Sunday, December 20, 2009
My 5th period class has a number of “energetic” boys. Some of them I know for sure struggle with ADHD and are usually on medication which helps increase their focus and productivity, but they sometimes forget or cycle off it for various reasons. Today when I was teaching that class, I called three people up to the front of the classroom to explain their work. When I looked back, I realized they were all boys, and they were not the best behaving boys. In the moment, I called on them because I knew they had the right answer to a question and each could explain something a little differently. I also knew that they would all benefit from receiving positive attention, either because they had low math confidence or because it would redirect their usually disruptive behavior into something productive. So I have good reasons for calling on them. But as I look back I realize that I did not give that opportunity for the spotlight to some hard working and very focused girls. I took for granted that with our without that opportunity they would continue to work hard because they were internally motivated. So today I presented an example of a “well-meaning” teacher perpetuated a cycle of favoritism towards boys in a math classroom.
A couple of student conflicts happened today that gave me pause for thought. The first was relatively minor. A boy said that his female friend hit him. He didn't seem distressed or hurt at all. If anything he seemed amused. I think the two might have been goofing off and seeking adult attention. So I asked him how he handled it. I can't remember what he said, but then I asked if he felt satisfied by how the conflict was resolved (but in different words). They seemed perplexed by my question but okay, so I dropped it. Then one of the students asked, "Aren't I supposed to tell a teacher when something happens? That's what I've always been told." I explained that if it was something minor, I thought it was best for them to work it out themselves. In life, people usually work out things on their own without another adult intervening. However, I added, I want to know if one of you is really unsafe, so that I can help out. I don't want anyone to get hurt. Otherwise I trust that you have the skills to work out your own conflicts. This perspective seemed new to my students who seemed to expect me to jump in and work things out for them. I sensed disappointment on their part that I wasn’t getting involved, which I found fascinating.
There’s a math teacher I’ve observed here that I feel does an excellent job of treating student conflict and disobedience with a certain lightness and sense of humor that I admire. And I don’t mean lightness as in he avoids or tiptoes around conflict. It just seems to be not a big deal and no one is forced to get stuck into defending a position. I have to say that on the days I go to Chief Sealth, I feel a heaviness, and I even dread the mornings I have to come here. I can't quite figure out why. I do like my students and enjoy getting to know them. Though my Algebra 1 students are certainly challenging to motivate. But I think part of my problem is taking negative interactions with students too seriously and with trepidation. I think part of this is related to the fact that I don’t have ownership over the classroom and the rules seem to elude me. There’s no electronics but sometimes my CT doesn’t say anything when kids use them. There’s no food, but I see a lot of food and beverages out in the class. There are assigned seats but sometimes kids sit wherever they want and my CT doesn’t do anything. So I hesitate to do any kind of enforcement and don’t really know what I’m getting myself into. As I head into student teaching I think I need to remember to enforce rules consistently but to be light.
I have one particular student who chronically chooses not to work. Today, several minutes into the period, he had nothing done on his review sheet. Flipping the blank sheet over, I asked incredulously, "Is this your strategy for passing?" He said that all he needed to pass the class was a 30%. He already had 90% and only a 60% is required for passing. His goal, he said, was to pass with as little effort as possible. This reasoning may be short-sighted, but it is not altogether unreasonable. It's definitely efficient and seems to align with his values and priorities. He seems to be a quick and organized enough thinker that he could be doing math at whatever level he wanted to (assuming he put in the work). While I can't make him want to learn math, I have to keep in mind that this attitude can infect other students and result in lower performance all around.
I am biased against extrinsic rewards and motivators, but I’m beginning to consider that they may have a role in teaching students intrinsic motivation. I think my Algebra I students are influenced by and have created a culture which somehow rewards not working (or at least doesn’t penalize it). Now they exhibit learned helplessness. When presented with a task, they don’t know how to get started unless someone tells them how. They seem to be able to do a problem only through pattern recognition and not through any kind of critical thinking or problem solving skills. This seems true even when the lesson has the potential to be engaging and hands-on. I’m beginning to think that I will need to put in a clear set of incentives to encourage students to do their work. I’m hoping that over time, the kids will learn that it can feel good to learn and understand math and then eventually develop a sense of internal motivation. This hypothesis is not supported by anything I’ve read. In fact, from what I read, extrinsic incentives can take the joy and internal motivation out of learning. But at this point, I don’t know what else to try (other than lots of pep talks and hopefully some fun and exciting lessons that will pique their interest).
My Algebra I kids don’t like to read. When given an assignment on a worksheet or in the book, they just sit there. When I check in with their groups, they ask, “What are we doing?” or “I don’t even know what were supposed to be doing.” I try to remain calm when I hear this question, but in my head I’m flipping out that it has not occurred to them that reading their book, the piece of paper in front of them, or the instructions on the board will inform them of what they are doing. Students seem to ask this question regardless of how many oral or written instructions are given. I’m not sure how to make changes such that this is less of a problem. I realize this strategy (not reading) is intended to eat up time while not doing work. I’m not sure how much is because they just don’t like math, they don’t know how to do the math, they don’t think that they’ll understand the instructions, they enjoy being defiant, or they don’t want to or don’t know how to work with the people in their group. Perhaps some of it is because they want the individual teacher attention. Unfortunately, it seems that in order to do more complex, interesting math that is perhaps grounded in some real life context, reading is required (if I’m not going to lead everything at the front of the classroom). Something I’ve learned in my years teaching is to make instructions as short and concise as possible, ideally under a page and in a larger font. Ambiguity can even be okay (if it makes the problem open-ended and interesting and requires the students to think about their choices). Reading the instructions as a class can lead to better results, but it can also lead to boredom, frustration, and side talking. This is something I will be thinking much about during my student teaching weeks.
Students at Chief Sealth don’t seem to get too much free time. They have 5 minutes between classes, no free periods, and a 30 minute lunch (with a 5 minute passing period on either side) which I imagine must feel rushed after waiting in line in the cafeteria (though I have no first hand knowledge of how long this takes—I microwave my lunch in the staff lounge). They also have a 20 minute DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) period everyday before 2nd period. I wonder if this is truly enough free time for students. In their five minute passing periods plus lunch they have to go to the bathroom, get their stuff from their locker, run errands (like turning in forms, etc.), get a drink of water, and catch up with friends. To me it doesn’t seem like a sufficient amount of time to get all of one’s human and social needs met. Of course there is after school time. But I remember when I went to high school, I had a 40 or 45 minute lunch, plus I sometimes had an extra free 40/45 minute period during the same day. Passing periods on some days were also 10 minutes long. We also had advisory and community meeting (can’t remember how many days a week that was) for catching up with friends and the community. My school day was a little longer, but it didn’t seem quite so packed and structured. I wonder what has led to our schedule taking its current form. Is it pressure to let school out early for the sake of sports? Is it so that the school day is a shorter number of hours to reduce salaries? And why does it start so early in the morning (8:05)? Every study I know says that adolescents need more sleep than adults and that their circadian rhythms (or whatever they are) tend to push their sleep window later in the night. When my students side-talk in class, I wonder if some of their socializing is necessary, and if I need to somehow build in to the structure of the classroom time for kids to talk and get to know each other better.