“It's Hard When You're Young:” What the Chainsmokers Taught Me About Teaching (and Reaching) Generation Z
I attended my first rave last night. Well, as much of a rave as a 49 year-old mother is willing to attend (and endure). It was a Chainsmokers concert that my teenage son graciously allowed me to accompany him to here in Cleveland. (And by “accompany him” I mean he “let me pay for the tickets" and "let me drive him there and back.”) Nevertheless, we had a blast: he bounced and sang along, and I bounced and sang along, too--a Gen Xer sticking out among the Generation Z crowd like a...well, like a mom at a Chainsmokers concert.
But being who I am, I also observed. I couldn’t help it. It’s what I do.
The Facebook Generation vs. The Snapchat Generation
The profound age difference between me and everyone else first hit when I started taking videos and photos with my phone. My intention was to upload them to my go-to social media outlet--which for us Gen Xers is Facebook. And then I noticed that everyone else around me was uploading to their go-to social media outlet--which is Snapchat. I should mention here that I have a Snapchat account; it’s infrequently used, but I have one. My sons have been (im)patiently teaching me how to use it. (I taught them how to tie their shoes. It’s the least they can do to return the favor.)
I’ll admit it: I really, sincerely admire and adore post-Millennials, a.k.a. the Internet Generation, a.k.a. Generation Z. While others may complain about their short attention spans, their self-involvement, their digital media obsession, there are those of us who are intrigued by them, who celebrate them, who believe they will change the world. This past October, I was invited to deliver a keynote at NEOTIE about today’s learners entitled “TBH...It’s Time to Meet Learners Where They Are,” a talk designed to help educators understand how this group--digital since diapers--requires us to transform the way we teach if we hope to keep connecting with them. It was my favorite of any of my presentations, mostly because I loved what I learned about this oft-maligned group.
Due to my admiration of this generation and because they’ve taught this old dog more than a few new tricks, I started emulating those around me at the concert by uploading videos and pics to share later on Facebook, but I also started Snapchatting my Chainsmokers story.
That was my first A-ha! moment: It was so much easier and so much quicker to share what I was experiencing in the moment instead of collecting media to share later in a post that featured what had already happened. Sort of like live-Tweeting, but better. (By the way, it’s no coincidence that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have also added their own stories or memories feature to their platforms. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.)
This living-in-the-moment attitude and not being burdened down with “stuff” is indicative of a generation of kids who, like it or not, are globally-connected, socially aware, and have influenced and developed their own media language mostly consisting of visuals and acronyms, and who have resolved to do things differently.
Okay, enough adulation. I don’t want to lose those of you who still need some convincing about these kiddos. Suffice it to say, my foray into Snapchat got me thinking about other A-ha! moments: How can we reach today’s learners?
EMBRACE THE (R)EVOLUTION
The Chainsmokers are both revolutionary and evolutionary. They’re an EDM-pop crossover DJ duo who rose to fame by first making remixes of independent bands and then by collaborating with recording artists to write their own original songs. I mean, they’re not even true musicians, as historically defined, really. They’re DJs. (I couldn’t believe I was going to spend good money watching two dudes spin records, as I explained to my son months ago.) However, the DJ duo, Alex Pall and Drew Taggert, started experimenting in 2015, writing their own songs, and then--eventually--singing them. They’re now playing instruments, and have added a drummer and a classical pianist to the mix. As educators, we need to get on board with that same mentality: we can’t keep doing things the way we’ve always done them just for the sake of continuity or because we’re afraid to try something new. We need to get out from behind the record player and try to spin something new.
STOP SAVING & START LIVING
Snapchat stories only last 24 hours--that’s it. I wondered, Why wouldn’t you want to post these memories to, say, Facebook, so that you could have them forever? (Neither one of my sons have a Facebook account. They laugh at me when I suggest it to them: Ummm…yeah. Like I want a “Mom-book” account.) Just so you know, you can save photos and videos in Snapchat to your camera roll, but to this generation, it’s important to live in the moment--to experience the next thing instead of holding on to the past. As educators, the lesson we can learn from this is that we should learn to live in the moment, too. Toss out those file cabinets we’ve hoarded of outdated study guides and tried-and-true lesson plans. Get rid of all the posters, anchor charts, and other hanging crap on our walls and bulletin boards. Strip it down. Get current. Keep it simple. Surf the ‘Net for videos, photos, articles, and memes that speak to today--not to five or ten or fifteen years ago.
WE'VE GOT TO MIX IT UP
The Chainsmokers’ setlist from last night featured their singles, but it also pulled in a whole bunch of yummy goodness from other tracks by the Killers, Panic! at the Disco, the Notorious B.I.G., and one of my personal faves--Coldplay. That’s what DJs do: they mix it up. They don’t just spin one record; they spin an amalgam of them. How many of us still own LPs? My vinyl has been donated or sold. As educators, let's think more and think often about pulling from other content areas and genres to teach: Grab a video from Vevo as a conversation-starter; open up Spotify and create a playlist of songs relevant to the subject matter (or even better--let the kids do it!); let them respond to a class question in Twitter. Stop playing just that one single like a broken record. (Pun intended.)
LET THEM TAKE A #SELFIE
OMG, the selfies. Tons of them, everywhere last night. The Chainsmokers gained initial fame with their 2014 hit #SELFIE--a sardonic yet hilarious look at the selfie phenomenon--but it speaks to a generation of students who need to see themselves. Why they do it isn’t important. Maybe we should instead ask, How can we as educators get students to see themselves in their learning? Most learning is teacher-directed and teacher-assigned. What if we instead provided for more choice and voice in assignments? What types of things would they create? What if we allowed them to pursue and/or construct their learning paths? Of course, we still need to teach the standards, but do we need to do so in such a rigidly-structured manner: lectures, quizzes, and tests? What if we asked our students: How would you like to show what you know?
ACT LIKE A DJ
Okay, so with all this talk of changing it up, I’d like to address the fact that without DJs--the music would come to a screeching halt. [Insert record scratch sound effect here.] Teachers: you’re the DJ. Keep the beat going. You still have to curate the songs and the song clips. They still need us. We are still important. But could we maybe change the song every once in awhile?
CHAMPION CREATIVITY OVER CONSUMPTION
The Chainsmokers didn’t wait around hoping to be discovered by a music industry executive. They made their music and uploaded it to SoundCloud, an open music and audio platform that allows our globally-connected post-Millennials to discover breakthrough artists and to connect with them. From there, the audience grew. The Chainsmokers created their own content, published it, and shared it. In contrast, we often tend to assign one task with a very rigid and specific set of directions based on the notes and lectures we have fed to our students. Do you have any idea how many of your students have published their own work to YouTube or SoundCloud already? Allow opportunities for them to do so in the classroom. What about a video essay (vessay) instead of an essay? What about letting them write a song that exemplifies the tone or mood of an historical era?
LET THE BEAT DROP
I once read something somewhere (I think it was a blog post by George Couros) that asked Would you want to be a student in your own classroom? In other words, are we having fun? Are we engaged? Are we active? When the “beat drops” in a song by the Chainsmokers and other EDM groups, it signals a pause before a major shift in beat or tempo--usually something big and loud and crazy and fun. Like this. Do we let the beat drop in our classrooms? Do we provide some spectacle, something big, something to let our students know that the best is yet to come? Are our hooks “hooky” enough? Learning should be fun. Lectures make it not so much. Dave Burgess is onto something.
WE'VE GOT TO REMIX IT, TOO
Last night, the Chainsmokers’ played their hit “It Won’t Kill Ya” in two (or was it three?) different versions, or what are commonly called remixes. A remix is a different interpretation of a musical recording. The result is something that has hints of the original, but may have a completely different meaning. I immediately connected with the Notorious B.I.G. version of the song; my son (who by the way, loves remixes; he’s on SoundCloud all the time looking for remixes of his favorite songs) preferred the trap remix of the original. Not all remixes are for everyone, however. But to reach an audience equally, we have to consider that not every audience member is equal. And that’s why differentiation is so utterly important. We can’t have a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to instruction and learning. Regardless of how we feel about differentiation in education, we have to take the end game (the learner) into account. How are we providing different avenues for learning?
CONNECT & COLLABORATE
Take a look at the Chainsmokers’ songs. While Alex has taken on some singing responsibilities, a number of their songs feature contributing vocals from other artists such as Emily Warren, Halsey, Daya, and Chris Martin from Coldplay, to name a few. Indicative of the generation who loves them, the Chainsmokers aren’t shy in reaching out to connect with others they don’t know. For example, the story goes that the duo, hearing through the grapevine that Coldplay was a fan of their music, simply reached out to them about the possibility of working together. That’s it. We need to reach across the hallway, across the building, across the campus of our schools and districts to collaborate with other teachers instead of teaching within the isolated four walls of our classrooms. Hell, we need to reach out across the globe, using Twitter, Skype, and Google Hangouts to connect with experts, authors, congressional representatives, and scientists. Let’s show our students that their reach should exceed their grasp and that collaborating leads to creation.
IT'S OKAY TO SOMETIMES INTRODUCE THEM TO THE OLDIES BUT THE GOODIES
While before the concert, much of the Chainsmokers’ music was unknown to me--except for what I heard on the car radio--it was comforting to hear the inclusion of music with which I was familiar. Last night’s setlist included snippets of, as I mentioned, the Killers, Panic! at the Disco, The Verve, and Biggie himself. On the drive home, I was provided the opportunity, then, to introduce those artists to my son. Our students don’t know everything, and while they may have access to everything via the Internet, they still need guides to help them figure out what’s important. What we know is still important.
We have a lot to learn from the Generation Z crowd--if we’re listening to them. Oh, by the way...the title of this post? It’s a Chainsmokers song. (Here’s my Spotify playlist of the setlist.) And while my Snapchat story has expired since last night, be sure to follow me for new ones. I’m still true to my GenX roots, though, and that’s why you’ll find my pictures on Facebook, too. I’m happy to embrace both worlds. 😀
Go drop your mic!
I overheard the following exchange between two junior-high students yesterday. (I wasn’t actively eavesdropping; simply trying to navigate the hallway between classes..sort of like a salmon swimming upstream.)
Student #1: Dude, I heard we have a sub for English.
Student #2: Awesome. That means we’ll have no work to do.
At that point, I was able to jump my salmon run for the upper river, but the students’ terse yet thought-provoking conversation got me thinking: what is it about a sub situation that prods kiddos to equate a substitute teacher with a free-for-all? There’s still a task to be addressed, work to be completed, and an outcome to be achieved. It’s not like it’s a study hall or a three-ring circus or an ecstasy-infused rave, right? (Okay, I know the kids think it will be, but the amount of work on a teacher’s part that goes into prepping for a substitute is almost more work than taking the personal or professional day. Simply recalling that time I had jury duty causes me to break out into a cold sweat as I write this.)
As I tend to do, I started to overthink it. Was the comment by Student #2 a passing, not-so-serious one? Or did it speak to something greater and more problematic with the whole notion of substitution?
In algebraic terms, substitution refers to simply putting numbers where the letters are. For example, What is x + x/5 when x = 15? If we substitute x for 15 in the equation, we arrive at the following: 15 + 15/3 = 15 + 5 = 20.
The final equation looks different, but it’s essentially the same thing--just dressed in a different costume. (Like a substitute teacher.)
If you’re lactose intolerant, you can opt for rice milk or soy milk as a substitute for dairy. The act of substitution here takes the place of another. In this instance, however--as those of us lucky to not be lactose intolerant know--no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise, there’s really no substitute for from-the-cow milk, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise. I’m not denigrating the lactose-intolerant; I myself am peanut intolerant, and no amount of chocolate-covered, roasted edamame is going to be as salty and satisfying as a Snickers bar--or so I discovered the one time I ingested one. (And by the way, it was so worth it.)
As I also tend to do, I’ve now wandered off my intended path and into the woods (or out of my stream and into a tributary, if I’m still going with the salmon metaphor). Anyway, my point here is that no matter how PC or self-delusional we choose to be, let’s face it: a substitute (whether it’s a teacher, algebra, soy, or roasted edamame) is never really quite as good as the real thing.
Which brings me to the S in SAMR...
If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, I’m guessing you’ve probably spent the last five years or so trapped under a house (and in that case, you’ve got more pressing concerns than an acronym), or that it’s been on your radar and you haven’t gotten around to exploring it just yet. If that’s the case then, and before you read any further, I strongly encourage you to watch this quick and painless overview of SAMR.
Here’s the thing, though. I see a lot of us stepping onto that first rung of the ladder--the S (or substitution) level--patting ourselves on the back, and setting up camp there. In other words, we take what was once a paper worksheet and transfer it into a Google Doc. Or we exchange Google Forms for our paper quizzes. Or (and I swear I’ve seen this) we use Google Classroom to post our recycled Word Docs from last-year-at-the-same-time’s weekly homework.
There’s nothing wrong with taking that first step on the ladder. But when we stay there, either afraid to or unable to or unwilling to climb higher, then we’ve created an old classroom in a new way.
The psychiatric definition of substitution is the "turning from an obstructed form of behavior to a different and often more primitive expression of the same tendency" [emphasis mine]. Here, the "obstructed form of behavior" is the paper version; the "same tendency" is the idea that making something digital makes it new.
While we may create digital tasks to replace the paper ones, we’re still doing old things. We’re doing them differently, sure, but we’re not doing them in a challenging or engaging manner. A digital worksheet is still just a worksheet.
We need to modify and redefine our tasks instead of substituting them, and we can do that by heeding the call of 21st-century learning: strive for creativity and collaboration. Let’s take a book report, for example. Instead of typing it into a Google Doc (substitution) and having students use Easy Bib or a thesaurus add-on in conjunction with it (augmentation), encourage them to work collaboratively in Google Slides to create a literary walk (modification). Even better: allow them to use a video tool of their choice to create a book trailer (redefinition).
Substitution is a poor imitation of the original. (And just to be clear: I’m not book-ending this post by saying substitute teachers are a poor imitation. I’ve known some pretty amazing substitute teachers, as I’m sure you have.) When it comes to digital task design, however, we need to dump the substitute, because--and I quote--there’s really “no work to do.”
Most substitute teachers, though, aspire to something more--to have their own classrooms. And that’s how we should view the S in SAMR: it’s a good place to start; but let’s not get stuck there.
Let’s aspire to something greater.
Learning Designer. Instructional Coach. Trainer. Working my hardest to create Teacher-Bordered Classrooms.