For many years now, schools have been making a concerted effort to increase the levels of cooperation and collaboration, both within the classroom among students and within the schools themselves among students. It seems strange to me, then, that we still assess students individually.
Think about it. Students spend most of the day working in groups, talking to one another, helping one another, supporting one another. They are taught to share knowledge and resources to find solutions to complex problems, to find creative paths to those solutions. The school day is literally filled with co-laboring, which is the root of the word collaborate.
Then, after they have spent all this time learning and designing and producing together, we sit them at individual desks with individual copies of an assessment and we tell them to show us what they know on their own. Is it any wonder that so many of our students who flourish working in groups (and I mean actually working together, not just copying the work of someone else) struggle when we give them an assessment and tell them it has be completed without any help from others?
There are so many other ways we could assess our students. Portfolio reviews, group assignments with individual contributions recorded, and whole-class discussions are some that I have used after seeing the research that goes into them. There are surely a multitude of other tools that we could use to determine whether or not our students know the material they have been taught and understand how to use the tools they have been given.
And yet we still default to the independent assessment. It is built into our DNA as educators, it has been enshrined in our practice, and it has been encoded in our laws.
A few nights ago I rewatched a favourite film of mine: Australia. There is a line shared a few times that I often come back to when I reflect on what we do in our classrooms and in our schools: It is this simple but profound statement: “Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”
I often think about what schools would look like, sound like, feel like, be like if I could start from scratch with a team of highly-skilled teachers, staff, and leaders and recreate the education system from the ground up. We did it in our nation over a hundred years ago, back in 1893 when the Committee of Ten designed the system as we know it today. What would happen if a new Committee of Ten were commissioned and charged with redesigning the system with 21st century learning as the focus? What would we change? What would I change? Why?
These are some of the things that I think about. I don’t really have any answers yet. What do you think?
Sometimes you get into a pattern of doing things and it seems to be working well so you keep doing it. Other times you get into a pattern of doing things and it starts off all right but then goes astray little by little until you look around and realise that you aren’t anywhere close to where you want to be.
I once heard a story about an airline pilot who set a course for a lengthy flight that was off by just one degree. For some flights, such a minute error wouldn’t make a significant difference, but for long flights, an error of just one degree can result in the plane being hundreds of miles off course. In this particular story, by the time the error was recognised, it was too late, ending in a tragedy.
Now, I’m saying that the minor errors in an elementary classroom are going to lead to tragedies if left alone, but I am thinking about how easy it is to get in a rut and not recognise the minor errors until it may feel like it is too late to go back and fix them. For example, teachers often set a voice level expectation in the classroom as we help our students learn how to modulate their volume based on different settings. If everyone is meant to be reading independently, we may tell the students that they should be at a voice level zero, which is silent. This isn’t because we don’t want talking, but simply because talking while others are reading is distracting. On the other hand, a student who is giving a presentation to the entire class may be told to use a level four voice, which is a presenting voice that can be heard by everyone.
If I tell students that they should be at a level zero and then ignore the quiet talking, what I am actually communicating to them is that a level zero is actually a whisper or quiet conversation. If this goes on for too long, then eventually we don’t even have a baseline for what a level zero actually is. Fortunately, we can recalibrate. We can pause whatever academic instructional topic we are on and adjust voice levels to where they need to be.
We have been doing some recalibrating in my classroom over the past few weeks to fix some errors with how we do our reading workshop time. Tomorrow morning we will do some recalibrating with voice levels, too, so that students can more effectively work while respecting the rights of others to work without distractions. After all, the classroom is a community and a community is a group of people who help one another!
I am a big fan of setting limits, of establishing boundaries, or making parameters known. These are things that make like slightly more predictable, comfortable, and safe. I’ve blogged before about the benefits of setting limits in the classroom and how that relates to classroom management. What I am writing about today, though, is something different. I am writing about the limitations that actually lead to limitless possibilities.
It has been a long-standing tradition in my classroom that students get 30-45 minutes each week on Friday to engage in an activity that I call “Read, Write, Think!” While I have blogged about this before, too, the gist of it is that, during this time, students have several options: the can read independently, with a partner, or in a group; they can write independently, with a partner, or in a group; or they can think by drawing, playing cognitive games with others, solving puzzles, or doing math. This is a time when Chromebooks are closed and students are selecting what they will do.
There are definite limits to this activity. It is not free choice, which is something that they may have done in the primary grades. It is not indoor recess, which they have had lots of during the cold months of winter. It is a time for students to select from a menu of options a task that they want to engage in. Some may wish to do something from each category. Others pick on option and stay with it.
What is interesting about these limits is how limitless the possibilities are. There are three categories with ten sub-categories. But I have hundreds, if not thousands, of books in my classroom. Student writing can be anything at all. I have dozens of cognitive games and puzzles. There are likely an infinite number of math problems or challenges that students could tackle. And so the limitations still have limitless possibilties.
It is easy to look at the limits and bemoan what cannot be done. Far too often, I hear students say, “But I don’t want to do that!” My goal is to help them see the limits and as a way of focusing on what they can do, though. I definitely have limitations on what I can do in my life, but within those limitations? The possibilities are endless!
I was out of the classroom all day last Wednesday. I had a great substitute, a former Wiley teacher that many of my students know because they had her in first grade: Miss C, who has been mentioned in this blog more than once. While things were generally okay, there were still struggles and challenges while I was gone that I wished had not happened.
I was out of the classroom again this afternoon, and I had Miss C, who is now married but is known by the same name (at least for the time being), but I wanted to see if I could help the students have more success. One thing I had thought about was empowering them to make choices on their own.
I had one student who likes to work in another teacher’s room when he is feeling overwhelmed by peers around him. I gave him two passes that he could use, one during reading workshop and one during writing workshop. I reminded him who the substitute would be and encouraged him to stay in the room to help as needed but made sure he knew he could use his passes if he needed to.
Another student often gets bored in class and needs something to do to feel like he is contributing in a helpful way. So I gave him the task of putting mail in the mailboxes and in helping Miss C with technology issues if they happened again.
A third student had a math assessment he needed to complete. He knew that he would be able to use his Chromebook once the assessment was completed, and so he had an incentive to complete his work.
And so it went. Students were given specific tasks and were encouraged to do their best while I was gone. I left the room right before lunch, with students excited to help their former teacher and show their current teacher what they could do.
The report I got at the end of the day was that the students were awesome. They worked on reading, vocabulary, and writing. They helped the substitute, they cleaned the room at the end of the day, and they generally followed directions, met expectations, and showed that they knew what they were expected to do.
I have often been asked about my approach to student discipline. I am not shy about stating that my approach is one of encouraging actual discipline: self-control, self-regulation, and pro-social skills. Discipline is helping student treat others with respect and dignity and to advocate for themselves when they feel that they are not being treated with respect and dignity. Too often, teachers use “discipline” to mean “punishment.” What I heard from my friend and substitute today was that my students showed that they have the discipline to do what is expected when they are empowered to do it. They didn’t need threats of punishment or retribution; they only needed to know what to do, how to do it, and why it should be done. Knowing they can do it in the classroom, I hope they realise that they can do it anywhere!
Does it work every day? No, of course not. My students are children who are still learning. I am still learning and I am 35 years old as of last Friday. I don’t ask for perfection; I ask only for effort. I am pleased that my students responded by rising to the occasion!
So, I haven’t updated my blog in a while. And there is a really simple, but kind of silly, reason why: my district’s network won’t let me access my blog’s admin panel. I can visit my blog, but I can’t post any updates while at work. So I haven’t been posting any updates at all.
“But wait!” You ask, “Why don’t you just update at home?”
I used to do that. But then I realised I was taking time away from my family. So I tried to write my blog posts during the time I had after school while waiting for my wife to come pick me up. I suppose I could write them in Google Docs and then just copy and paste from home, but for some reason that I can’t identify, I haven’t been doing that. Maybe I ought to start. Or maybe I ought to just start blogging from home again.
What’s ironic is that I am writing this from home right now. Mostly because I managed to break my little toe yesterday and didn’t do anything about it last night. I spent most of today hobbling around the building, trying to keep up with my students who didn’t fully realise what a teacher’s broken toe would mean. But I am writing from home because my wife is downstairs painting and I am upstairs, trying to keep my foot elevated and wondering how such a tiny thing can cause such a great deal of pain.
Which brings me back to the network issues. You see, my computer also stopped connecting to any of our district’s networks this afternoon, so I wasn’t able to pull up notes for reading groups, I wasn’t able to get to my plans for writing groups, and I couldn’t print off the parent newsletter I was hoping to send home this week. I still met with reading groups, but I wasn’t able to do as much as I wanted. And I ended up moving some parts of my day around so that the students had some free choice time at the end of the day. (I guess this was kind of my birthday present to them. Oh, right, today was also my birthday. 35 years old. I have almost spent more of my life living and working in this area than not. Not quite, but almost.)
Anyway, I digress, which, come to think of it, is something I do more often than not when I am blogging.
Having network issues at work when you are an instructional technology specialist and you use 21st century digital technology in the classroom more than anyone else is as painfully inconvenient as having a broken toe. Sure, I can still hobble around and work, but it is still annoying.
I am hoping I can get this issue resolved soon. I would like to get back to blogging about my adventures as a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois. I would like to have more time to reflect on the positives in my classroom. Because here’s the other thing I’ve noticed: I am becoming more negative about little things that happen. Much like having a broken toe has made me painfully aware of every step I take as I have pain shoot through my foot, so, too, does being unable to post about the great things happening each day make me painfully aware of all the not-so-great things that happen every day.
I don’t want to be that teacher. You know, the one who is grumbling about everything and doesn’t seem to enjoy teaching but can’t get out. The truth of the matter is that I do enjoy teaching and I love my students. Each and every single one of them. Not just the 22 assigned to my classroom, but all 284 or so in my building. They make me laugh, they make me learn, they challenge my thinking, they push me to do better, and they expand my horizons as they share their experiences with me.
I hope that they all know that. I hope that they know that they are the reason I come to work each day. They are the reason I keep trying to do better. They are the reason I keep trying to help them to do better, too. I need to have the time to reflect on that and share that every day. Otherwise, I become another grouchy old man hobbling through the building, complaining about how much my foot hurts.
Several months ago, a coworker was weeding her library collection at home and emailed all of her coworkers asking if anyone would be interested in them. These books included many genres: special education, general education, classroom management, parenting, general fiction, general nonfiction, and others that I am not recalling. As an avowed bibliophile, I jumped at the chance to expand my personal library and requested a few of her selections. One of the books I claimed was called Words Kids Need to Hear. While published under the category of Religion/Christian Life, I quickly found that there was very little, with the exception of a Christian scriptural reference here or there, that was specifically religious. In fact, I would argue that this book is very much just about parenting in general and how parents (and other adults responsible for children, such as teachers) speak to the children in their care.
I grabbed this book off my shelf before heading out of town for a trip to visit family in Ohio. I had another book I was about to finish so I thought this book would be a something to read as time permitted as we traveled. As it turned out, I was able to finish my other book fairly early into the trip and then read all of Mr. Staal’s book in the time it took to travel from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. So, while I have been left without a book to read (the horrors for an avid such as myself are real), I am glad I read this book as it gave me several important reminders about what I say to my students (and my nephews and nieces and Cub Scouts) and how I say it.
The seven specific phrases or words that Mr. Staal suggests kids need to hear are not a secret (they are listed on the back cover of the book) nor are they earth-shattering (they are words that we have hopefully all used from time to time). They are still very important, which is why we ought to be more diligent in saying them more often. What are these words? They are as follows:
- I believe in you
- You can count on me
- I treasure (or value/appreciate) you
- I’m sorry, please forgive me
- I love you
Each phrase is deservedly given its own chapter, which is broken down into chunk of what the words are, why they matter, and what can happen if they are overused. This last part I found particularly useful as I know I am guilty of overzealously using words and phrases. (Even if my blogging, I have to remind myself to limit my use of the words “however,” “unfortunately,” and “fortunately.”) For the purposes of this review, I am going to touch briefly on each phrase.
“I believe in you.” How often do the children in our lives hear this from the adults they trust? Do we encourage them without doing it for them? Do we mean it when we say it? I hope that all of my students know that I believe in them and believe that they can achieve the goals they set. I hope that they will let me into the worlds enough to let me help them in their efforts. This connects directly to the next phrase: you can count on me. I value my integrity above any other character trait. If I say I am going to do something, I will make every effort to do it. I don’t want anyone to ever brush off a commitment I make.
I am reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I first took over the leadership of my Cub Scout pack. Each year, Boy Scout units have to recharter their unit (pack or troop). The recharter is usually due the 15th of January. When I took on the responsibilities of leading my pack, I was new to everything and, as a result, our recharter packet didn’t get turned in until March. When I went to the Scout Office to turn everything in and apologise for the tardiness, I was told, “Oh, that’s okay; we are used to your unit being late.” Ouch! I promised right there and then that we would never turn in our recharter packet late again. Four years later, and that promise has been kept. (We are working on our current recharter and are on track to having it turned in shortly after the start of the year.)
I am going to jump out of order because I think the fourth phrase fits better right after the second: I’m sorry, please forgive me. We are all imperfect; we all make mistakes. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I am unable to fulfill a commitment. It is easy to come up with excuses for why this happened. It is easy to justify failing to follow through. It is a lot harder to own up to the mistake and ask for forgiveness without any qualifiers or justifications. As Mr. Staal observes, “Oh, how strong the temptation feels to continue speaking after the word ‘me’ in ‘I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ But be warned: the potency of an apology diminishes with every syllable that follows.” If I want my students to be sincere in their apologies, they need to hear models of sincere apologies from their teachers just as much as they need to hear them from their peers.
I know many adults whose justifications for why they want children to do something is “I’m the adult; I said so.” As a child, this was terribly unsatisfying. Knowing why helped me accept things I didn’t want to do. “Clean your room!” “Why?” “Because a clean room allows you to be safe and healthy and it is easier to work or play in.” “Oh, that makes sense.” Or how about an example from a school setting? “We need to be quiet as we walk down the halls because there are 250 other students in this building who are also learning and we don’t want to distract them as we go past their classrooms.” “I need you to sit down at your desk because we are doing a restroom and drink break and I can’t tell who has come back already if you are not where you are supposed to be.” Yes, it takes longer to explain why. Yes, there are instances when we don’t have time to explain everything, but if we have the time, we ought to do it!
Explaining why often helps children understand why we say no, which is another word kids need to hear. Sometimes we are afraid that the children in our lives will stop liking or loving us if we tell them no. I don’t think we could be any further from the truth. We all need to hear the word “no” from time to time. Whether that is “No, you can’t drive through this intersection right now, there are people walking in it” or “No, you can’t go into the theatre yet, there are still people in there from the last show,” being told no is a part of life. If that “no” is coupled with an explanation, even better! When children know that they can count on you to do what is best and they are used to you giving them explanations, they will likely be more willing to accept a no.
The third and seventh phrases, to me, go hand-in-hand. Do the children in our lives know that they are loved and valued? Do they know that your love for them is not predicated on their obedience or compliance? How often do we tell them, not just in our deeds but also with our words, that they are loved and that they are treasured?
One thing I plan on doing before school resumes on January 3 is write a card for each of my students to express my appreciation for them. Each card will be individualised and will speak of specific things I have seen from them that help them know that they are valuable and beloved members of our classroom community. Will it make a difference? I don’t know; that isn’t the point. The point is only to tell them that there teacher loves and values them. Also, that I believe in them, that they can count on me, that I have a reason for the things I want them to do, that sometimes I am going to have to say no, and that when I make a mistake, I will ask for forgiveness.
These are definitely words my kids need to hear from me.
Any regular reader of my blog should know that restorative justice practices have become a big focus for me in terms of my professional practices and goals as an educator. I have made a very concerted effort to use more restorative practices in my classroom this year, although I would say that the results have been somewhat mixed. That being said, I am constantly looking for ways to improve in my use of these non-exclusionary practices and so was excited to see if one of my professional journals a blurb about a new book called “Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management.”
I was even more excited when I realised that two of the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, were the authors of Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom, a book we read as an entire staff a few years ago.
There is a lot of good in Better Than Carrots or Sticks, especially if you are new to the ideas of restorative practices. The authors share practical suggestions based on actual implementation in the schools they work in and with. They present a clear case for why such practices are more effectice than the traditional practices of rewarding desired behaviours and punishing undesired ones. They provide a lot of resources for how teachers and school leaders can examine their practices, especially when it comes to office referrals, and how to improve conversations with and about students to help them learn how to be more successful in their classrooms and in their lives.
And yet this book wasn’t grand slam for me. While it had a lot of great ideas, I felt like they were the basics of restorative practices. I was hoping for more depth. Maybe it is because I do a lot more professional reading than many teachers I know, but I am growing weary of the books that lay out the basics and then end. I’ve had enough of the basics; now I am ready for the next steps. (My wife keeps suggesting I ought to write my own book to do just that, but that seems to miss the point that I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough of the depth to be able to do that!) This is, incidentally, the same issue I have had with many professional workshops and conferences I have attended on this incredibly important topic: everyone seems to present with a belief that the audience knows nothing about the topic. I need the presenters who assume that the audience knows the basics and now wants more.
Over all, I was reminded of a lot of great ideas in Better Than Carrots or Sticks and discovered some new ones that I will be implementing in my classroom this coming semester. And I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about restorative practices and how they look across the K-12 spectrum. In fact, I may suggest it as a book study selection in my district as we continue to embark on this journey toward better practices that seek to restore and heal relationships among students and staff. In the meantime, though, I will work on using these ideas with my students and see if we can have more positive results by the end of the year.
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.
Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to attend the 85th Annual Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (aka the Joint Annual Conference). While there, I attended sessions on school culture, restorative practices, arts integration, and leadership. I also got to spend time talking to school vendors about products and services that might be beneficial to my building. My wife and I attended the conference as a guest of the school district I attended growing up because my mother in on the school board. (This was our fifth time attending in as many years.)
I will be writing up some blog posts to share over the break with notes and reflections on some of the specific workshops I attended. Today I wanted to share one common theme I heard through the conference, not just from presenters and vendors but also from the school leaders I was able to chat with. It is the idea of taking time to breathe and refocus.
This year has been a great year. It really has. It isn’t because I have fewer students than in the previous six years (although that is true). And it isn’t because I have written far fewer office referrals than in the past (although also true). It is because I have been able to really engage my students in restorative practices that have shifted the mindset of misbehaviour –> punishment to misbhaviour –> opportunity to learn from mistakes and fix the problem.
It hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t worked all the time, but it has been different and it has had positive results. This afternoon during some math review, it became apparent that many students were getting off task. Instead of the traditional, often default, response of calling the office and sending students out of the room, I called a class meeting, gathered the students to the carpet, and we had a class discussion using the principles of a restorative circle. The responses from students were illuminating. Many acknowledged that members of the class was talking, off-task, and being disrespectful to others. But they also identified changes that would lead to a more focused, more peaceful classroom. They shared insights that I wasn’t aware of and made suggestions that I would not have thought of.
We took time to breathe and refocus and it changed the direction things were going in the classroom for the rest of the day. Instead of chaos and frustration, we had peace and calm but, more important, learning and engagement. It wasn’t 100% perfect. I don’t expect it to be. But it was better.
I am glad I was able to go to this conference and be reminded of the need to use this simple strategy in my life and in my classroom. Tomorrow is the last day of school before our five-day Thanksgiving Break, and then we have three weeks and two days before the Winter Break. During this time, I fully intend on integrating more times to take time to breathe and refocus.
After all, as one presenter asked, “If nobody is listening, is anyone actually learning?” I’d rather have the next eighteen days of school be days of learning instead of days of just talking. It starts with breathing and refocusing.
“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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
I think there are some teachers who think that they aren’t allowed to show their full range of emotions in the classroom; teachers who think they have to be bubbly and positive and happy all the time, no matter what is going on. Now, don’t get me wrong; I think being positive and happy and pleasant are definitely preferred emotions and I would be quite content to have my professional life be nothing but rainbows and chocolate.
But the reality is that we are human and we have a wide range of emotions. Sometimes we are happy, sometimes we are sad, sometimes we are pleased, and sometimes we are mad. What we can’t ever do is lose control. However, there is a difference between losing control and keeping everything bottled up.
Today I found myself expressing my anger with something my students had done. At this point it doesn’t really matter what it was, what matters is that I was angry and I needed my students to know it. I expressed my anger while maintaining complete control of myself.
While I don’t like getting mad and raising my voice to get my students’ attention and to speak in a forceful manner, I recognise that doing so shows them a few things: First and foremost, I am a human being who has feelings and emotions like them. Second, it showed that there are certain lines that should not be crossed and those lines very often involve treating others with respect and being safe. Third, it showed that I have high expectations for them and I am going to get upset when they deliberately fail to meet those expectations.
I hope that this will not be a regular occurrence in the classroom, however. I want my students to behave in such a way that they are respecting themselves, respecting each other, and respecting me. If they do those things, everything else will fall into place. I don’t expect 100% compliance in all things, but I do expect them to make an earnest effort to recognise the humanity in all of us and treat others in a kind, considerate, humane way.
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!
Far too often in education, we make sweeping assumptions about what our students know and are able to do, often based on our own past experiences or our nostalgic beliefs about past experiences. As a result, we sometimes assume that students already know how to do something when, in reality, they have never been taught.
This is true for social behaviour just as much as it is for academic skills. (I have blogged recently about social behaviors several times, including here, here, and here.) I have been reflecting on the need for step by step explanations that are free of assumptions as I have begun teaching my students the fourth grade math standard of identifying and measuring angles.
It is far too easy to assume that, given a protractor, a ruler, and a worksheet with with practice problems, students will be able to quickly figure out how to use the tools they are given to accurately determine the size of an angle in degrees. What I have learned is that this is far from the truth. In past years, when I have given students protractors and a pre-assessment, I have had students construct arcs instead of angles, measure the length of one ray instead of the distance in degrees between angles, or just left the page blank with a giant question mark over it.
So this year I tried something new. I made no assumptions at all. I began the very beginning and walked my students through each step, slowly and methodically. We had a lesson on plane figures, so they knew what points and rays were, but we reviewed anyway. We constructed the angle one piece at a time: first a point. They a ray pointing in one direction. Then we examined different kinds of protractors. Then we placed the protractor on the paper with the ray pointing at 0. Then we noted the 90° mark and drew a dot on the page at the right spot. Then we used the straight-edge to construct another ray. We labeled the parts and then used a different protractor to see if we got the same measurement.
Repeat with 30°, 45°, and 180° angles. These are our benchmark angles. We know what they look like, so we know that a 135° is much larger than a right angle, so when we look at the protractor, we are looking at the bigger number, number the smaller one.
In taking students through the steps one at a time, there were still some who were confused. There were still some who didn’t quite get what we were doing. But there were many more who did get it, who understood the process, and who realised that they could use any size protractor to identify, measure, and construct angles.
And sure, there were some students who already knew how to do it. But even they were patient and took their time to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes. They also helped others, because we are a classroom community and, as a colleague is so fond of saying, a community is a group of people who work together to help each other. Step by step.
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.
Today was the start of the second full week of school, just the second Monday for my students, and I missed it because I came down with some awful sickness over the weekend.
While my class was hopefully eating breakfast in the classroom, I was lying on the couch, munching on saltine crackers. While my class was hopefully reading independently in 20-minute stretches, I was lying on the couch, reading Frogkisser! by Garth Nix. While my students were supposed to be learning about how to actively listen to one another, I was trying to figure out what the word “fossick” meant. (Answer: to dig around looking for something; it is still used with some regularity in Australia, which is where Mr. Nix is from.)
While my students were eating lunch, I was wondering if I could hold down a small bowl of plain oatmeal. While my students were likely listening to Wonder, I was on hold with my doctor on the phone, trying to get information about a billing statement from last June. While my students were ideally reviewing plane figures, I was taking a break from my book to watch a movie, which required considerably less movement than turning pages. While my students were probably writing letters to the principal to suggest ideas for after school clubs, I was eating jello. And while my students were preparing to go home, I was feeling grateful that the aches and pains in my body had finally subsided.
Of course, there are a lot of unknowns in that paragraph about what my students were up to today for the simple fact that I don’t know if the plans for the day were followed, either by my substitute or my students. And because this absence was unplanned, I didn’t take time beforehand to prep my class on my expectations for what my students should do when I am gone. (Hint: they should be doing the same things they do when I am there.) I also don’t know how much support our special education teachers and literacy interventionists were able to provide while I was gone. I just don’t know.
I’ll find out tomorrow morning when I get back to work. I am hopeful that my plans were followed, that my students were learning, and that we will be able to pick up tomorrow right where we ought to. But if the worst happened and none of my plans were followed, well, that’s part of life. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. In those cases, you simply evaluate the situation and move forward.
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!