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Be Like Mike: How ‘Tiny Brent’ became Michael Jackson – A Lesson in Giving and Using Exemplars

I’m in my 30s, yet I’ve taught Michael Jackson. Here he is:

Okay, so he’s not really Michael Jackson. But one of my students performed last night at Oxford City Schools Education Foundation‘s annual “Dancing through the Decades” fundraiser. Brent E.’s a big Michael Jackson fan. As if you couldn’t tell.

So I share this for three reasons: (1) I’m impressed at Brent’s skills. (2) Showing off my students’ classroom and extracurricular skills gets them deserved attention. (3) There’s a pedagogical (uh, definition please?) lesson involved.

Let’s go for Door #3.

First, the title of my post:

I nickname many of my students. It’s a sign that I like them (really, I wouldn’t lie); the nicknames are usually linked to various idiosyncrasies of their personality or my classroom — or they’re just some pun spinoff of their names.  So, this student I nicknamed Tiny Brent at the beginning of the year (it had to do with me overlooking him during roll-call — like he is too tiny to be seen — on a couple occasions, though physically he’s not tiny, and it was just my mistake. It happens.). Brent works hard and always has an upbeat, cheerful spirit — he’s the kind of student every teacher enjoys having take his or her class.

Brent will tell you. He taught himself how to dance like Michael Jackson. How does one do that? Some take lessons. Some go to special schools or academies. But Brent: he used exemplars. There’s no telling how many hours Brent has spent watching videos of Michael Jackson performing, but that’s what’s done it. “Watch and learn,” as they say.

When we want to learn something, we do. That’s the mindset we teachers try to instill in our students — the want-to attitude.

The variable, though, is how we will learn it. For Brent, it’s all about seeing an example.

Brent’s not alone. I’ve recently attended sessions of the Powerful Conversations Network, a program of Alabama Best Practices Center, and participated in professional development centered on the importance of exemplars. What should be a no-brainer is actually an approach not utilized nearly enough in learning environments. What’s the quickest way to find out how to change a car’s tail light? Switch out a motor on a washing machine? Prepare a complicated dish you’ve never made before? Teach a son or daughter how to solve a tough math problem? Write a thesis? Conduct research? Construct an MLA-formatted citation or paper? Craft a sonnet? Draft a resume?

The answer: Watch a video or view some kind of visual learning aid that features exemplary models of the desired skill or behavior.

Tiny Brent’s performance is good — and he may have some natural ability — but the biggest lesson to all of us is to realize the value of following, creating, and sharing quality exemplars. For more about the potential of exemplars, as well as challenges in using them, check out this article by To and Carless (2014).


What do you think of the use of exemplars? How do you incorporate the use of exemplars in your classroom or learning environment? Share your thoughts or comment on this post below.

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2 comments on “Be Like Mike: How ‘Tiny Brent’ became Michael Jackson – A Lesson in Giving and Using ExemplarsAdd yours →

    1. You’re welcome. I’m proud of your hard work, both in the classroom and on stage. I know your family must be very proud of you. Glad to have you as a student who sets such a great example to others around you.

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