The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Philosophy

Competitive Inquiry

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:

  1.  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
  2. 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.

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When What Doesn’t Work Still Doesn’t Work

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!


When Patience Is Needed Most

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:

  1. A student acts out.
  2. The teachers tells the student to stop the behaviour.
  3. The student acts out again.
  4. The teacher more firmly tells the student to stop.
  5. The student acts out for a third time.
  6. The teacher, now very frustrated, loudly and angrily tells the student to stop.
  7. The student argues back.
  8. The teacher sends the student to the office and/or calls home.
  9. The student misses class.
  10. The student comes back to class.
  11. The student has no idea what is going on in class.
  12. The student acts out again.
  13. And the cycle repeats, but this time the student gets suspended.
  14. The cycle repeats and again and again.
  15. 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?


Implementing the Dojo Store

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!


Trying Something New

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.


Restorative Practices

As many of you know, I earned a Master of Education degree in Educational Administration in May 2016. Over the course of the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to interview for several administrative positions throughout Illinois. It is very common for an interviewer to ask me about my approach to student discipline.

As I mentioned last April,”discipline,” to me, is not simply educator code for “punishment;” discipline is all about helping students develop self-management. As a part of this, my response to the interview question also focuses on my passion for restorative practices in the classroom. This is a concept I have been learning about for about four years, and have paid particular attention to since the passage of Illinois Senate Bill 100, which requires schools to use them to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions through the use of alternative procedures, such as restorative practices.

My school district has been using these at the middle and high school for a few years now, while I have been trying different ideas in my fourth grade classroom. Restorative practices are, simply put, focused on restoring healthy, positive relationships among students and their teachers. Some of these practices may be the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I wrote about here, or Restorative Circles, sometimes called Classroom Circles, described here.

I facilitated my first formal restorative circle with my class this morning. Several students had been engaging in a disagreement that started with recess the day before. It turned into disruptions during their fine arts class and then spilled into the classroom. Rather than using the Office Discipline Referral form and outsourcing my authority, I had the students involved in the disagreement sit in a circle in the middle of the carpet and then had everyone else sit in a larger circle around them. As the students in the inner circle talked through the issue, they had to describe what had happened and how it made them feel. The others observed simply. One the main problem was identified, those in the other circle were able to share how the incident made them feel. Then the inner circle continued their discussion, focusing on solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved.

Restorative circles are not a quick process, but they have a much more lasting impact that traditional discipline techniques that don’t, in fact, focus so much on student-centered self-mastery and problem solving as do collaborative problem solving and restorative practices. I will continue to learn more about these practices as the year progresses, but I think we are definitely off to a great start!


Rewards, Punishment, Consequences, and Discipline

Classroom management is really important.

No, seriously. I am going to write that again because it is that important: Classroom management is really important.

Teachers do a lot of things throughout the course of their days. It is often claimed (based on work reported by Dr. Philip W. Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms) that teachers make approximately 1,500 decisions a day. I get to work at about 7:30 am and am making decisions directly related to my classroom until 3:30 pm every day. That’s eight hours. In those 4 hours, I guarantee that I am making some kind of decision at least every 15 seconds, probably closer to 10. But let’s go with 15, or 4 decisions a minute. That’s 240 decisions an hour, which is a total of 1,920 decisions a day. So, really, I think Dr. Jackson was actually lowballing the number of decisions a teacher makes.

Every single one of those decisions impacts how the class is managed, or run. Classroom management is so important that, when searching the term, Google came up with 19,100,000 results in 0.73 seconds. If even just one-tenth of those were unique hits, that still gives us nearly 2,000,000 websites, books, articles, and other resources about this concept. Search just books on classroom management on Goodreads and you find 790 results in 0.15 seconds.

All of which is to say there is no way I could possibly address all the nuances and ideas and theories that abound when it comes to what classroom management actually is, how it works, how to do it effectively, and how to adjust to different situations as they arise. As an educator leader I recently listened to once said, when it comes to students, one size fits one; there is no magic cure that will address every need every time.

So what am I writing about classroom management for? Mostly because I wanted to tease out my own thoughts on four foundational components of running an organisation such as a classroom: rewards, punishment, consequences, and discipline. For me, these terms all have very specific meaning and very specific uses that need to be clearly taught, not just to students, but also to parents, teachers, and other adults.

The first two are fairly straightforward and have had long-standing definitions that are generally understood by everyone: do the right thing and receive a reward, one that is either tangible and extrinsic or intangible and extrinsic. Do the wrong thing and something unpleasant or undesirable happens to you: a punishment.

The second two, on the other hand, seem to get a bit messier when we try to discuss them with others. What I have observed in my years teaching and in general is that “consequences” are often equated with “punishment.” Teachers often talk about “natural consequences” but what they usually refer to are the negative ones; the punishment. But consequences are simply what happens as a result of a decision. Rewards are consequences for desired behaviour. Punishment is the consequence for undesired behaviour. If you are working quietly on your exam and you are focused on the questions, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform at your best. If you are trying to talk to others and are easily distracted, the consequence, quite often, is that you will perform poorly. The point is that consequences, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad; they simply are.

Discipline, likewise, is far too often equated with punishment. If a student receives an office discipline referral, it isn’t because the student has done something desirable. If you hear a parent talk about disciplining a child at home, it rarely means anything other than meting out punishment that, hopefully, matches the severity of the crime. But that’s not what discipline really is, even if that is the usage that has been around for over a thousand years. Discipline is, at it’s root, a word that refers to instruction given, teaching, learning, gaining knowledge. I find it incredible disheartening that we have, for centuries, taken the view that the only way to learn something is through punishment; that we do things out of fear of something unpleasant instead of a desire for something good. (A related word, disciple, incidentally, seems to have only positive connotations as it reflects the idea of being one who has taken hold of, grasped, or fully comprehended something.)

How does all of this relate to my classroom management approach? My practice is rooted in the belief that children are still learning how to be people, how to interact with other children, with adults, with peers, and with authority figures. They are learning, in short, how to be. Sometimes this learning results in punishment, yes. Sometimes it results in rewards. I hope that they always connect their actions to the consequences that follow and, in so doing, learn personal discipline, or self-mastery. Everything I do as a teacher, all of those thousands of decisions I make each day, all come back to one single question: what is best for the students? If I can honestly say that what I have done has been because I am putting the needs of my 23 individual students, and of my class, my school, my district, and/or my community first, then I am doing what I need to do: teaching my students to be masters of their own selves. But if I am focusing on just the first two and ignoring the second, then I am not teaching them how to be, I am simply teaching them how to do.

That’s not good enough for me, and, I hope, it isn’t good enough for them, either.