Category Archives: Classroom Management

Week 38 – Can the Training Wheels Miss the Bike?

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We were on our last week of school.  Tuesday was our last day of regular classes.  Wednesday students watch the Upper School Performance (which was wonderful) and had two Humanities classes.  We finished up our last essay which students presented as a speech. The 6th had a math class, but then, that’s it.  Thursday was a half day and that was all about cleaning up, gathering up, signing year books, and saying good-bye.  We also finished watching most of The Holy Grail, skipping Castle Anthrax.

The speech writing used the same pattern as any other expository writing.  Brainstorming, outlining, writing, and for some of the faster students, a chance to revise.  The main difference was that I wouldn’t help them.

One student was not about to be put off.  She kept asking me to check her work.  Now this is a student who was writing her 14th essay for me.  I knew, really knew, that she didn’t really need my help. I had her previous 13 papers in her portfolio in the back room.  Every time she asked for help I referred her to her Tools folder, or the rubric, or the book, or a classmate.  Still, she kept asking questions that I knew she knew the answer to.

I finally stopped her and asked if she knew how hard it was for me not to help her?  Everybody thinks that the teacher is there to guide and help students, but the teacher is also there to help students do it themselves.  Once the how-to-do-it-ive-ness has been established, the teacher needs to step back and let the students do it.  I think they had noticed by now, as it was the end of the year, that I am both nosy and bossy.  I find it very, very difficult not to look over their shoulders and point out places where they could be doing it the way I would be doing it, even when there is no guarantee that their way isn’t better.  It is why I make myself sit at my desk and often knit or write blog entries until one of them needs help.

The student looked at me and said, “So, you are kind of like training wheels?”  Yes.  I am the human equivalent of training wheels.  My job is to make myself superfluous.  Then I asked her if she ever considered that the training wheels might miss the bike.

There was a moment of reflective silence in the room.

Week 35 – Extra Credit? My Eye!*

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Read this first: Logic fails her | oldfangled.

So, below is my massively long response to this question which I believe is at the heart of teaching at the middle school level. Again, I need to apologize to oldfangled for my long response.

Her frustration is with a student who wants extra credit work to make a grade better when she wasn’t doing the work assigned. Serious grrr.

Oi. How frustrating. This behavior makes me wonder what is really going on. I have found a few things that help me find patience in this situation.

1) I believe that for middle school age students doing the work and turning it in are two separate and distinct skill sets. I only know this from personal experience, but since I have started treating doing the work and turning it in as two separate grades, I have seen a significant upswing in students’ ability to manage. So, a student gets a grade for turning it in on time, and they get a grade for the work done. This allows students (particularly the ones who are teetering on the brink) to not be turned off from school completely.

2) I have also instituted separate organization for different types of work. Explicit instruction is not something many students get at home when it comes to organization. Seriously, I have had a drop in lost papers of about 90%. The work being done goes in the orange folder, when the work is done, it goes in the blue folder.

3) Then I started pulling kids out of their lunch, PE, or whatever breaks and recesses they have in order to sit them down to do the work. I checked to see if they came early or stayed late. (Even pulling some kids out of detention, and trust me, they would have rather been in yard crew.) At first this is onerous and a real pain in the butt, but students soon learn that after the first infraction, they will do it under my eye. What I learned is that most students have a real reason for not doing the work. 1) They didn’t understand the instructions (even though I explained it 1 million times.) 2) They have no time after school or home is unsafe or too chaotic to do the work. 3) They don’t have the materials at home and are too embarrassed to ask for help. These are just the most common.

4) I also give as little homework as possible because of the above. Students do not *need* homework. Homework happens because we didn’t finish it in class and/or they need it for the next day’s lesson.

5) Then on the rare occasion when a student really does mess up, I still know what they are mastering from the curriculum. I currently have a student who went and asked the school secretary to edit a paper for him because he knew that I would not let him off the hook. He may be turning it in late, but he will turn it in or spend every lunch with me until the end of the year.

6) And no. I don’t give extra-credit either. Only if a student has proven that they have mastered the content, and that takes up all their time.

Wow. I’m sorry this got so long. But it’s bothered me since I started teaching middle school, and so I’ve spent every year of the past 13 or so experimenting with ways to make sure work gets done *and* turned in. I’m not at 100%, but it’s better.

I think I’m just going to copy and paste this on my blog.

Maybe like the fact that teens need sleep in the morning, I think we will find more answers in brain research than anywhere else. That and the fact that the ages between 11 and 14 do not make up a whole lot of any research on cognitive ability. They either get thrown in with elementary or with high school. Do we really know their age appropriate norms? Are our policies taking them into account? And as any middle school denizen can tell you, this age is a different beast entirely both cognitively and emotionally. Unfortunately, it is also the age when many people decide whether or not they will (or can) succeed academically.

I’ve promised myself yearly that if I am ever in a place where I can research my hypotheses, I will. What I do know is that hard and fast rules that may work for high school or college students seem to do more damage than good when you are dealing with students who are still very young in many ways and may not have the executive functioning of the upper grades.

Are you a middle school teacher? What has worked for you? What hasn’t? I’d really like to learn from you. Yes, you.

* Will someone please tell me where this expression comes from?

Week 33 – Sacred Triangles

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Trinities are amazingly important to us because they embody such truths.  But there is one trinity that is ultimately important in my professional life as a teacher.  It is the trinity of teacher, student, parent.  This was brought home to me recently when I read this article:

School suspensions: Does racial bias feed the school-to-prison pipeline? – CSMonitor.com.

In it, students of color are shown to be disproportionately punished.  The punishments are pushing these students out of learning environments, dooming them to failure and many of them to prison.

I was reading it when my students came back from PE.  A student asked me why  my eyes were bugging out of my head as I read.  He said, “You look really angry.”  He was right.  I was angry.  So, I read them the first few paragraphs.  Then, they were angry.  They asked me if I had ever seen racial bias in the schools I’ve taught at.  Unfortunately, yes, I’ve seen it.

The part that the reporter, , misses is the part that parents play in the trinity of education.  Let me state, right now, that I am not in the business of shaming parents.  This is not a diatribe about how awful parents are, nor is this meant to make any parent feel guilty*.  On the other hand, I am not absolving parents of their responsibilities, I’m just trying to lay out what I see.  And what I see is that students whose parents are unable to come advocate for them are more likely to be singled out and more likely to be punished harshly.

Not all parents are the same.  Parents of all students are very, very complicated.  But I think the parents of minority students have it pretty bad.  Let’s list the issues I’ve personally seen.  They often work.  If the parents are at work during school hours, they find it difficult to take time off to fight with the district office about the needs of their children because, let’s be honest, to get a school to give up some of its funds is a fight.  Next, many minority parents have had their own horrible experiences with public schools.  I’ve seen mothers, white-knuckled, cautiously approach me because they were worried enough about their children to fight down their own memories of school.  One told me once that she had been beaten by a teacher because she forgot and spoke Spanish in the classroom.  Horrific.  Then, there can be a language barrier.  First- and sometimes second-generation parents struggle to make themselves understood to the school, and they don’t have time to learn the language because they are, what was that again?  Oh yeah, working.  And then there is illness.  Addiction, abuse, and depression all take a major toll on the energy parents have.  And then you must talk about poverty.  There’s a lot of it out there.  The reasons why it makes it hard for parents to advocate for their students are legion.   Parents struggling with the above have to trust that the school is able to handle the children they put in their care.

What I’ve seen is that the child who lives with his first-generation immigrant grandmother, under a bridge, is more likely to be reprimanded by teachers than that student whose parent is joked about in the teachers’ lounge as a helicopter parent.  (For those of you who don’t know, a helicopter parent is a term for a parent who is over-protective of their child to the point that they are actually doing harm.)  Teachers make intelligent gamblers.  If you can shut a situation down by coming down on a kid whose parents are not likely to come in and rip you a new orifice, you probably will.  Furthermore, if you have a kid who is making the classroom a living nightmare, and you can get that kid out of your classroom by declaring him or her defiant, would you?  I’ve seen teachers walk a classroom literally smiling on the kids who spoke perfect English and snapping at the kids who did not speak English well.  All the while, all the kids were having the same behaviors.

So, I guess this is a call for action on the part of the schools.  We need to behave as if every parent is going to be down our throats, fighting, and fighting hard for their children.  (This is a starting point.  What we really want is a working relationship with all parents.  But let’s just start here.)  More importantly, we need to teach our teachers how to have competent classroom management.  Guess how many classes I took in my Masters’ program on classroom management?   Zero.  Zip.  Zilch.  Fortunately, I was working at a school that was proactive on that front.  I also had professors in my certification program who slipped it into the curricula.  But I do know that being able to keep all students on task is more important than John Dewey, bless him.  Guess which one I need every day. of. my. life.?

The trinity must stand, even when one leg of it is imaginary.  Teachers must behave as if every student in their care has an advocate checking on how they are being treated.  Even if you know their only advocate is you.  To make it harder, educators must decide that there is no principal’s office to use as an escape route, and that keeping the students in the classroom is the best option unless a child is violent.  And unfortunately, since most education programs are light on classroom management training, teachers are going to have to demand help from their administrators to get them the training that helps them to make the classroom a place where only learning is happening.  Further, teachers need to recognize when they make the easy choice: unduly punishing the kid who is already vulnerable.  That’s called bullying.  It will come back to haunt us.  It already has.  20 years of “zero-tolerance” is just giving us a new industry.  Prisons.

 

* If you would like to feel guilty, or at least have a laugh at the expense of the entire academic world, please feel free to check out my humor blog: Dun Lernen Academy.  If you laugh, let people know.  If you don’t laugh, I didn’t write it, I know nothing about it, and may the writer (whoever she may be) rot in a watery grave.  Peace out.