The Mask and the Task: How Martin Landau helped me in my classroom

From Youtube:CosmicHobo

Elena Maria Del Barra: Señor, uh, Miller, how long have you been selling laboratory equipment?

Rollin Hand: Oh, long enough to know that I can sell you.

This year my classroom will be run like an RPG.  A lot of it has to do with millions of hours of video game play, but a fair amount goes to Rollin Hand. The classic television series, “Mission:Impossible” has influenced the way I have conducted my classes for a while.  As I embraced design thinking more and more, “Mission: Impossible” provided a blueprint for planning versus a plan and solution seeking behaviors.  It was Landau’s character (Seasons 1-3) that is in many ways my patron saint.



Rollin Hand is such a great character because his function in the Impossible Mission Force is generally to be someone else.  Whether through use of make up and prosthetics or by assuming another identity, Hand slips effortlessly between personas, convincing even most hardened counter espionage agents that he was the “Real McCoy.”

But what does this have to do with education?

1. A “Confidence” Scheme

To solve problems, one must have the confidence necessary that one can find a solution.  To achieve my goal, I have to believe it.  In show after show, Rollin walks into certain doom with air of confidence that he’s not playing a character, HE IS THE CHARACTER.

Many times it’s necessary to think like someone else in order to ascertain possible answers to questions.  Students (and teachers) should be comfortable enough to know that thinking like “myself” might not solve the problem, but if I were to think like Maryam Mirzakhani, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Ken Burns, I might be more successful.  Having the “masks” available can result in divergent thought.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon educators to offer a myriad of stratagems, archetypes, and “characters” to choose from when working in class.  There is no one way to reason through a solution.  Concepts like challenge based learning, project based learning, and design thinking are “open worlds” where students can be free to try on different masks in order to be successful.

This also frees us from the “I’m not good at blank ” excuse.   That’s great that you’re not good at math.  Let’s put on our Mirzakhani mask and try this thing, again.

2. The Mask Should Match the Task

This also forces students (and teachers) to consider the “mask for the task.” Which character do I need to become in order to be successful in this particular enterprise? Why would I choose to think like this particular person as opposed to another? Could I take different aspects of different people in order to find solutions?

The metacognition is oft mentioned, but undervalued.  Having conversations and structures in place that organize thought processes in classrooms is imperative if students are to see themselves as successful.

3. Following the Leader

Everything’s a remix. Season 4 of Mission:Impossible opens with Landau and Barbara Bain absent.  Landau is replaced by Leonard Nimoy’s Paris, a character with a similar bent for disguise.  He performs the same function.

When we see people employ a strategy that works, we all want to try it.  Having students observe how others work, converse with one another, and employ new strategies allows all stakeholders in your classrooms to access the strategies that lead to triumph.  Observing how a peer uses the “right mask” for the job, makes it less of a competitive unapproachable task, and more of one that able to be grasped.


Writer’s Block: What two teachers taught me through writing

Last night, I taught an after school Professional Development class that centered on the use of mobile devices in school. I didn’t really stay on topic. I used the class as an opportunity to talk about design and Design Thinking. We used the movie Zoolander to illustrate my points. As I reflected on the class on my way home, I contemplated the genesis of my presentation style. I thought about two very different teachers from high school.

I began my high school journey at Banneker Academic High School, a rather small school in Washington D.C. After my sophomore year of high school, I transferred schools to the behemoth Parkdale High in Riverdale, MD. For my first two years of high school, I was taught social studies by a rather hip, young, new teacher, Mr. Nicholson. He got me. A Korean American from the Midwest, he was still as quintessentially urban as I was and his authenticity was impressive. He introduced me to the McLaughlin Group (which I still watch) and we had to write plenty of essays. He found ways to “humanize” our content so that it was relevant. He was also my basketball coach.

Nick was that he allowed me to write in my own voice, which I later realized was not necessarily true of all teachers. I used to fill my essays with colloquialisms and quotes from rap artists to buttress my point of view. In this “pre-blog” era, I was always assessed on the strength of my arguments and the evidence used to justify them, not the form those arguments took. I’ve always appreciated that and I strived to allow students to use their own voice when writing in my class.

When I arrived at Parkdale, I was lost in a sea of bodies. My classes were overcrowded. My ability to learn was compromised by the sheer number of people that were crammed into what seemed to be a rather limited space. I was placed in the University Program, a rather gimmicky concoction created to make parents (and students?) believe that academic rigor was occurring. It most certainly was not.

I did, however, have the good fortune of being placed in the history class of one, Thomas Vogeley. Mr. Vogeley was the antithesis of Mr. Nicholson. There was nothing “hip” about him. He wore faded jeans and a corduroy shirt daily. His hair was slicked back into a pony-tail. He would often look over his thin rimmed glasses when he spoke.

He conducted his class as if it was a story. He didn’t really lecture as much as he spun a tale about events that allowed you access them in a fashion similar to Mr. Nicholson. It was easy to grasp history because he recounted it as if he had actually been present at the events and he had a personal stake in their outcome.

Mr. Vogeley was fond of assigning essays and I, believing that my voice mattered, wrote is much the same style as I did with Mr. Nicholson. My essays came back as if they had met Jack the Ripper. He remarked that my style was not suited for academic writing and that I should “lose myself” (word to Marshall Mathers). I was initially greatly perturbed by this, but it wasn’t as if I lacked the ability to acquiesce to his demands, simply the will to do so.

I did change and that change sparked Mr. Vogeley to advocate for my inclusion in the International Baccalaureate Program. Eventually, I was placed in smaller, more rigorous classes and graduated with an IB Diploma. I had the pleasure of being instructed by Mr. Vogeley for two years. I wrote an essay about his influence and was granted a scholarship from McDonald’s during my senior year. Like Mr. Nicholson, my current teaching practice owe’s Mr. Vogeley quite a bit. I strive to make sure that my students know the rules first…then try to break them.

Mr. Nicholson and Mr. Vogeley both profoundly impacted the way that I facilitate my classroom. I take much of my fierce defense of individualism from my experience in Nick’s class, but my insistence on familiarity with form and structure from Mr. Vogeley. I am forever in the debt of both of these gentlemen.