It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read this blog more than once that I absolutely love reading. I read everything I can get my hands on, including shampoo and conditioner bottles and toothpaste packages. I even make sure any movies or television shows I watch have the captions on so I can read those! (They also help since I am hard-of-hearing.)
When it comes to reading books, there are very few that I have read and put down because I didn’t like them at all. I admit that it happens, but I am usually willing to give a book a full read before making any conclusions about it. Sometimes I read a book and, overall, don’t particularly care for it, but find a brief snippet of wisdom that sticks with me.
That was the case with Teaching with Love and Logic by David Funk and Jim Fay. There was a lot about this book I didn’t agree with, but I was reflecting today on one part that really hit home: giving students choices when faced with a problem. (It is quite possible that this was also suggested in Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie. I’d need to read it again to see.)
There are some teachers who give very artificial choices. Here’s an example: “You can choose to do your assignment or you can choose to go to the principal’s office.” The better option is to give choices you can all live with. I sometimes fall short of this, but I’d like to think that, more times than not, I do a pretty decent job.
One memorable occasion was when I was babysitting for some friends. My friends wanted their kids to clean their room. The kids wanted to watch a movie. I presented two options: You can clean your room now and then watch a movie, or you can play for ten minutes, then clean your room and then watch a movie. Either way, your room needs to be cleaned before you watch a movie.” The options were perfect because the children could either play then clean, or clean first. I didn’t care which they did, because I knew that a movie wouldn’t happen until the room was cleaned. The children tried to negotiate, but I held firm to the options and then an interesting thing happened: the boy decided to clean first, the girl decided to play for ten more minutes. But they eventually both cleaned together and then they both got to watch a movie.
No yelling, no cajoling, no negotiating, no threatening. Simply presenting options that we could both live with.
Today I continued my quest to try something different with my class. I presented them with options as we transitioned to new tasks and let them decide how to go about doing it. The first was for our afternoon recess. It was really hot out today and so I said, “I noticed as you came in from lunch recess that you were hot and many of you were sweating. You have two options for our afternoon recess: we can stay here and have an inside recess, or you can go outside to play. I really don’t care either way. You decide.” The students all looked at each other like they couldn’t believe their ears. Was I really going to let them decide? When it was clear I was, they took a vote. Enough wanted to go outside that that was what we did. And the ones who would have preferred staying inside still went out because they felt it was a fair way to decide.
Another presentation of options was after our math lesson. Math yesterday was a catastrophe. What should have been a 30-minute lesson turned into a 2-hour slog and barely any students learned anything. (I should have just stopped and tried something else, but I got caught in my mindset that we were going to finish the lesson one way or the other.) Today I reviewed the expectations for math, explained what we were going to do and how we were going to do it, and we got through the lesson with plenty of time for students to have independent practice on Zearn, Front Row, and/or Prodigy. At the end, I observed the two options before the class: option one, students argue and talk and disrupt and math takes two hours, using up our afternoon recess and writing workshop time; option two, students listen and participate and work together and have time for using Chromebooks, having a recess, and working on writing. Here’s the thing: while I don’t really prefer option one, I can live with it and adapt if that’s what my students really want. But I had a hunch they would all prefer option two, and they did.
Will every day be smooth and problem-free moving forward? No, of course not. We will still make mistakes, we will still get in ruts, we will still lose our focus. But I think our days can be better and I think my students know they can, too. As I said yesterday, it will take lots of time and lots of patience, but I am confident that it will be all the better in the end.
I have reflected several times this year about my desire and efforts to change the way I speak to my students, how I respond to problematic behaviours, and how I want to encourage pro-social skills among my students by using truly restorative practices in the classroom. In preparing for this shift in mindset, I read a lot of books and articles, I watched TED talks and other related videos, and attending trainings.
What I didn’t really fully grasp was how much patience it would take to make the change.
You see, my students have been conditioned to expect a normal sequence of events in the classroom. Many of you are probably familiar with this:
- A student acts out.
- The teachers tells the student to stop the behaviour.
- The student acts out again.
- The teacher more firmly tells the student to stop.
- The student acts out for a third time.
- The teacher, now very frustrated, loudly and angrily tells the student to stop.
- The student argues back.
- The teacher sends the student to the office and/or calls home.
- The student misses class.
- The student comes back to class.
- The student has no idea what is going on in class.
- The student acts out again.
- And the cycle repeats, but this time the student gets suspended.
- The cycle repeats and again and again.
- The student-teacher relationship is one of anger and frustration.
So when I decided to try this new approach, my goal was to end the frustration and anger. I communicate with parents, but I try to keep it positive as often as possible. (I have still had to make the occasional call about a problematic behaviour.) I have also made an effort to not send students to the office for correction because I truly and passionately believe that my students need to be in the classroom with their peers and their teacher, engaged in learning.
What I didn’t expect is that some of my students would be frustrated with me because of this approach. They are frustrated because I am not playing the game according to the rules they are used to. They feel like I am cheating because I am not doing what they expect, what they want. As a result of all this, I am realising that this change is going to take an awful lot of patience, not just for me, but also for my students who are making the right choices all day, every day.
Sometimes this means that everyone misses out on something because a few students are making poor choices, but that is part of building a community. As I have shared before and as I will surely share again, a community is a group of people who work together to help one another.
It will take time. It will take patience. It will take courage.
I am willing to do it. Will my students and their parents be willing to go along with me on this journey?
Somewhere along the line, we have done our students and ourselves a great disservice. We have somehow managed to teach them that defending themselves means fighting back, hitting back, using aggression to deal with aggression. As a person who was bullied by others for the majority of my K-12 education, this breaks my heart. I refuse to accept the idea that violence is ever the answer to peer aggression. There is a better way and we need to start teaching that, at home, at school, on the playground, everywhere we go.
Today I witnessed a student smack another student on the back of the head. I stopped aggression immediately, separated those involved, and assured that my students were safe, which is always my first responsibility. I then sought to understand what happened. When asked why one student it another, I was told that the student I saw hitting another was responding to being hit.
I called a class meeting to address the issue and asked my students what the first expectation for being safe at our school was. They acknowledged that they knew that it was to keep hands, feet, and other objects to themselves. I then asked what students should do if someone did not meet this expectation, if someone was not keeping hands, feet, or other objects to themselves. What I heard from many disappointed me: I was told that the correct response is to hit back because the students believe they need to defend themselves.
This was not the first time I heard this phrase used in this way. It won’t be the last. But it still frustrates me, because it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what defense is. Defending oneself is not fighting others, responding to aggression with more aggression. Defending oneself is to “resist an attack made on (someone or something); protect from harm or danger.” Are there ways to do this without resorting to violence?
Absolutely! Here are some strategies (in absolutely no particular order) that I used in response to peer aggression and bullying when I was growing up. The interesting thing is that anyone who tried to bully me often gave up quickly. Unfortunately, new bullies arose each year, but I was able to use these strategies with success each time. One thing I hope you will notice in this list is that violence is not in it.
- Tell the person to stop! It is amazing how often we forget about this step. Sometimes others think they are just playing around, doing what they do with family at home. Some just need to know that what they are doing is hurting others. The majority of students do not want to hurt others.
- Walk away. Remove yourself from the situation and the aggressor has no target present.
- Report the problem to a trusted adult. The adults you trust can’t help you if they don’t know what the problem is.
- Surround yourself with true friends. Your real friends are people who value you for you, who treat you with love and respect and compassion at all times. They affirm your self-worth and remind you that you don’t derive your value from what others think.
- Ignore them. Many students begin their aggression with verbal taunts. They want a response from their target. They derive pleasure from seeing others upset. Refuse to acknowledge them.
- Advocate for yourself. Speak up. Speak out. Make sure that you are always the one in control of you and you take away the power from those trying to assert dominance.
As I shared with many of my students’ parents recently, I can’t control what happens to my students when I am not supervising them. But from 7:55 am to 3:10 pm, when my students are under my supervision or the supervision of another teacher in the building, there is absolutely no reason for any of them to ever use violence as a response to anything that happens at school.
There is always a better way. Until we all get around this and teach it to every student at every opportunity, we are going to see the same problems happening again and again. Let’s change the message and change the cycle. Now.
There is an old maxim that is often attributed to various famous people who, while they may have said it at some point, are likely not the origin. The maxim is this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different result.”
There are several things I find interesting about this statement: First, it emphasises doing the same thing the same way. That is different from trying to accomplish the same thing by doing something in a different way. The first is unproductive; the second is the heart and soul of critical thinking and problem solving. Second, the statement has a lot of validity in and of itself; I don’t know why people feel the need to attribute it to famous individuals or organisations. Third, I have noticed that those in my profession are notorious for doing the same thing in the same way and getting frustrated by the same results, as if we expected something else to happen.
This was on my mind today when a student of mine was acting out in class, getting up and wandering the classroom, and trying to tell others what to do instead of focusing on personal responsibility. This is a student who is used to teachers taking away recess time, calling Mom, sending the student to the principal’s office, and either issuing detentions or suspensions. When asked, the student admitted that this has been the typical response of teachers since kindergarten.
When I heard this, I simply looked at the student and said, “Then why on earth should I do that, too? It clearly doesn’t work; your behaviour hasn’t changed in four years as a result of the punishments. Why don’t we try something new?” The student looked at me as if I was crazy. But I was absolutely serious. The usual punishments haven’t worked. All they have succeeded in doing is make the student less inclined to want to be at school in the first place.
During this conversation, I thought about the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I learned about this summer. I especially wondering if I was remembering the three steps of his Plan B approach: Plan B showing empathy, defining the problem by expressing concerns, and inviting them to brainstorm solutions. What I realised was that the most challenging component is getting the student to engage in the conversation. (Ironically, this was strongly emphasised in Dr. Greene’s book.)
I am going to be gone tomorrow but I am going to try again with this student on Wednesday. Because while I am not going to do the same thing in the same way and expect a different result, I am absolutely going to try something else.
Classrooms have a lot of ambient noise in them. I once used a decibel meter on my iPad and found out that the average level of noise in my room was about 65 dB if everyone was present and trying very hard to be silent. Once we add movement and activity, the noise levels increase dramatically.
This can be especially challenging when I am trying to teach my students to engage in different tasks at the same time during Reading Workshop. Some students will be reading independently, some will be doing individual practice on Chromebooks, some will be working on writing, and others will be meeting with me. The size of these groups vary depending on the activities, but it almost always results in an increase in noise, even when we are trying to work as quietly as possible.
Today we added to the mix our Drama teacher who came in to work with the students on an arts infusion project involving narratives and plays. Even though she was only working with a relatively small number of students at a time, the ambient noise was enough that many were distracted and struggled with staying focused on their own tasks.
I realised this afternoon that what may help my students the most is a simple tool to reduce distractions: noise-cancelling ear muffs. I once had a massive classroom supply of these that I picked up at Harbor Freight nearly six years ago. In fact, I had 30 sets, because I had 28 students that year and I figured a few extra would not be a bad idea.
Over the intervening years, however, that collection has dwindled down to just one pair. Some of the original 30 were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged, either accidentally or, sadly, intentionally, by students. One way or another, I have lost most of my collection. So now I am contemplating devoting a portion of my wonderful district-provided classroom budget to restocking. (I usually use this money to purchase new books for my classroom or to pay for subscriptions to educational websites to support learning.) While Harbor Freight still sells them, I can get them for much less through Dollar Tree where they are, of course, just $1 (although I have to buy them in cases of 12, that’s really not a major concern).
The question really isn’t, “Should I buy them?” though; it is simply, “How soon should I place an order and provide a simple tool for my students to work with fewer distractions?” I am thinking tomorrow is a good idea.
It happens. We get into the flow of a five-day work week with a two-day weekend and then, BAM!, we get hit with a three-day weekend. What do we do? What do we do? We have this extra day! An extra 24 hours where we don’t have to go to bed early because we don’t have to get up early to get ready for school or work! It is a holiday and, by golly, we are going to make the most of it!
I’m all for holidays. I love them. They are fun and exciting and, sometimes, even restful! Over the Labor Day Weekend, I got to travel to Ohio to visit family that I haven’t seen since last Christmas. I hung out with my two nieces and my nephew. We played with toys, we laughed, my nieces painted my toenails, we ate ice cream, I read a book, we took long naps, and we played games. It was awesome.
But then Monday came, and it was time to head back home. Because, as we all ought to know, Tuesday still comes after Monday and that meant it was time to come back to work, back to school.
I wish I could say my class just picked up right where we left off last week. I wish I could say that we kept on keeping on without a single disruption.
To be totally honest, today was probably the most challenging day of this year so far. (And yes, I realise it was only our twelfth day of school.) There was a lot more talking and there were a lot more students who were having trouble focusing on what we were trying to do.
I should have stopped and regrouped. But I kept trying to push through, hoping that my students would correct themselves and get back to being the awesome, amazing, hardworking, focused students I had the first eleven days of school.
But I didn’t and, really, that is my fault. The challenges today are on me. I should have stopped. I should have helped them regroup, to use restorative practices to help my students get back to where they were supposed to be. Sure, my students had a role in the chaos that happened today. Sure, they could have been more helpful in helping me. But I am the the adult in the room; I am the one who does know better and should have been better.
Sometimes we make mistakes. It happens. We get caught up in the moment and we forget what we are really trying to do because we get mired in the stuff that gets in our way. Fortunately, tomorrow is a new day, a new chance to start over, to reevaluate, to apologise, and to make amends.
Thank goodness for new days!
Last week I wrote about using restorative practices in my classroom, focusing on the using of restorative circles. After missing a day of work due to an illness, I found myself reflecting today on another restorative practice: restoring the classroom to its normal way of doing things.
I was hopeful yesterday that my students would continue to do the things that they typically do on any given day. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly what happened. And so today I had to take time to restore not just our routines and procedures and expectations, I also had to take time to restore my relationships with my students.
If I am going to be an effective teacher, I need my students to know and believe two things: first, that I will always do all I can to keep them safe and second, that they can trust me to make sure their time in the classroom is used to help them learn. In other words, my job gets down to two words: safety and trust. If I don’t have those, then I can’t do anything else, no matter how brilliant my units may be or how amazing the technology tools we have are.
So I spent part of today working to restore the trust and restore the sense of safety. It meant that I had to be firm and consistent with everything I said, to take time to listen to what my students had to say to me, and to show them that I will do the things I say I will do. I also had to own my faults in the troubles that happened yesterday.
Restorative practices are not just about gimmicks; they are about truly restoring relationships so that all can succeed, both students and teachers.