Students in fourth grade talk. A lot. And because they talk a lot, they say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have read a few books by Dr. Tony Wagner, an educator who has focused his research on the skills or competencies students need to survive and thrive in the 21st century, and the seven he has identified are: problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative, communication, analysing information, and curiosity. (This is very much a simplification of his findings, but if you are interested in knowing more, I recommend his books The Global Achievement Gap, Creating Innovators, and Most Likely to Succeed.) All of these survival skills connect to communicating with others, though, so it would make sense that, as students enter the middle grades (4-8) and really start developing these skills, that they are going to spend a lot of time talking to and with each other.
But because they are in the early stages of learning how to do these things, it also means that they spend much more time saying things that they ought not to say than I, their other teachers, or the classmates, would prefer. Today was one of those days where the opportunity to teach students to THINK before they speak presented itself and I took full advantage of the moment.
Many teachers, and others, I would hope, are familiar with this concept. Before saying something, you should ask yourself five simple questions:
Now, I certainly did not come up with this acronym, nor did I make the image. (I tried to find an original source for it, but failed in my efforts.) And there are some variations on it, but this is the one I prefer.
Far too often, my students justify a comment they make by arguing that what they said is true. I don’t disagree with them. However, I do ask them to consider further if the comment is helpful to our learning community and, if so, how. I then ask if it is important to say it right then and there. This is slightly different from being necessary, which may need to be said, but not at that moment. And I end by asking if it is kind. When presented with these questions, students will often recognise that while what they said was true, it usually wasn’t helpful, important, necessary, or kind.
Now, to be honest, there are still some students who say things that are hurtful or unimportant or unnecessary or unkind anyway and will try to justify it to themselves and others but, most of the time, they will acknowledge that the comments were not appropriate for that setting and will apologise to their classmates and/or teachers.
That is part of learning how to do something. We try, we make mistakes, we change, and we try something new. Sometimes we try the same thing several times before finally admitting that it isn’t working. But we never give up on ourselves or others; that’s what being a community of learners is all about, and that’s why learning how to THINK before we speak is so very important.
The status quo is such an interesting concept. On the one hand, innovation that results in changes for the better is key to successful teaching. If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got. On the other hand, there are certain things that are done because they are tried, tested, and effective. The goal, for me, is to find the balance between doing what has been known to work and making changes that will result in improved outcomes.
For those who have been reading my blog, it should be no surprise that this year has been a year for me to resist the status quo when it comes to responding to student behaviour, whether desired or not. I have been reading and researching effective systems of classroom management, especially when it comes to restorative practices, and it has become increasingly apparent to me that doing what teachers have always done is resulting in the same outcomes that we have always seen, despite sincere efforts to change.
I expected some push-back as I began to make changes in my classroom management approach. I knew that there would be people who would prefer I use the traditional approaches because they are familiar. But I’ll be honest: I expected the most push-back to come from colleagues who might have felt like I was implying that what they have been doing is wrong and from parents who very often don’t like big changes in how teachers do things. I was wrong on both assumptions. While many of my colleagues are not yet ready to jump into restorative practices, many are testing them out and seeing how things work for me. Most parents have been very supportive, especially as I have been open and honest about why I am doing what I am doing.
Instead, the push-back has been coming from my students, who still don’t understand why I don’t just call their parents in the middle of class, send students to the principal’s office, take away recesses or other privileges, or suspend them for acting out. Even though they can articulate my reasoning (these practices don’t result in changed behaviour and often result in increased challenges), they don’t really understand that we have to be willing to do something else.
Often what I hear from students is accusations that I don’t do anything. This isn’t true; it is just that what I do isn’t always obvious to everyone. But that is kind of the point. The traditional approaches often incorporate very public punishments: things that are, at their root, intended to shame students into correct behaviour. However, there are very few instances when such an approach actually has the desired outcome. And so I am using approaches that, in many ways, are similar to the Boy Scouts of America’s EDGE method of teaching: I explain, I demonstrate, I guide, and I enable. My goal is always to teach my students the self-discipline to be active agents in making better choices.
This is a lofty goal, I know. But I also know that my students are very capable of rising to the challenge. It may take a long time to unlearn the expectations of the past, but it will happen. I know it. Some of them know it. Eventually I hope that all of them will know it.
In the meantime, I will continue to resist the status quo. I will resist the urge to give in to the pressure and resort to old methods that haven’t worked for me and, more importantly, haven’t worked for them.
“Authentic” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in education, much like “meaningful,” “reflective,” and “engaging.” Some educators, unfortunately, use these words as a way of playing a game. As a result, I try very hard to make sure that I don’t throw “eduspeak” around just to say it; I think often about the counsel to say what you mean and mean what you say. So when I talk about “authentic choices,” I mean giving students options that are both real and acceptable. (This is likely a topic I have written about before, but my computer’s battery is about to die so I don’t have time to search for it.)
I used to give students many different choices at once, but I discovered rather quickly that there were too many options and students were easily overloaded. So, instead, I usually limit the choices to just two. I make sure that they are options that both the students will find want to select and I am okay with them selecting because they all result in students learning. Sometimes these options relate to selecting a book for a guided reading group. Sometimes it is whether we are going to work on writing first and then math, or math first and then writing. Sometimes the choice is whether to do read to self with lights on or off, or music playing or not.
The point isn’t to have life-changing or mind-blowing choices. It is simply to give the students choice and to make sure they know that they are the ones deciding. I always tell them how many choices they have and that either option is completely acceptable to me. What I don’t do is give them false choices, such as choosing between reading at their desks or having a detention after school. Using language like that does nothing more than lead to student distrust and resentment.
Authentic choices definitely improve the culture of the classroom as students recognise that they have a say in what they do. (Obviously, there are times when I cannot give them choices, such as if they have to do a state-mandated assessment or we have to be at one of our special classes at a specific time.) But whenever possible, I try to give students choices so that they can experience making decisions and observing what happens as a result of those choices.
Over the past couple of years, I have been blitzing my way through the over 130 episodes of a podcast called Educators Lead. It consists of interview with school leaders and teacher leaders across the United States and, occasionally, from Canada. I am currently on episode 102, so I still have a way to go before I am actually caught up.
From time to time, I hear of something on the podcast series that gets me thinking a lot more about how I do what I do. One such thing I recently learned about is a strategy that Dr. Ryan B. Jackson calls “the competitive teaching model.” You can learn more about how he developed this strategy by watching his TED talk below:
While I am nowhere close to being an expert on this strategy, the idea of having students compete against one another for a mutually positive goal caught my attention and I thought about how I could try that in my classroom. As a book by Eric Jensen I read a year ago pointed out, “”if the potential gain is good and the potential loss is acceptable, try out new ideas.” With that in mind, I decided to try something new with an inquiry project my students were starting.
Illinois is in the process of implementing new social studies standards. As is typical with my district, we are using the standards now. These standards, aligned to the C3 Framework, represent a massive shift in how we teach about social studies. Instead of historical events and people and places presented in a chronological order, we are looking at broad topics related to Civics, Economics, Geography, and History. One of the standards for fourth graders is to understand how where we live shapes their lives. Relying heavily on a unit designed by a wonderful colleague of mine in another building, I started this unit by explaining the two key components of research the students will be doing:
- a large group project comparing Urbana to Gibson City so that students can identify how the two communities are similar and how they are different, based on a series of six questions we came up with as a class and
- an individual project learning about another state in our country and comparing it to Illinois.
We started the first part today. I used ClassDojo to randomly divide the class into two groups after we came up with our six questions. One group was tasked with researching Urbana and the other group is researching Gibson City. The groups were told that they would be sharing their findings with the other class in two weeks.
So, where does the competitive piece come in? Well, I overheard one of the students in the group researching Urbana ask, “Hey, what is Big Grove? What does that have to do with Urbana?” I responded, “That’s a great question that I expect you to be able to answer as part of your project!” At the same time, the other group had someone ask, “What’s important about Gibson City?” I responded, “Well, Gibson City has a world famous landmark and I expect you to identify it in your project!” Then I told both groups, “Oh, by the way, you have each been given a specific task. If you aren’t able to complete it, your group will fail this assignment! Have fun!”
Now, I didn’t actually think that was a competitive challenge, but when the groups realised that they both had a challenge, they took to it with a vigour I have rarely seen in my classroom! Without even telling them they were competing, they decided to take it as a competition anyway! (Now, before I get any angry phone calls or emails, I should assure all parents and others reading that I will not give any group a failing grade simply because they miss one part of the project. My statement was meant to be partially hyperbolic–I say partially because I fully expect the groups to find the information I required as a part of their project.)
While I don’t know if Dr. Jackson will totally agree with my tiny step toward using a competitive teaching model in my classroom, I would say that I am at least trying! In the meantime, my students are fully engaged in learning as much as they can about these two communities.
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting this year about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of classroom management and responding to problematic behaviours. Several of my posts this year have been about what I am trying new, but today I found myself thinking about all the things that teachers have done in the past that simply don’t work and, not surprisingly, still don’t work.
The problem for me, though, is that many of my students are used to these ineffective approaches and it is what they expect. Some of them have even expressed frustration with me for not doing the typical things. I have explained that I am not using those tactics because, quite honestly, they don’t work.
So, what have teachers tried to use in the past that didn’t work then and still aren’t working?
- Raising their voices to talk over the noise of the classroom. I admit I have done this before. (As a matter of fact, all of the things I am about to list are things that I have done before; that’s a big part of how I know that they don’t actually work!) All that raising my voice and trying to talk over my students accomplishes is adding to the noise levels. It doesn’t get anyone’s attention and it doesn’t solve the problem. What has worked, at least occasionally, is lowering my voice or not speaking at all and simply waiting patiently, even if it takes 15-20 minutes.
- Calling parents. This is a tough one for me. I want to keep parents involved and I want them to know what is going on at school. But I have found that calling parents about the negative things doesn’t have any impact on what students do. All it seems to do is embarrass the student, result in a change of behaviour for about a day or two, and then the student is mad at me for involving Mom or Dad and then the relationship between the two of us is even worse. Additionally, the parents come to associate my phone number with bad news, and that’s never a foundation for a healthy relationship of trust and communication. What has worked is using Class Dojo, where parents can see the positives right alongside the negatives. I still call parents, but I try to save the calls for great news or conversations after we’ve already messaged one another over Class Dojo.
- Sending a student out of the room to another teacher. Sometimes this works really well. There are some students who just need a break from their peer group and need an opportunity to recover in another space with an adult they trust who isn’t me. I haven’t seen this as a particularly effective tool this year, perhaps because the other teachers in the hall already have their hands full. The closest alternative I’ve been able to come up with is having a quiet space in the room for students to go to, but this hasn’t worked as well as I had hoped because even the quiet space is still very visible to rest of the class.
- Sending a student to the principal. This is a time-honoured tradition and one that drives me up the wall. I have done it far too many times in my career, even though it never seems to make a real difference. I’m not even sure what the rationale for such an action is, except that it removes a student exhibiting challenging behaviours from the room. The problem, of course, is that student that quickly enters a cycle of frustration, removal, embarrassment, frustration, repeated ad nauseum. In addition, the principal becomes associated with a) being the true authority figure and b) being the person who metes out punishment. (Seriously, how many times have you heard of someone going to the principal’s office and associated it with anything good? As a prospective principal, that makes me sad. I would much rather students come to me for celebrations than for punishment!) The alternative to this is very similar to using a teacher partner. One idea I am considering is using the office as a quiet place for a student to come and work and then return to the classroom. I haven’t tried this yet this year, but I’ve talked to my building secretaries and they are willing to give it a shot.
- Taking away recess time. This is something I have fought against for almost all my time at Wiley. The problem with taking away recess is that it takes away the opportunity for students to get physical activity, release pent-up energy, and practice positive social skills. I will take away free choice during recess instead. This means that a student may spend all of recess walking laps. If friends want to join them, that’s fine. If they want to run or jog or skip or hop, that’s fine. They are still losing privileges as a result of their choices, but they aren’t losing the opportunity for physical activity. This has been a strategy that has worked rather well in the past and is one I plan on using more of in the future.
So there are some things that I and other teachers have done in the past that haven’t worked then and aren’t working now. I admit that there are still other strategies that I need to be tried. But, as I told one student today, I’m not going to waster my time or their time doing things that don’t work. Even if it takes us all year to figure it out, we will figure out something that will actually work in making a difference. Otherwise we are just wasting time.
Ain’t nobody got time for that!
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?
Over the summer I read a book highly recommended by a friend, who, incidentally, used to be a part-time music teacher here in my building before she took a full-time job elsewhere. The book was called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. I wrote an extensive review of it here. For those who don’t want to read it, the short version of my review was that Mr. Kohn definitely made some good points, but I think there was a middle ground that bridges intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that he neglects.
Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. This is the goal that we have for all students. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do the right thing because you will receive a reward of some sort as a result. In his book, Mr. Kohn argues that rewards actually kill intrinsic motivation; that people will stop doing the right thing if they are offered a reward for it.
I think believe that there is a way to move from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation by reinforcing pro-social skills while acknowledging the outcome of desired behaviour, but also recognising that it is nice to receive some sort of recognition for what you have done.
Which leads me to the Dojo Store.
I, along with most of the teachers in my building and many teachers throughout the world, use Class Dojo as a behaviour management tool in my classroom. I don’t use it as a threat or a punishment or a reward in and of itself. It is simply a tool to track what students are doing at different moments of the day. Class Dojo is not a perfect representation of the day, but if used correctly, it provides a fairly decent snapshot and can help me target problematic time periods. It is also a helpful tool when communicating with parents about what their child did on any given day at any given time.
One of the new teachers in my building shared an way she uses to help students transfer the Dojo points they receive to tangible, age-appropriate incentives or rewards. It is called the Dojo Store, which she found through Teachers Pay Teachers. (I tried tracking down the original but was unsuccessful. There are lots of similar options on that site, though.) How the Dojo Store works is pretty simple: each Dojo point translates to one Dojo Dollar. Students will be able to bank their dollars to purchase different incentives. Low-cost incentives include things like wearing a hat for the day or sitting in the teacher’s chair or being able to take off their shoes. Mid-priced incentives are things like extra recess or Chromebook time or helping another teacher for a brief period of time. High-cost incentives are things like a class movie or a class pajama day.
I’ll keep track of the students Dojo Dollars but they will, too. When a student makes a purchase, I deduct that amount from their account. They can make purchases any time as long as they have the money in their account to do so.
I’m excited to try this out and hope it will be a positive way to help my students see that their positive behaviours have a direct, positive outcome. And that’s the goal of bridging extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: I want my students to see that their actions have consequences!