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

Posts tagged “Social & Emotional Learning

Authentic Choices

“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.

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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!


Options We Can Live With

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.


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?


Dealing with Aggression and Self-Defense

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.


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!


After School Club

First off, I apologise for not posting yesterday; my computer was being super slow and glitchy all day. It turns out I just needed to shut everything down and restart. I guess having about 20 different tabs open at once is a bad idea.

Way back in 2011, when I was first hired to work at Wiley, I wanted to start a chess club, but my principal didn’t want me taking on extra duties as a first-year teacher, The next couple of years I continued to petition for starting a club, but I was told it had to be during the school day and open to all, which was more than I could handle. After I received my awesome collection of tabletop games for my classroom through a Donors Choose campaign last year, I changed my idea to an after school tabletop gaming club. My principal liked the idea but nothing happened.

Why tabletop gaming? First, it is a great hobby and I am definitely an enthusiast! Second, tabletop gaming encourages good sportsmanship, communication, creative problem solving, and critical thinking. Third, it is a relatively inexpensive hobby. (Yes, there are expensive tabletop games, but most are about $25 and you don’t have to own a $500 game system to play them.) Fourth, they encourage fair play and turn taking. Fifth, tabletop gaming helps players learn how to deal with disappointment in a safe, controlled environment. Sixth, all of these things happen in real time and with real face-to-face interactions!

Determined to get my club off the ground this year, I started off with a concrete plan ready to go. The idea was approved and I started spreading the word. After a few delays, we finally had our inaugural meeting this afternoon. The tabletop gaming club is currently only open to students in grades 2-5 and, although 40 expressed interest in joining, only 6 brought in permission slips. (I have three more who will likely be joining us next week.)

The plan is to meet once a week for about one hour. Students will learn games and play games. And, really, that’s the whole plan. Simple, fun, engaging. I am hoping more students will join us as time goes on. And maybe other teachers will come up with club ideas, too. In the meantime. I am going to look forward to my weekly game afternoon with some great students who want to unplug to connect!