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

Posts tagged “Teachers’ Secrets

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.

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When Patience Is Needed Most

I have reflected several times this year about my desire and efforts to change the way I speak to my students, how I respond to problematic behaviours, and how I want to encourage pro-social skills among my students by using truly restorative practices in the classroom. In preparing for this shift in mindset, I read a lot of books and articles, I watched TED talks and other related videos, and attending trainings.

What I didn’t really fully grasp was how much patience it would take to make the change.

You see, my students have been conditioned to expect a normal sequence of events in the classroom. Many of you are probably familiar with this:

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

So when I decided to try this new approach, my goal was to end the frustration and anger. I communicate with parents, but I try to keep it positive as often as possible. (I have still had to make the occasional call about a problematic behaviour.) I have also made an effort to not send students to the office for correction because I truly and passionately believe that my students need to be in the classroom with their peers and their teacher, engaged in learning.

What I didn’t expect is that some of my students would be frustrated with me because of this approach. They are frustrated because I am not playing the game according to the rules they are used to. They feel like I am cheating because I am not doing what they expect, what they want. As a result of all this, I am realising that this change is going to take an awful lot of patience, not just for me, but also for my students who are making the right choices all day, every day.

Sometimes this means that everyone misses out on something because a few students are making poor choices, but that is part of building a community. As I have shared before and as I will surely share again, a community is a group of people who work together to help one another.

It will take time. It will take patience. It will take courage.

I am willing to do it. Will my students and their parents be willing to go along with me on this journey?


Implementing the Dojo Store

Over the summer I read a book highly recommended by a friend, who, incidentally, used to be a part-time music teacher here in my building before she took a full-time job elsewhere. The book was called Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn. I wrote an extensive review of it here. For those who don’t want to read it, the short version of my review was that Mr. Kohn definitely made some good points, but I think there was a middle ground that bridges intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that he neglects.

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. This is the goal that we have for all students. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do the right thing because you will receive a reward of some sort as a result. In his book, Mr. Kohn argues that rewards actually kill intrinsic motivation; that people will stop doing the right thing if they are offered a reward for it.

I think believe that there is a way to move from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation by reinforcing pro-social skills while acknowledging the outcome of desired behaviour, but also recognising that it is nice to receive some sort of recognition for what you have done.

Which leads me to the Dojo Store.

I, along with most of the teachers in my building and many teachers throughout the world, use Class Dojo as a behaviour management tool in my classroom. I don’t use it as a threat or a punishment or a reward in and of itself. It is simply a tool to track what students are doing at different moments of the day. Class Dojo is not a perfect representation of the day, but if used correctly, it provides a fairly decent snapshot and can help me target problematic time periods. It is also a helpful tool when communicating with parents about what their child did on any given day at any given time.

One of the new teachers in my building shared an way she uses to help students transfer the Dojo points they receive to tangible, age-appropriate incentives or rewards. It is called the Dojo Store, which she found through Teachers Pay Teachers. (I tried tracking down the original but was unsuccessful. There are lots of similar options on that site, though.) How the Dojo Store works is pretty simple: each Dojo point translates to one Dojo Dollar. Students will be able to bank their dollars to purchase different incentives. Low-cost incentives include things like wearing a hat for the day or sitting in the teacher’s chair or being able to take off their shoes. Mid-priced incentives are things like extra recess or Chromebook time or helping another teacher for a brief period of time. High-cost incentives are things like a class movie or a class pajama day.

I’ll keep track of the students Dojo Dollars but they will, too. When a student makes a purchase, I deduct that amount from their account. They can make purchases any time as long as they have the money in their account to do so.

I’m excited to try this out and hope it will be a positive way to help my students see that their positive behaviours have a direct, positive outcome. And that’s the goal of bridging extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: I want my students to see that their actions have consequences!


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!


Trying Something New

There is an old maxim that is often attributed to various famous people who, while they may have said it at some point, are likely not the origin. The maxim is this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting a different result.”

There are several things I find interesting about this statement: First, it emphasises doing the same thing the same way. That is different from trying to accomplish the same thing by doing something in a different way. The first is unproductive; the second is the heart and soul of critical thinking and problem solving. Second, the statement has a lot of validity in and of itself; I don’t know why people feel the need to attribute it to famous individuals or organisations. Third, I have noticed that those in my profession are notorious for doing the same thing in the same way and getting frustrated by the same results, as if we expected something else to happen.

This was on my mind today when a student of mine was acting out in class, getting up and wandering the classroom, and trying to tell others what to do instead of focusing on personal responsibility. This is a student who is used to teachers taking away recess time, calling Mom, sending the student to the principal’s office, and either issuing detentions or suspensions. When asked, the student admitted that this has been the typical response of teachers since kindergarten.

When I heard this, I simply looked at the student and said, “Then why on earth should I do that, too? It clearly doesn’t work; your behaviour hasn’t changed in four years as a result of the punishments. Why don’t we try something new?” The student looked at me as if I was crazy. But I was absolutely serious. The usual punishments haven’t worked. All they have succeeded in doing is make the student less inclined to want to be at school in the first place.

During this conversation, I thought about the Collaborative Problem Solving strategy I learned about this summer. I especially wondering if I was remembering the three steps of his Plan B approach: Plan B showing empathy, defining the problem by expressing concerns, and inviting them to brainstorm solutions. What I realised was that the most challenging component is getting the student to engage in the conversation. (Ironically, this was strongly emphasised in Dr. Greene’s book.)

I am going to be gone tomorrow but I am going to try again with this student on Wednesday. Because while I am not going to do the same thing in the same way and expect a different result, I am absolutely going to try something else.


Showing Emotion

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.


Reducing Distractions

Classrooms have a lot of ambient noise in them. I once used a decibel meter on my iPad and found out that the average level of noise in my room was about 65 dB if everyone was present and trying very hard to be silent. Once we add movement and activity, the noise levels increase dramatically.

This can be especially challenging when I am trying to teach my students to engage in different tasks at the same time during Reading Workshop. Some students will be reading independently, some will be doing individual practice on Chromebooks, some will be working on writing, and others will be meeting with me. The size of these groups vary depending on the activities, but it almost always results in an increase in noise, even when we are trying to work as quietly as possible.

Today we added to the mix our Drama teacher who came in to work with the students on an arts infusion project involving narratives and plays. Even though she was only working with a relatively small number of students at a time, the ambient noise was enough that many were distracted and struggled with staying focused on their own tasks.

I realised this afternoon that what may help my students the most is a simple tool to reduce distractions: noise-cancelling ear muffs. I once had a massive classroom supply of these that I picked up at Harbor Freight nearly six years ago. In fact, I had 30 sets, because I had 28 students that year and I figured a few extra would not be a bad idea.

Over the intervening years, however, that collection has dwindled down to just one pair. Some of the original 30 were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged, either accidentally or, sadly, intentionally, by students. One way or another, I have lost most of my collection. So now I am contemplating devoting a portion of my wonderful district-provided classroom budget to restocking. (I usually use this money to purchase new books for my classroom or to pay for subscriptions to educational websites to support learning.) While Harbor Freight still sells them, I can get them for much less through Dollar Tree where they are, of course, just $1 (although I have to buy them in cases of 12, that’s really not a major concern).

The question really isn’t, “Should I buy them?” though; it is simply, “How soon should I place an order and provide a simple tool for my students to work with fewer distractions?” I am thinking tomorrow is a good idea.