Monday, December 24, 2007

Empower Your Troublemakers

So here's a quick classroom management/rapport building technique that I use pretty much all the time. Whenever I have an errand to run whether it's delivering a note, making copies, or going to the library, I always ask my more ornery students to do it. Now I don't do this as any sort of punishment. I usually say, "I think I need some copies made." By now my better behaved students are breaking their arms volunteering. Rather than choose one of them though, I'll pick the kid who was late to class and has a problem controlling the volume (and pitch) of his voice. Doing this provides an opportunity for this student to show that they can make productive contributions to the class and prove that they can be trusted. I suppose there may be a slight risk involved, but it's paid off pretty well.

This is just a small way that I can build some rapport with students. When they come back, they're usually better behaved and more attentive for the rest of the class period, which is kind of the point of sending them on the errand. Students learn best when they feel best. I'm not trying to say that this tactic fills them with euphoric joy, but I think it can serve to improve their perception of the class. Students enjoy being given responsibility, especially the ones who aren't given it very much. School isn't just about learning facts from a book. It's about becoming a responsible adult. Students are never going to become responsible adults if they're never given the chance to show that they can be or have the potential to be. I'm offering neither the carrot nor the stick to these students, merely personal choice.

In any case, being able to involve all students in the regular classroom serves as the greatest benefit. Teaching to the top 25% of the class whether that be the top 25% of grades, behavior, or likability is simply irresponsible education. I suppose that's one of my goals for the next semester, involving more of my students. Some of them deliberately make the task more difficult, but I solider on. It's a slow process that requires reflection, flexibility and daily adjustment, but every day is an improvement. By empowering my troublemakers with personal responsibility, I'm one step closer to teaching to the full 100% of my class.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

First Semester Reflections

If I had to use one word to describe my teachings these days, it would be rapport. By now, I know my students really well. I know about their families, their likes and dislikes. I know what students can sit by what students. I know which students I can trust to sit by their friends and which ones need to be more isolated. I have developed that really lame term called "with-it-ness" which means you're with it or perhaps I should really call it "Got your shit togetherness." That term is less acceptable in educational fields though.

I don't think I've had to chew a student out for a while now. It took me a few months, but I eventually figured out that it just isn't productive. I've been tempted, but my patience has been increasing. At best chewing a student out will stop a certain behavior, but more often than not, it just shuts a student down. They are physically present, but no longer really there. Also they just resent you for the rest of the class/week/school year/life.

My threshold/tolerance for an acceptable noise level is fairly high during discussion. I try to curb it more when I'm lecturing or giving notes, but discussion time is more free flowing, though I still try to maintain some sort of control over who is talking. Sometimes it's still hard to distinguish between productive discussion and mindless chatter, though I think I'm getting better at it.

I've become much more extemporaneous as the semester has progressed. Sometimes my teacher sense tells that it's time for a change, so I'll halt what we're doing and switch gears. Last week during 7th hour we were reading a book and nobody was really paying attention. We finished the chapter and I said, "Ok, class lets go outside and build a snowman." Building a snowman turned into just having a snowball fight, but I let them throw snow on each other and burn some energy. It was harmless and I was able to see some of my students who aren't as socially adjusted smile and laugh. Afterwards, we went back inside and I tried to get them to write about the experience. Most of their hands were a little bit numb so it took a minute or two.

If something seems like a good idea, I'll most likely go for it. I've stopped class before so we can listen to a song on youtube or I'll find a news article that relates. I know we discussed reflection in action, and while I am doing that, a lot of times I'm just following my intuition as to what might be a good idea. I always have lesson plans, but every so often I'll toss them and try for something different. I suppose that's the beauty of teaching 6 different classes. I don't have to make them the exact same.

Towards the end of the semester I've also been differentiating my assessment for students. I've tried to give students the opportunity to choose their assignments. It's like a choose your own adventure story. Most of the time I'll give them the choice of doing just a pure writing assignment or one that is a bit more creative. The students who "know the game" often choose the writing assignment but the ones who are less confident in their ability to analyze and articulate their response in writing fair much better when there is an artistic element involved.

Next semester, I'd like to set up a few more systems for class management. I already have a homework file. I've found it's easiest to just write down an absent student's name on any worksheet, quiz, or test they miss and stick in in that folder. That way I know they have to make it up. I'm also going to create a bathroom sheet. Some of my students just go to the bathroom every single day. It's somewhat distracting when students are asking to go all the time. Three trips to the bathroom sound reasonable and after that, I'll make them color me a picture or something to get another pass.

There is a possibility that I could be getting a projector for my classroom which would be fantastic. I'm tired of having my students crowd around my computer for videos and music. I like incorporating various mediums into the day to day class so it's been a challenge figuring out how to do that in such a low budget classroom.

I'd also like to make my classrooms even more student directed. A lot of days I give them some sort of say over what kind of work and assessment we do, but sometimes it's just simpler to do it myself. The kids respond better though when they have something to do with it. Also, I am amazed at the amount of thought and effort some students will put into creative projects. Incorporating art and drawing has really helped pull some of my students into the classroom and I'd like to do that more. For me when I have to do a poster project, it's a chore, but some of my students really love it.

I've done an OK job of getting some of my less talkative students engaged in what is going on, but not the best. My system for calling on students is girl-boy-girl-boy when I can help it. At times it feels as though some of my students are being suppressed or ignored at the expense of my more talkative ones.

I'd like to crank up some of my classroom management as well. I've been getting slack with my creative writing class and I'm afraid they've been using that to their advantage and not really working. Creative writing has been my case study of when rapport can be used against you. I'm still the teacher, no matter how laid back the classroom may be.

All in all, it's been a fantastic semester. I've loved teaching these students and I'm looking forward to doing it again next semester. I'm considering where I want to teach next fall and I wouldn't mind sticking around for a few more years.

Friday, December 7, 2007

You Don't Learn Empathy From a Textbook

There are moments when I'm teaching when I can see that there is some good in humanity, that today's youth may provide some hope for the future. Yesterday we had a fire drill during lunch so all the students marched outside in the cold. My plan period is during lunch so I didn't have any students to watch. Being the good teacher that I am, I went outside to supervise and keep order. Most of the kids were pretty wired and bouncing around, but that's to be expected. After a few minutes we got the all clear and the students started to trickle back in.

While we were coming back inside I saw something that made my heart catch in my throat. I'm serious; I could feel the emotion welling up inside me and I had to bite back not to show it. One of my 8th grade students really impressed me that day because instead of running back inside or talking with his other 8th grade friends, he made sure this younger student with arm braces made it back inside the building. He helped her up the hill, opened the door for her and walked her back to her class. He was the only one who bothered to make sure she made it back inside. The girl's teacher sure didn't help and her Para was no where to be seen. Now, I've actually talked about this student before on this blog. He's the student who enjoyed reading this book about a female character, but felt the pressure from his male friends not to show it. He's a pretty normal teenage boy who likes dirt bikes, paint ball, and hunting. But what impresses me is his developed sense of empathy and maturity that you just don't normally expect from a 14 year old boy. He's a good kid. I knew that before, but seeing it in action reminds me what a great job I have.

Today I gave him a gift certificate for a free pizza for good citizenship. He just shrugged and said it was no big deal, but he kind of smiled when I handed it to him because he knew that he had done good and I think it pleased him that someone noticed and recognized that fact. He doesn't brute around the fact that he helps others in need. In fact, I've seen him help other students with homework though he doesn't make a big deal about it. One time, I watched him help a struggling reader read aloud during class by helping to correct some of the words the other student got stuck on. Now I'm not trying to say this student is a saint. He's got a stubborn streak a mile wide sometimes. He likes to talk, but that works both ways since he also participates in class discussion a lot as well. Good kid all and all though. He's going to grow up into mature and well balanced adult.

One of the best things that has happened to me since I've started teaching is that my complete and utter reliance on thinking has given way to an increased ability and willingness to look at the world through feeling and emotion. I'm invested in my students, every single last one of them, even the ones who get under my skin. It's impossible to be invested in your students from a purely analytical and thinking process. I see my students as a community of learners which I'm a part of. It's fun to theorize about best practice and pedagogical methods, but nothing in any of my education courses could prepare me for the human aspect of working with students.
People ask me why would I want to teach. The pay isn't great and the hours are long and hard. The answer is simple. It's because of the students; it'll always be because of the students.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Sexual Orientation: An Important Election Issue

Ok class, how many of you would be willing to vote for a gay president?
(six hands out of twenty go up)

Today during class we had a discussion about how ideas or concepts we aren't used to make us uncomfortable. Somehow we got onto the topic of whether or not people would vote for a woman president. A lot of the class said no, that women were too emotional. I asked the same thing about a black president, and most of the class said no, though there answers weren't very satisfying. It was when I asked whether or not the class would vote for a gay president that things really got noisy.

I was actually pretty horrified at the sentiments expressed. Even if the candidate was otherwise qualified, most of the students would not support him or her because of their sexual orientation. Nobody was able to give a decent answer about what this had to do with being a good president. They all pointed to their religious beliefs. I more or less asked whether or not it was ok to treat these people as subhuman because of their orientation and most of them didn't see a problem with it. After a while I asked whether or not they would vote for someone who committed adultery. They had less of a problem with this then the sexuality issue. What bothers me the most is the attitudes of some of my otherwise normal students. One in particular said that gay people made him so angry that he wanted to punch them in the face. Statements like that frighten me. That's how we have the Matthew Shepard incidents. That's how wars begin. That's how lynchings happen. That's how the Holocaust is allowed to happen.

At the moment, I could care less whether my students appreciate Shakespeare if it meant that they'd be more open and accepting of their fellow man. It's difficult to teach tolerance, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop.