Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 42: Shadows of YesterYear

My initial question for today was "If math were a fruit or vegetable, which would it be and why?" but when I began the picture, my bowl of fruit was SO awful that I erased the whole thing and came up with a different question.

"Pizza because you can put whatever you want on it, but they all start out with the same base."
"Alphabet soup because it's full of letters."
"Sour Patch Kids because it starts out sour and then gets sweet."
"Veggies because even if you don't like them, they are good for you."
"Tofu because it's pretty bland but you can do so much with it."

 In geometry, we are finishing up the chapter by going over some proofs of line segments and angles.  Dull stuff, but we talked about it getting them in the habit of doing proofs for less intuitive things.

After a review of the homework in pre-algebra, the students took a quiz on fraction operations.  I was trying out a new format with them because on all of the homework so far, they've been putting the problems in the calculator.  This isn't an issue except that I want them to understand what's happening inside the calculator.

I took a testing idea from Frank Noschese and modified it with a suggestion from the lovely Sadie Estrella.  I gave them 8 problems (like and unlike fractions with each of the 4 operations) with the answers.  The directions were to show the work that justified the answer.  That was, I was testing on the concepts rather than the calculations.

In the last two problems, I gave them a fraction and asked them to come up with a multiplication problem and a division problem where that fraction would be the answer.

In my first class, 3 kids flat out refused to even attempt the test.  One girl put hers away and then, while making defiant eye contact with me, told me that she wasn't done with it yet.  When I explained that she would not be leaving my room with the test in her possession and that if she needed to spend her lunch period with me, that would happen, she gave it back pretty quickly.

Several students left many of the problems blank and, even having the directions explained to them several times in different ways, claimed to have no idea what they were supposed to do.

Last year, I would have taken my frustration at this out on the students, but this year, it makes me question the efficacy of tests at all.  All of the kids who refused to work or left problems blank have been giving full effort for our class work for the past few days and have been doing an excellent job.  I reminded them of that and the general reply was "I know. I just don't want to do this."

I will be making some phone calls tonight.

The same two girls who had to be removed from class last Friday for being a disruption had to be removed again today.  Instead of sending them to the office, I put them outside the room to cool off until I was able to talk to them.  Every time I went to do so, they interrupted me by screaming about how they didn't do anything.  I think the record was 4 words out of my mouth before I was shouted down.  So I went back inside and tried again in a few minutes.  Same deal.  And then again.

I hate kicking kids out because it's not effective, but as a direct result of these girls, whose parents are unreachable, the other students are unable to do anything.  We have had meetings with guidance and the principals, but there is no change.  I would like to be able to help them, but I don't think that I have the ability to do so.  I certainly don't seem to have to patience.

Today was an insane day for behavior. Lots of teachers were out and I think there were 3 fights.  Kids were rude and disrespectful in ways I don't normally see.  My last class, even after the removal of the two girls, was bouncing off the walls.  Last year, I was told that I should try more interactive activities in my class, that I should be more lenient.  I responded by saying that it wasn't possible, that the kids would take any inch of freedom and run amok with it.  This is why we don't have recess at my school.  The kids have shown repeatedly that with any amount of free time, they start punching each other.

This year, I think my activities have been very successful.  I don't know how much learning is happening and, after the assessment disaster in pre-algebra today, I think it's not much, but my room was a better place to be.

Today, my last class did exactly what last-year me said they would do and it enrages me beyond words.  I have done so much to make my classroom an enjoyable place to be where they don't sit and copy notes for 90 minutes, where they can collaborate with their peers to create the best learning environment and the behavior today, and increasingly over the past few weeks, felt like a slap in the face.

Last-year me would have punished the entire class, making them work silently and independently, emphasizing everything I do for them by taking it away.  He would have given them a speech about the opportunities that they are squandering.  He got VERY good at that speech.

This-year me is VERY frustrated and glad that it's Friday so he can spend the weekend trying to figure out what to do.  It is consistently the same students and I honestly don't believe that they can benefit from staying in my classroom.

I am at a loss and I will think about this over the weekend.

I would appreciate any input that is offered and I will try my very best not to be contrary.


  1. You certainly had a shitty day, pour yourself your favorite libation and hug your beautiful wife and adorable daughters. Then thank your lucky stars that you have evolved into this caring and inspirational math teacher! AND luckily for you, most likely, your students still think you are an awesome math teacher!
    In regard to the behavior problems. I would assign each child to a new group,choosing students that will work with you to help the student feel included. Give the group specific instructions for interacting together. In some ways this is a little shameful, because you are laying a truth out (I know _______ has had some some difficulty in the past few days, but i think that given her/his ability to think she/he will be a good addition to the group. Be explicit about expectations, but be sure to give the group some tools ( a non verbal signal) to communicate with you if the student is not doing his/her best. Have high expectations for the group, but understand there may be some limitations. Also, I would diligently pursue contacting the parent and ask them to come to a class to observe their child. Explain that they are a disruption to the learning of others, and that you want to stand solid as a team, parent and teacher, to help the child attain the success you know he/she is capable. Generally speaking, i find that children come from a place of fear or love. When a child misbehaves, ask yourself, why would the child be fearful right now? (In most cases, i find that either the child truly just doesn't get the gist of my lesson or they are worried about a social issue. When i understand what motivates the child, i am able to counter act, by using best practices of engagement and the psychology of learning to modify my behavior. Have a great weekend Justin.

    1. A few things:

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! It brings me great joy to get the notification with your name on it!

      Even just writing down what happened and getting my thoughts straight calmed me down helped me to think more clearly about the whole thing.

      I can't put the one girl in ANY group because everyone in the room hates her because of her behavior. When she's calm, they like her fine, but no one wants to work with her because she refuses to work. In addition, it has been discussed by several teachers, administrators and the guidance counselor that we as an institution can't help this girl. She needs attention that we are unable to provide and we're looking into finding somewhere for her.

      I've tried 6 times now to contact her mother to no avail. The last time anyone spoke to her mother, it was when the woman came into school for an incident last year and was arrested for disorderly conduct in the main office. The mother is the REASON the girl is how she is so parental involvement may actually make the situation worse.

      I will happily work with any kid for any amount of time, but what I will never do is allow a student to disrupt the learning of others. I'm a firm believer in the final words of Spock.

  2. uggg! That does stink and I agree with Ms Judi, drink up and enjoy your family this weekend!
    It seems that you have been doing a great job with making your class fun and social for your kids, I know when I read your blog I'm always thinking "oooh that's a good idea, my kids would love that"
    With those two girls, have you met with them individually to talk to them about what they think could help them with keeping their behavior in check? We've done that in our school and it's been pretty successful.
    Hang in there!!

    1. I've met with many students one on one, talking to them about their strengths and encouraging them to be the best they can be. We seem to have an overabundance of students who are great one on one and they go to their friends and say things like "Listen to the stupid motivational crap that my teacher just told me!" Or, they will be rational individually and then have no problem turning right around and arguing with the teacher when there is an audience.

      I've gotten through to many students this year, but these two are brick walls. When I try to talk to them individually, they shout me down or simply walk away.

  3. It sounds like a rough day at the school which always makes a new kind of test hard! And it's scary to not know how to do something and be graded on it, especially when you were feeling confident before and now you're seeing a curveball. That sort of thing I'm sure you can easily fix with a "yeah, so that new way of taking quizzes must be awesome because it made you guys struggle -- it's a sign you need to learn something! Yay I still have a job! Here's how we're going to practice... [insert going over samples or just having them draw pictures without writing explanations or have them notice and wonder about your answers on the quiz or...]"

    1. I didn't even think about that. I've been trying out new types of assessments to see what works, but didn't really think about the consequences for their comfort zones. Also, after the disaster in the first class, I decided not to grade them. I'm going to give them back to go over on Monday.

      In the second class, once things calmed down a bit, I did go over the questions and got some great participation from the students who were left. I think they realized they had crossed a line and that now was not the time to play. I made sure that I answered all of their on-task questions with warmth and sincerity so they knew that it was the off-task behavior that was upsetting me and not the students themselves.

  4. The more frustrating part is the girls who are freaking out in your class, routinely, with no progress being made towards a better approach to class. I agree with Ms Judi that there's probably fear and upsetness making them use their lizard brains instead of their human brains, and I also am guessing that a lot of what's putting them in lizard brain mode is outside of your control... their encounters with other teachers or the whole idea of school might be a bunch of micro-agressions and stereotype threat that they avoid by acting out. There might be friend or home drama that's taking over their lives. They might have had traumatic experiences in math so math actually hurts. And they might not be willing to open up with you or a counselor or trusted teacher about that, so you can't work on it.

    I was thinking about my own experience of getting thrown into a 7th grade class whose teacher that I was coaching had quit unexpectedly, so I was in there with the long term sub. It was chaos, but one girl in particular was re-fomenting trouble after everyone had settled down, including ripping kids's tests (I hate it when they are just plain mean to each other, that makes me want to be mean right back!). I don't think I could teach with that girl acting out in my room -- and I've never seen her settle down and do math, so kicking her out doesn't seem like she's losing anything (especially if she is allowed back in if she wants to do math). But... kicking her out is hard, 'cause where would she go? The administrators would just send her back. What I noticed in the 1st grade class I got to go to next is that the teacher had worked with the class explicitly on ignoring their friends who were making bad choices and couldn't get themselves under control. There were still interruptions but for the most part the kids were able to let their friend tip over the chairs in the table area while they listened to a story on the rug because the story was engaging and they were explicitly coached on how to ignore a friend who needed space to get himself together.

    In 7th grade I could imagine, maybe, having a class conversation about behaviors that disrupt learning and how to tune them out and minimize them. It's not effective when kids yell "shut up!" at other kids in the moment, but it might be effective when a kid says to another, "when you disrupt Mr. Aion and make him mad then I can't learn. Can you cut it out?" And if the other kids who want to learn move away from the distraction (but the 1st grade teacher's room was huge, I don't think yours is...)

    Also, is there a face-saving way for the kids who are causing trouble to tune out? Can they put headphones on and do a dumb math worksheet on the computer. Or get on their phone and do Facebook, if that's what works? It's not really rewarding bad behavior because the real reward is to be part of the class and learn and have fun and get good at math.

    My strategy (which I don't get to use as a coach, and which only works if the distracting people are 1 or 2 in number, and if the administration is okay with it), is to let the kid opt out, but be up in their face one-on-one about how often their opting out, what the consequences are to their grades, their status as part of the community, and their learning and life plans. And be non-judgmental and 100% open to working with them to bring them back up to speed and showing you believe in their smarts and their ability to be a productive member of the community when they're ready.

    1. Generally, when I'm doing full group instruction, I allow students to tune out if they do so quietly. I get a lot of flack for allowing kids to sleep in my room sometimes, or more accurately, allowing SOME kids to sleep in my room sometimes.

      I have to make the determination about weighing the education of one over the education of the rest. If I know that, when awake, a certain student will be overturning desks and screaming profanity and punching other kids (yes, that happens) then I am more inclined to let them sleep. I will ALWAYS speak to them later and encourage them to engage in the class material, offering help if it's needed.

      "You can't let kids put their heads down in your class!"
      "Yes. I can. If her head is down, she doesn't learn. If her head is up, no one learns. I'm an economist by training so this is an easy calculation for me."

    2. I wish I could "favorite" this comment. I really like "Yes. I can. If her head is down, she doesn't learn. If her head is up, no one learns. I'm an economist by training so this is an easy calculation for me." -- I agree with it too, especially because I can tell you aren't giving up on those kids and not giving them feedback on the consequences.

  5. If it might be of any help, I remember my old HS (where I'm from that was grades 7-10) had two "programs" for students like the two girls you mention. One was known to us students as the "off-line centre" where, from my understanding, heavily disruptive students would be taken out of normal classes to instead work in this smaller class where their needs could be more easily met. I'm not sure what they did in there exactly, but I imagine it must have been a combination of student chosen project work and some remedial work - It seemed to work. They also had another "program" for the occasionally disruptive student, I can't remember what they called it, some kind of learning centre I think. It was a dedicated classroom where students would be sent to do work by themselves, under teacher supervision. I think they cycled through different teachers for each school period. The disruptive student's friends and classmates were not there, so there was no point in the student being disruptive. There were only a few kids there at a time, so the supervising teacher could handle the fact that they were all "difficult". It really sounds to me that perhaps your school could think about implementing some kind of program where the really disruptive students could be taken out into some other program which may not fit the curriculum perfectly but would allow both the disruptive student and the rest of the students to learn. This all seems that it's not just you or your teaching or even maths, but a wider school problem.

    This particularly troublesome girl really sounds like she needs something. My initial thought was that she could be acting up so much at school because she feels that is the only place where she can have any control over her life, even if that means making everyone angry at her. Logic doesn't (necessarily) matter when you're a pre or early teen, so even if your actions hurt yourself or others, it doesn't matter. Even if your actions will hurt your future, that also doesn't matter, because that future is considered miles away and now is what is important.

    As for the tests, I can sympathise with your students and empathise with you. You guys in the US seem to test so much! After a while, I think the kids start to realise that the tests don't accurately measure their intelligence. It's so de-motivating! And at that age, I would not be at all surprised if they actually blamed you for the testing, which hurts their confidence and undermines their intelligence. That is a tough position to be in. One minute they're feeling confident and happy, thinking this Mr. Aion guy might be different to all the rest, and then you give them a test (which I understand you probably wouldn't if you didn't have to) and they feel let down, that "he's just like all the rest". That's just my guess at what I might of thought at that age in that situation.

    I don't know if any of that is helpful, but I thought I'd add my 2c worth.

    1. Our district has a pull out program called the Promise. It's where those students who are too disruptive or violent to be in a regular class are sent. I started at this district teaching in that program.

      The problem is that the high school has taken all of the spots that are supposed to be reserved for the junior high and the process to get a kid there is a bit arduous.

      When I spoke with my principal today, she assured me that we are moving on getting the one young woman sent there. She'll get the personalized attention she needs and she won't be able to destroy the environment of everyone else.

      I wish we didn't have to test at all. I wish I could just do projects as assessments, but I sadly don't have enough to do that. I hope to develop more over the years so that I can do away with tests entirely, but as of now...

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. It's always helpful!

    2. Glad to hear there is something happening to help that particular student. Keep up the awesome work! I always look forward to reading your new blog posts.

    3. Thank you! I really appreciate that! I write them for me, but I'm always happy to hear when someone else likes them (other than my mom. :-) )

  6. Hm. Some of the trouble is probably just because of that particular day, or week. Which doesn't help, but I'm not sure what more I can say there. As to the quiz itself, I like the style, but here's a few objections that might be going through students' heads:
    -If I have the question, and I have the answer, how can I not be done? You say you want to see how I would solve it, but how is that important? I don't think this is important. I'm not doing it. (I mean, I put something into google, it tells me stuff. I don't care how search engines work. Why do you?)
    -Math problems have one right answer. So what is the 'right answer' for the steps?! I don't remember, and this is way too important to mess up. I can't do this, shutting down now.
    -You want ME to come up with the question? That's your job! I'm not doing your job, I don't get paid for this!

    I'm probably not telling you anything new here. At the least, I'll give kudos to you for thinking differently about your reactions this time around!

    1. Those are very good points. I still haven't figured out what my goals are with these assessments other than "I have to give them a grade." I clearly need to figure that out.

  7. I can relate as my first school when I moved into the area was very much like this. I would suggest you look at the website All the materials are FREE. You may not want to do everything but they have some great steps in how to deal with the disruptive students. I have implemented many of the strategies this year and I am finding that I can do a lot more moving around activities now that we have practiced and learned some of the practices. When I first read the "how to teach challenging kids" I thought it was a little elementary school for my students. But I went on the website, went deeper and saw how it works in a middle school/ high school setting. I went from feeling frustrated to loving teaching again. I have found myself getting crabby and frustrated lately and realized I was slipping back in my old "normal" way of teaching. I will get right back into the whole brain teaching way and find my joy again. The kids thought I was nuts in the beginning of the year but they really do like it. They have fun, laugh and pay attention. Feel free to contact me if you want to know more. But like I said all the downloads are free so you have nothing to lose and may find your joy again. :)

  8. I have had a similar experience recently with a tricky class that I have this year but I am heartened by your reaction. I too tried to avoid what I probably would have done in the past and choose to look inwards as well as outwards for solutions to make the situation/results/class/my teaching/etc better. The basic problem with my pupils was that when they feel powerless and backed in a corner they panic and it manifests in some really awful behaviour and bad attitudes surface too readily. With assessment being so key to our education system, I need to find ways to ensure their class work and confidence is maintained under exam conditions. I'm afraid I cannot offer answers as I haven't quite figured them out for myself yet but I reckon we'll get there; after all we're making an effort to seek out solutions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences :-)

  9. Sometimes, there are things that are not in our control. Like Max said, sometimes students bring things to class: "I also am guessing that a lot of what's putting them in lizard brain mode is outside of your control... their encounters with other teachers or the whole idea of school might be a bunch of micro-agressions and stereotype threat that they avoid by acting out. There might be friend or home drama that's taking over their lives. " In cases like that, remember it's not you, it's whatever perceived trauma they are dealing with. Not much help, but it is good to remember that you can't fix some things. Hopefully, the two girls will get what they need soon. Meanwhile, Max's suggestion to explicitly teach the other students some strategies for blocking the disruptions is a good one. Finally, don't forget you should not engage with students who have ODD when they are displaying behaviors.

    1. I agree. It's a really good idea and something that I'll work on.

      I understand that they are dealing with some awful things outside of school and they aren't mature enough to leave them outside of school. They are still children and emotions spill over. I don't ever blame them for having bad days and losing it, but I can't have them setting off other kids or disrupting the environment.

      In many cases, I ask a kid to step outside to cool off and then come back when they are ready.

      For the most part, that's an effective strategy.


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