a bossa nova riff on the piano and having us sing it back. He passed this over to Hancock, whose harmonic explorations got increasingly baroque, causing some audience consternation, then brought it back for the big finish. 

Both of them stayed out onstage when the lights came up, shaking hands and signing autographs. I rushed down from the balcony and made it just has Hancock was leaving but Corea stayed. I got a picture of him, chatting to fans (wearing the evening's second jacket):

Maybe this is why I never seem to have enough time...

I like to think of myself as a fairly adept manager of my time. I pomodoro (Kanban Flow is my site, since you asked), I use Google Tasks, and yet I've spent the past two months (since Spring Break, specifically) feeling several days and several dollars short, constantly.

I just gained some insight into why. It is currently after school, and I am in my office. I sat down with the intention of entering some (long-overdue) scores into the grade book. Here's what I did instead:

I spent a half an hour skimming the Slice Harvester blog (in which one man tries a slice from every pizza place in Manhattan) looking for a review that didn't include harsh profanity or references to past drug use, so I could share it with a student as a model for the piece he's writing comparing chicken wings from two different chains. 

I know that this stuff matters. I learned to write well by reading exciting writing by adults I wanted to emulate. I never once found this writing in a textbook. But I loved writing since before I could write. Most people aren't like this. Most of the people I knew at school weren't like this. My students need a living, breathing mentor who can guide them towards the writers who can become their mentors. 

On the other hand, when I could have been checking that work is being done on our project, I was skimming blog posts about pizza. And now I'm blogging about it. 

So, not quite the time manager I like to imagine I am. 

Oh, and here's the blog post I eventually shared with the student. Yes, the comments are profane, but when are comments ever not?

Surviving drought is a 21st-century skill (#28daysofwriting)

Scientists at NASA reported today that the Western United states may experience decades-long "mega-droughts" in the near future because of rising carbon levels in the atmosphere. San Diego, where I live, is dry at the best of times. Right now, this makes it seem like a paradise, but you need to be living in a time of extraordinary abundance for a place where it "hardly ever rains" to sound like a paradise. For most of human history, living somewhere where it "hardly ever rains" would have been a nightmare. 

This line of thinking leads quickly to questions like "What happens if we all need to leave? Where do we go?" And, because I'm in my thirties, "Will I seriously regret it if I buy property?" More generally, it gets me thinking about how when I look around at the planet, the places where basic natural resources in short supply tend to be pretty violent. Which is all a roundabout way of saying that I am exceptionally pessimistic about the likelihood of the world forty or fifty years from now being a place I want to live in. For one thing, my country's strides in social justice, equality, tolerance, and just plain safety for its citizens correlate closely with the unprecedented prosperity, material abundance, and physical comfort of the last century. For another, I can't find very many positive examples of large groups of humans going from a time of abundance to a time of scarcity, without a lot of violence. 

Here's where this is going: when educators talk about "21st century skills", we usually assume that these involve the internet. But the internet is the ultimate product of cheap energy and global stability - it works because lots and lots of servers never get switched off, and because an exceptionally complex international network of cables, satellites, and dishes is being maintained. So I just don't feel confident that the internet as we know it is here to stay. That isn't to say that I don't think it's possible that the kind of innovation we've become used to will continue on indefinitely into the future, I just think it's very possible that it won't.  

I think "21st century skills" are at least as likely to be the skills that make it possible to maintain a resilient, civil community that respects the strongest and the weakest equally, at a time when there is less of everything to go around. 

I know this is an exceptionally depressing blog post, and one that is bound to upset people. I really, really, really am not writing it looking for a fight. Rather, I'm writing it because I feel like I spend most of my time suppressing these anxieties and avoiding thinking about them, and I want to acknowledge them in the hope that I can find a way forward. Right now I feel like I'm assuming a future that I don't, based on the data I have, actually  think is very likely, and that seems like a problem. 

When the authenticity gets left out (#28daysofwriting)

Today was our "interview day": from 9:00-11:00, all 150 members of the eleventh grade were interviewed by potential employers for the four-week internships they will undertake in May-June. As you can imagine, the school was buzzing. In my classroom and my teaching partner's classroom (which - by tremendous good fortune - were the only eleventh grade classrooms not being used for interviews) students were doing last-minute research into the companies that were interviewing them, perfecting and printing their résumés and cover letters, and asking each other interview questions.* In the halls, students (dressed to the nines, of course) were walking to their interviews, or sitting outside classrooms waiting to be called. 

Now, things did not run entirely smoothly: the schedule shifted dramatically overnight due to changes made by the organizations that were coming, so some students arrived at school to discover that they were being interviewed by different companies (sometimes in different fields) from the ones they had prepared for. Some interviewers were trying to leave early, and calling students in over a half hour ahead of schedule. Others did not show up until hours after they were scheduled (or at all). Here's the thing: the students took it all in stride. When they needed to, they rewrote cover letters to suit their new companies and reprinted them, the halls were calm all morning despite being criss-crossed by adrenaline-fueled kids clutching their résumés, and students kept it together after they were finished, even though they were buzzing so much that - to give one example - I conducted one informal debrief with a student while the person next to her literally spun in circles in order to shake off her extra energy. 

That was the morning, and it was amazing.

In the afternoon, we decided to do an hour of humanities and an hour of biology. We'd devoted all of Monday to preparing for interviews, half hour students will be gone tomorrow on a trip to San Francisco for College Day, on Thursday we'll all be gone for College Day, and it's a four-day weekend. And there are subject-specific things we need to do. For example, my students finished reading The Fault in Our Stars over the weekend. I hadn't realized how brief this week would be when I scheduled this, but today is the only chance we had to talk about the book until next Tuesday, a full seven days from now. 

During the afternoon, the students were not especially focused. Of course, there were lots of reasons for this: they were exhausted, half of them were departing for San Francisco either in the afternoon or at midnight, we hadn't discussed the book on Monday so it wasn't fresh in their minds, and my discussion plan was sub-awesome. I know all that. But no matter what, there's no way that lesson would have engaged students like they were engaged this morning, despite the fact that the sum total of guidance they received from me was a single Google slide with seven tasks on it. 

What made the morning magical was authentic purpose.

The students really, really cared about these interviews. Internship is a big deal, and they know it. Last Friday they did "speed dating" with 12th graders to find out about the internships they did last year. Everything they were doing had an authentic purpose. The afternoon had a purpose - I really wanted them to develop a richer understanding of The Fault in Our Stars and, via that (let's be honest about my hopes) their own lives, their place in the world, and what it means to live a good life) (you can see the blog here - I think their insights have been awesome). But even for students who had a lot to say about the book, there was no authentic purpose like walking on to an interview with a stranger who might offer them a job that could, potentially, show them the career they want to pursue. 

A constant struggle for me is how to combine the sense of authentic purpose that we had this morning (which invariably comes with a certain amount of tunnel-vision as students keep their eyes in the prize) with rich, and sometimes meandering engagement with big, often abstract questions of the sort that we tackle when we engage with literature. 

*to see how we prepared in detail, look my "what we did today" page for today and yesterday

Running and Reading (#28daysofwriting)

This post is about reading, I promise. Just bear with me for a moment first.

I have two prosthetic heart valves. Or rather, I have a cluster of heart defects, of which the prosthetic heart valves are the most striking and easiest to explain. This rarely impinges on my life in any significant way, but it does affect my ability to run. I've been thinking about this recently, because I've started jogging. This is something I've done off-and-on ever since I was a teenager, and I've developed some hitherto-unspoken personal rules:

1. I never jog with a group.
I'm too hyper-aware of my limitations. I may have actually first become vividly aware of the disparity between my experience and most people's in 11th grade, when my AP English teacher wrote a sentence example in which she confessed "While some people can run 10 or 15 miles, I get out of breath after a measly two-mile jog." I remember thinking "Whoa, hang on. Two miles is measly?"

The summer after that, I went to a summer arts camp (OK, strictly speaking I was in the jazz band, so make all relevant jokes here). I ran a mile and a half every morning with my almost literally indefatigable friend Kyle (who was on the track team at his school) and several slower people. I was by far the slowest, but I could run most of it, and I felt great the rest of the day. That camp was a "safe space" in pretty much every sense, such as I haven't experienced since, and it was, not coincidentally, the only time in my life I've run in a group. Today, I don't have any desire to set off with a group of people who  and I know that other people will find it hard to understand that motivational exhortations will have no affect when I just can't draw the air I need to get up that next hill. 

The only person I run with is my wife, and even with her, the knowledge that she may accidentally set an unattainable standard just by running a normal distance at a normal pace stresses me out a bit. 

When it comes to pickup sports, it's a little different - I can normally hide my deficient running, and I am frequently (and contentedly) the least skilled person who's actually willing to join in. I'm all right with that - it's the stark, unforgiving linearity of running in a group and getting left behind that bothers me.  

2. I don't set myself any target beyond "to the streetlight at the end of this block"
My jogging mantra is "whatever I'm doing right now is better than doing nothing", so I always set myself an extremely modest goal, give myself permission not to meet it, and then incrementally ratchet it up if I feel OK having achieved it. I sometimes use a distance-tracking app on my phone, but I've made sure never to let it develop expectations based on my past performance. The idea of having a standard to hit and exceed alarms me. 

3. I don't really want to get better at running
What I mean by this is that being able to run for longer stretches at a time seems like a terrible prize for improving my fitness. Seriously, why would I want to spend more of my time doing this? This also applies to the running adage that "the first mile is the worst". I've noticed that I often feel more able to run at the end of a run than I did at the beginning, but the last thing I want to do, having just done my time, is to keep going! 

So here's why I'm writing about running: I'm certain that everything I've just written about running applies to reading for some of my students, and this is raising big questions for me about how I should be supporting them. 

The "All Time Greatest Panel" Exhibition, and this project's two axes of content #28daysofwriting

Left to right: Amelia Earhart, Cesar Chavez, Susan B. Anthony

Students started arriving early into the classroom, some already in costume, most carrying bags and asking if they should get changed yet (the answer was an emphatic "yes"). The pair of Frederick Douglasses were tearing up a length of burgundy tulle into what they made into excellent-looking cravates. I was relieved that I'd taken the time to arrange the classes so thoroughly last night - the arrangement of the room established expectations and provided clear channels for the energy buzzing in the room. Here's what the classroom looked like before school, with a shot taken from behind the back tables (the tables set up for the note-takers) - all arranged, but empty:

 And heres's a close-up of two panellists' place-settings:

Our guests of honor were fifth graders from High Tech Elementary, who arrived with clipboards and a note-catcher. They were focused on studying our exhibition, because they are in the early stages of planning a US History exhibition of their own. You can see them watching the panel here:

I'll have a lot more to say about the exhibition after I debrief it with the students tomorrow, but tonight I'm focusing on a single component of it: the "two axes of content". 

I'm focusing on this because of an interesting dichotomy: the characters' "opening statements", in which they introduced themselves and touched on the issues within the State of the Union that they were most preoccupied by, were excellent. However, the discussion that followed tended to be stilted and a bit shallow. 

One reason for this was that we were better prepared for the opening statements. Students had studied my prototype opening statement (you can see the process on slides 12-13 of this presentation, and they had critiqued each other's first drafts using this note-catcher

We'd done "practice discussions" too, but never as deliberately as we prepared the opening statement.

However, there was a bigger problem that wasn't clear to me until the discussion started: students didn't understand the issues in the depth required to discuss them meaningfully, particularly "in character". We hadn't addressed the nuances of, for example, the implications of a minimum wage increase on different parts of the country, so there wasn't scope for depth in the discussion. I'd thought of the students as "skilled at discussion" because they are adept at hosting their own Socratic Seminars, but these are always focused on a single text focused on a single issue, rather than on an array of different issues, as this one. I visualize the content knowledge required in order to be a part of a discussion like this as two axes - like this: 
What makes sense now is that we need to attend to these two axes individually before bringing them together. Next year, my plan is to start studying the issues that are likely to be in the State of the Union as soon as we get back from Winter Break, and to make bingo cards with our predictions for issues that will be covered in the State of the Union. We'll then watch the address and play issue bingo, and THEN, we'll start talking about which historical figure everyone wants to portray.

Day 2 down! At some point I intend to write something with an intended audience other than "me", but no promises.