My family loves watching American Ninja Warrior. It’s something I don’t cringe at my kids watching, and there’s something novel about it. The ever-changing obstacles. The wacky costumes some of them wear. The stories behind the competitors.
In fact, my kids even turned our hallway into a horizontal spider climb, complete with a flashlight as a spotlight. I was pretty impressed and let them compete for the next two hours. (Their father was not as impressed and made them stop.)
What if our classrooms were a little more like American Ninja Warrior? Not with spider climbs or spotlights–actually, I’m thinking a spotlight in my classroom is a great idea. I submit to you that a little American Ninja Warrior may not be such a bad idea in our classrooms.
- Competitors support each other.
More than in any other sport, the competitors in American Ninja Warrior support each other. They cheer and scream when the others succeed at a new and challenging obstacle. When the Bull conquered the Cannonball Alley for the first time–as a rookie–the entire crowd, including each competitor who had failed on that obstacle screamed in shock and thrill. What if we had that kind of support among classmates in our rooms? Maybe a little less audible screaming, but I’d love to see my students encouraging and supporting each other like ninja warriors.
- Variety–but in a predictable format
On every Ninja Warrior course (before the ultimate course at Vegas, Mt. Midoriyama), a 14-foot-warped wall towers over its competitors, taunting them to make it to the top. At the end of every city finals, a 25-foot spider climb looms, where competitors have to use their leg and arm strength to scurry up by bracing themselves against the walls. There’s a sense of assuredness about these obstacles. They’re givens. Each course also follows a pattern in its sequence, starting with the stagger steps. A balance-testing obstacle will always show up as the second or third obstacle. The later 4th and 5th obstacles will test upper-body strength. While these obstacles change, what they’re testing doesn’t change.
And that’s what American Ninja Warrior accomplishes so well. A balance between the expected and unexpected. Our curriculum has to be the same. Students (and teachers, too) love doing something new. They don’t want the same thing every unit or module. Yet, they want to feel an underlying rhythm or purpose. In every unit, my students will encounter vocabulary, literature, non-fiction, writing, and discussion. Those are givens, something they get used to. However, I try to change up vocabulary reviews: we use Memrise one unit, perhaps Quizlet the next. Or I’ll give them the choice between two of them. Or maybe they can play the Heads Up app by Ellen DeGeneres for part of the period.
- A welcoming of all types
Competitors have come dressed in gold lamme, tie dye, and doctor’s scrubs. They’ve dressed as Trojans and chickens. American Ninja Warrior welcomes everyone, no matter how crazy you dress or act.
But that’s just the American Ninja Warrior way. It welcomes rock climbers and breakdancers, surgeons and maintenance men, stuntmen and English teachers, 20-something gym rats and grandfathers. It doesn’t matter what your background is–the ninja warriors will embrace you. And what a great culture to have in a classroom–an all-inclusive, everyone-belongs culture.
- Reviewing the course before embarking on it!
Before their runs, competitors may walk beside the course, analyze the obstacles, see the entire course as a whole. But before anyone runs, course officials explain the requirements of each obstacle and what can get a competitor disqualified. For example, if even a big toe touches the water–you’re disqualified.
My point is that students should see the big picture of what they’re learning. Let’s lay the unit out in front of them. A map, whether a flow chart or even a list of assignments. At the very least, displaying the list of essential questions for the unit. Let’s show students where we’re going and what will be expected of them.
- Feedback by watching others
Like it or not, our society has become accustomed to immediate feedback. Critics complain that the next generation needs to learn patience, but the truth is, I think we all want immediacy, regardless of age. I once had a vacuum cleaner that had two lights, green and red. If the carpet was dirty, the red light came on. Once it was clean, it turned green. Immediate feedback. Vacuuming became like playing a video game.
Perhaps I digress.
American Ninja Warrior allows all competitors to watch each other. When one warrior falters, the others learn from them and adapt their own strategies. There’s no mocking, no trash talking. It’s a culture where competitors use the mistakes of others to improve their own performance.
At the end of every course, competitors must hit the red button. This red button serves a logistical purpose: it stops the clock. (ANW does track the times of each run, though the focus is really on completion of the course.)
But the red button does so much more than that. Pushing that red button is a celebration, a declaration that the competitor has conquered the course and is now a master. That’s something we need in our classrooms, too. Whether it’s sticking a badge to a folder, moving a game piece along on a course map, or a celebration day, we need to recognize students. What’s more important, too, is that they need to have a hand in that celebration. They need to stick that badge to their folder, move their own game piece, plan their own celebrations. They need to be the ones to hit that red button.
Saying that I want my classroom to look more like American Ninja Warrior (sans the Warped Wall and Cannonball Alley) is the easy part. Making it so is hard, and I don’t have the answers. What I do know is I need to be more organized to make my classroom more transparent to students and parents so they can see the course that lies in front of them. I need to be more immediate with my own feedback to students. And creating a culture of acceptance, of collaboration (not piggybacking), and of supporting each other through the obstacles of learning.
It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth it for my students’ education.