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.
I had an interesting experience setting classroom norms and rules in one of my classrooms at the beginning of the year. I'm reminded of this episode as we get closer to student teaching, because I will have to reset norms with my students. At the beginning of the year, I used a process that one of the other classroom teachers used, and that my cooperating teacher wanted to try out. It involved asking students in groups to come up with classroom norms that would allow them to do their best learning. From the group lists, one class list was generated. And then from this list each group picked one that was most important, to create a class list of norms. There was a discussion (pretty quick) to determine if anything important was missing or should be taken off. Then the prescribed process was to okay each norm by having all students raise their hand to signal their agreement to the norm. If they didn’t raise their hand, then there was a discussion about why and what should be done to modify the norm to make it acceptable. I received pushback during the hand-raising portion from several students. Several students refused to raise their hands and didn’t have a response when asked why they didn’t want to agree with the norms. One particular student said it felt like “middle school,” because so many of the norms were obvious (like respect, communicate). On the fly we modified the procedure so that everyone could raise their hand for the entire group of norms. Looking back at the process I would agree with my students’ complaints. The process did feel very artificial. First, the students didn’t really come up with any norms that I wouldn’t have come up with myself, and they weren’t all that well detailed, explained, or justified. It felt like students were just repeating words that they had been trained to say. Also, they didn’t have any real sense of having power over the situation. Did they know (or did I know) how much they could actually influence the norms? Finally, the hand-raising process was slow and tedious and students didn’t really have any choice but to accept; it felt like coercion. When I think back to classes and seminars I’ve taken, the norms are either implicit or the teacher lists some possible norms and then asks for input, which accelerates the whole process. I think using a similar process could have worked with this group of students.
I have one student in my first period class who is an ELL (English Language Learner) student receiving support from ELL staff. (I have many other ELL students, but they are significantly advanced in their English that they no longer need or are granted ELL support.) She does not attend class that regularly, but each morning that she does, a staff member comes to class to check on her. The staff member usually spends time translating what is going on in class, but I have noticed that he also tells her how to do each step (like “measure this, then multiply by that”). I have observed this in other classrooms where I have witnessed support staff doing similar things. It seems unlikely that this kind of support is in the best interest of the student—yes it is efficient on the part of the support staff and perhaps makes the student feel more comfortable. I’m not sure how she would know how to do any of the problems on her own without being given the opportunity to work through them on her own. On another note, I’ve noticed that because I know that my ELL student has support, I actually interact with her less than other students, and I feel terrible about this. I’ve heard that this is a common unintended consequence of this kind of ELL support structure. I’ve been trying to make an attempt to reverse this pattern, but she hasn’t been coming to class on the days that I’ve been there.
I have been a big believer in getting to know one’s students. I have found this helps with classroom management and motivation, but more importantly it is what makes the job of teaching fun and meaningful and worthwhile. At the same time, I am finding this very difficult to do within the context of these observations. I felt like I was making great progress when I was in the classroom 5 days a week, when I went down to 2, I felt like I moved backwards in this area. Some weeks I only saw my students once. One of my observation days the students were taking a standardized exam, another was parent-teacher conferences, recently I chaperoned a field trip, and there have been other interruptions. I used to know everyone’s name, but now I hesitate on a number of names. This is due in part to the fact that several students were also shuffled around to different classes and teachers about a month into school when CS was granted a few more FTEs (for higher student enrollment than expected). I’ve also found that when I was in the classroom less often, I felt less comfortable because I did not know the kids as well. As a result, I fell into a bad and self-defeating habit of talking more to the kids that I already knew. I could see how this could come across as favoritism on my part. I’ve started to intentionally break this habit, but I can see that it will take a long time to get to know 150 students, especially when class periods are fast paced and kids rush in and out as the bells rings and I don’t really have much of a chance to interact with students at other times.
I am really starting to appreciate how much school policies can affect learning in the classroom. I am used to working in classrooms of students who do not test my classroom management skills and who are generally motivated and well behaved. In the event that I have trouble with a particular student, I can usually call in administrative support (though this has been very rare). From observing at Chief Sealth and talking to Robin and others in my cohort, I can see how important it is for the administration to adopt policies that support teachers in the classroom. I know that Chief Sealth has dramatically reduced tardiness with a policy that requires late students to get a tardy slip from the front office. There doesn’t seem to be much recourse, however, if students choose to not work or generally be defiant and disobedient. Of course there are ways for teachers to work around these things in the classroom, but for the students there is no threat of going to the front office or detention that a teacher can wield. I have one student who is regularly disruptive in class. I talked to him about having to make a choice between changing his behavior or facing possible detention. He said that if he got detention he wouldn’t come. At which I said, well then it escalates to more detention and eventually to being referred to the front office. He said that happened to him last year and nothing happened. This is pretty frustrating from my perspective that I have basically no recourse with teeth should a student choose to be disruptive. And not only does it hurt him, but it hurts all the other students he distracts or takes attention away from.
I am used to doing group work with my students at SGS, but as I think about implementing a group work system with my students (specifically my Algebra 1, and especially my first period Algebra 1 students) I am starting to doubt whether or not this is a good idea. First of all, there are a number of students absent each period. My CT currently has a seating chart that has students arranged in groups, and it is not uncommon to have just one student out of four show up in a group or two. Trying to shuffle these kids around to accomplish an activity can eat up a lot of class time. It becomes more complicated when students start to trickle in partway into the period. That places a lot of responsibility on the students’ group members (if they haven’t already been shuffled around into other groups) and the teacher to get them caught up part way through the class. Secondly, these students don’t have very much training in working in groups. If I were to have these students for the entire year, investing the time to develop group work skills may be worth it, but I’m not sure how I can teach this as well as keep the class moving at the pace my CT expects me to. I am still considering using group work, but I think I am going to have to rethink how to organize it. I can’t count on having stable groups, and I may have to focus on just a few group work skills to teach in the few weeks that I’ll be with the students.
Today I went on a field trip with the language arts teachers to the Seattle Art Museum. They needed an extra chaperone and I was curious to see how large public school field trips are pulled off. I was assigned a group of about 6 students. It was a little confusing because I was given a list of students but then one chaperone wasn’t able to make it and I was assigned a few extra students. The whole day I wasn’t sure if I actually had everyone. I wasn’t used to that level of confusion and chaos on a field trip. I am used to compulsively counting my 30 something students on SGS field trips, but there seemed to be fewer controls on this field trip. In fact, I think some students may have wandered around outside at one point. At the end of the trip, role was taken and everyone miraculously showed up. Once we actually split up into small groups I was a little less stressed out because I had an easier time keeping track of my group. The docent led us to a series of exhibits and through a series of activities. They were decent activities—they were inspired by the art and came from the students’ interests and prior knowledge. For example, we saw a coffin that was shaped like a BMW and we talked about how in this place in Africa (can’t remember where; also the students were studying Africa in their LA/Social Studies block) people were buried in coffins that represented their life and/or their aspirations. We had a discussion about this and then the kids sketched what they would want their coffin to look like. Some questions that plagued me the entire time were: What was the purpose of these assignments? Where was the accountability? And how can students who have never had an opportunity to visit an art museum be given free time to explore on their own? Throughout the trip I also struggled somewhat with discipline and motivation with the students. Students were very reluctant to do some of the activities, and since I didn’t know them or what their class was about I was uncertain about how to keep them motivated. I often resorted to asking students about their experience with/feelings about art and trying to bring them in someway based on their responses. In terms of discipline, the students were basically fine, but I had one to two students who would sit or stand very far from the group while our docent would speak to us. This one particular student said he could hear and was paying attention. I responded that his actions could come across as lack of motivation or disrespect and that it’s good to check whether our behavior is coming off the wrong way, but he wasn’t motivated by that. Overall, it was a good experience to see how one can pull of a field trip with a large number of students.