“I bore easily. Not because I’m on some spectrum, but because I hear so many conversations again and again… A lot of comedians are very, very similar. So I’ve always said, ‘Okay, what if the thing that everybody’s talking about is wrong?’… You keep notes. You look for the recurring. What’s not going away? Boy, this police-brutality thing — it seems to be lingering. What’s going to happen here? You don’t even have the joke, you just say, ‘Okay, what’s the new angle that makes me not sound like a preacher?’ Forget being a comedian, just act like a reporter. What’s the question that hasn’t been asked?“
That’s Chris Rock, in an interview. He’s saying he’s paying attention to what material is clicking with audiences in general, but he’s not satisfied with the standard “angle” on a topic. He’s convinced that he can take something that’s rich in comedic potential and find a better angle that turns good material into a great bit.
Rock has nailed the art of great teaching. Like comedy, teaching is about so much more than having great material. In comedy, a funny bit is only funny if it’s told a certain way, in a certain order, with a certain timing, with a certain delivery. Mess with those things, even slightly, and the bit falls apart, even despite good material. That’s what makes comedy impossibly hard and a joy to watch professionals at the top of their game. The only thing more fun? Seeing the teacher who nails a lesson in the same way.
So think of the math problems that have withstood the test of time: phone plans, pile patterns, trains leaving from different cities, coin collections of different denominations, and so on. These have lingered in math curricula for good reason, but whether they can be deemed “good material” depends entirely on the angle; the same way “gun control” and “married life” might be sources of good, or disastrous, material for a comic.
The great educators out there are asking, “What’s a new angle? What’s the question that hasn’t been asked?” And they’re talking about what their new angle accomplishes that the “standard” angle doesn’t. This is what Dan Meyer does all the time. As does Fawn Nguyen, Kate Nowak, many folks on OpenMiddle.com, and a bunch of others who are kind enough to share what they’re doing for the world. It’s what I try to do on this blog as often as I can – and I’ll admit, I’m still pushing myself to get there.
Getting into the right mindset means turning off the math teacher lens, if even for a moment, to pause and say “What about this topic is interesting to me, tugging at me, as a person?” That’s where great teaching comes from. Like Chris Rock’s formula, a great deal of observation, practice and patience are required.