Saturday, September 27, 2008

"Assuming the Best" and "Reaching Fragile Students"

Continuing our study of classroom management and culture, these two articles addressed issues that are very immediately relevant for me.

In "Assuming the Best", authors Rick Smith and Mary Lambert talk about the unwritten contract between teacher and student: The student wants to learn in a safe and structured environment, and the teacher does his/her best to provide that environment. When students act out, they are (consciously or subconsciously) testing the teacher to see if that contract will be upheld.

That, in and of itself, is not a new idea to me. There were some specifics in the article that I found valuable, though:

1.) The idea that we have our own "internal radios" projecting unhelpful static, just as the students do. While their radios are saying things like "Being seen as cool is more important than anything else" or "School is boring", our radios are picking up static like "These kids don't care" or "They're just lazy." That negativity can poison our relationship with our students and render useless any tactics that we might employ to gain their compliance. (As Victoria pointed out two weeks ago in our meeting, mere compliance is not the objective: engagement is.)

2.) How we correct behavior is as important as that we correct it. There were some incidents this week that I think I handled well on this front, but in other cases my tone was too harsh and the correction may have been too public. I'm still figuring out how to convey a firm, serious tone without it coming out unnecessarily harsh, and it gets harder when I'm short on sleep. I've got to remember to keep taking care of myself so I don't take out my own exhaustion on the students.

3.) The idea of the "Two by Ten" strategy intrigues me. (That means spending two minutes a day for ten days talking with your toughest student about whatever interests them -- as long as the conversation stays G-rated.) I can already think of a few students I want to try this with -- if I can keep them from running away from me. ^_^

Some of the ideas suggested in the article seem more immediately useful than others. The concept of building behavior rubrics (a set of guidelines for what good behavior should look like in various situations) sounds good in principle, but my mind shudders at the thought of any more organizational prep work when I'm already up until midnight three or four nights a week working on lesson plans.

The other article, "Reaching the Fragile Student", talks about creating an inviting learning environment that won't turn off students -- especially those whose lives, frankly, suck in a lot of ways we can't control. Our school is off to a good start with this, I think, in that no student ever gets a grade below a B: if your work isn't up to expectations, you have to fix it or take the class over again. Classes that you don't complete with at least a B don't give you any credit hours and aren't included on your transcript. Of course, we do have to deal with the problem of students who are (for example) juniors by age and 9th-graders by credit accumulation, but better for them to stay and learn with us than to end up with a diploma that isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

This article also talks about looking to heal conflicts through mediation rather than just suppress them with punishment. I had a couple of experiences with that yesterday, one of which I'll share here:

One of my students, A., is smart and diligent in her own work but has trouble relating to other people. She seems to have a big pile of resentments built up from the way people have treated her over the years, and it's caused her to put up defensive walls that make her seem mean and off-putting. She despises group work and doesn't want to collaborate with anyone. As a quite dark-skinned African-American woman in a school that is 85% Latino, she feels alienated from the people around her; she believes that the other students won't work with her because they're racist. That makes her more angry and defensive, which causes people to pull away from her even more -- thus reinforcing her opinions. When the class divided into teams for a project, she was the last person left unpicked and refused to work with the team that was assigned to her.

I talked to her yesterday in private about how we project impressions to the people around us, and how her very self-confident, "go to hell" persona was intimidating to others. I shared my own feelings of isolation, being an Anglo man in a Latino school, and that seemed to resonate with her. Racism, I said, is a hard thing to deal with directly because you can never know what's going on in another person's heart, and all you can do is strive to be the best person you can be so that others have a chance to see that whatever prejudices they might have don't apply to you.

I told A. that she's going to need to be willing to open up and be vulnerable, to risk getting hurt, in order to give people the chance to make a positive connection with her -- essentially, she needs to try to "assume the best" about her classmates. I then suggested several individuals in the class who could make good partners, and she agreed that a few of the ones I suggested were nice and would talk to her. I'm hoping that this will be the beginning of a new start for her, and that she can take the risky step of giving someone a chance to be her friend.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Warm but demanding

The articles we were assigned to read for this week ("The Teacher as Warm Demander" by E. Bondy & D. Ross and "Understand the Symptoms" by M. Tate) struck a resounding note with me. It's good that I've read these articles now and not before I started teaching; I don't think I could have really grokked them until I had some actual classroom experience under my belt.

"Understand the Symptoms" talks about four of the most common causes of student misbehavior: needing attention, needing control, boredom, and feelings of inadequacy. I've seen cases of all of these in my class, and some cases where I'm not quite sure I've identified which of these the root cause. To be sure, they often go together: a student who feels inadequate to understand the material might stop trying, get bored, and act out in order to get attention. Another student might get bored because he understands the material perfectly well and wants me to get on with it already. The tricky part is identifying root causes, and I suspect that comes with getting to know your students better. I've already gotten valuable insights on a few of my students by talking to Romeo, who seems to know a lot about everybody (which is probably part of his job description, come to think about it).

"The Teacher As Warm Demander" highlights the kind of teacher I try to be: one who communicates clear expectations but also clearly conveys an affection for the students. Being human, I sometimes have problems with conveying "unconditional positive regard" for students who are frustrating me, but I think I'm getting better at it. One of my students who was causing a lot of disruptions early on, C.R., has gotten a lot more on-task since I made an effort to slow down the pace of my instruction and explain things more clearly. I gave him one-on-one help when he was working on our drug education project, and I think that helped to show him that I did care about seeing him do well in the class.

One passage in this article that I found interesting was about learning the cultural context of students' actions:

"Gaining insight into cultural values and habits helps teachers monitor their reactions to student behaviors that they might deem "bad", but that are considered normal or even valued in the student's home culture." (p.3)

Leaving aside for the moment the thorny question of whether all cultures are equally valid/healthy/productive for their members -- particularly in a global 21st-Century society -- I'm curious about what sorts of behaviors would fall into this category for my students. What are the cultural mores and expected behaviors of Latino and African-American culture in the East Bay? Which of these manifest themselves as "bad" behavior in the classroom?

On the whole, this article was challenging for me. I saw some things in it that I'm already doing, some things that I want to do better, and some that I still need to implement. Being consistent about discipline is one area where I need some work: "Many teachers believe that they are showing students they care when they continually give 'one more chance.' Unfortunately, giving 'one more chance' demonstrates that a teacher does not mean what he or she says, and this practice could be interpreted as a lack of caring." Ouch!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Progress Update

Wow -- it's been a long time since I updated this blog. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind!

On the whole I feel very good about the way my first year of teaching is progressing. I've been leading the students in a variety of interesting activities that all feed in to a central, cohesive theme. I'm starting to get to know the different students and recognize the ones who are really engaged with the material. Last Thursday our co-principal, Romeo, sat in on my lecture that introduced the nervous system, and by his tally more than half of the students asked meaningful questions about the material. Other teachers report that students have been speaking positively about my class and me as a teacher. The activities seem to be well-timed; while we don't have a lot of wiggle room on most labs, the students have generally been able to finish everything in time to get things cleaned up for the next class.

On the down side: I have a handful of students who seem like they really don't want to be there. One of them, P., is pretty obviously desperate for attention. He's been kicked around from one school to another and gained a reputation as a "bad kid", which he has apparently embraced. (Perhaps a negative self-identity is better than no identity at all?) He has a tendency to roam around the classroom during the labs and make loud outbursts during direct instruction. He can complete at least some assignments, but he needs a partner who will keep him on-task and be patient with his antics. In yesterday's lab I saw him working with one of my most earnest students, F., and on the sections of the lab where she assisted him he was able to complete his work and turn it in. I may ask her if she's willing to continue working with him like that; it may help her own learning to assist another student, and I think she has the temperament for it.

I also have a couple of packs of female students who are more deeply engaged in their mutual social life than with anything going on in the classroom. In my first section, 9B, the young women in question are the "cool girls", the ones who are beautiful and fashionable and oh-so-aware of this fact. When an activity is too gross or unpleasant, or when I'm trying to give instructions, they'll withdraw and talk to each other rather than focus on the work. They seem to be getting better about this, though, and on Thursday's lab they actually completed their work first and did an excellent job with it. One of them was even asking some very thoughtful questions during Thursday's lecture.

The pack in my second section, 9A, is more problematic. These are what I mentally refer to as the "chibi girls": cute, giggly, gabby, easily-distracted, and acting about three years younger than everyone else. When one of them goes to the bathroom, they'll all look for a way to sneak out after her when my back is turned so that they can go socialize. During lecture they keep up an almost constant background chatter; when I ask (or tell) them to be quiet, they start up again as soon as I go back to my instruction. In light of this, it should be no surprise that they're frequently lost during the labs, since they don't pay attention and won't read the worksheets that reiterate my verbal instructions.

At this point I think my biggest objective is to get the students to grasp the idea of the learning contract: I can be flexible in how I present the material and work with them to help them learn, but they need to be an active part of the process. If I'm going too fast, or not giving enough detail, or not explaining something in a way they can grasp, they need to tell me so I can make appropriate corrections, rather than just disengaging and doing their own thing. When Romeo sat in on that lesson, everybody stopped horsing around -- and because of that, they started to get interested in the material and asked some great questions, including the ones who normally don't get engaged. I'm hoping that this lesson will stick in their heads and that they'll start actively looking for the stuff that will engage their interest -- though Romeo tells me it will take them a while.

Of course, he also said that this group of 9th-graders is much better-behaved than their first group, so I'm hopeful that our ongoing efforts to build a culture at the school are working. Little by little, we build...