Friday, December 20, 2013

Day 77: An Instructional Day

In the 5 years that I have been in my current district, this was the first time that we didn't receive an email right before a break reminding us that it was an instructional day.  Instead, we were encouraged to watch Sir Ken Robinson's TED Talk about creativity in school and use today to allow our students creative expression within the bounds of the curriculum.

So, I did what I had planned to do anyway.

Geometry had another game day.  As did the second pre-algebra class.  The first one had a test.  This was partially done out of spite, but also partially done because I want them to realize how different my class is and the activities that I'm trying to do.  I feel as though I need to occasionally remind them that things could be boring.

They reminded me instead, that they don't care.  They would much rather do rote assignments that require no thinking because they are easier.  I have no idea how to break this barrier down.  If I work with higher order thinking tasks, they refuse to participate, or are so disruptive that I can't work with the students who DO want to do the work.  They don't care about their grades enough to do the work under the threat of failing.  Most know that the district will move them on regardless of whether or not they fail my class.

They don't care about the knowledge, or the skills.

I watched a boy carefully aim and throw a pencil across the room at a girl. When she got up to hit him, he started screaming about how she was out of her seat and attacking him.  I pointed out that I watched him start it and he had a fit, as though he was being singled out for punishment.

Another student wouldn't stop talking, and when I moved his seat, he refused to sit where I put him and refused to finish his test.

This is a level of immaturity that I don't know how to deal with. I know there are ways, but I don't know them.  There is no way to contact the parents that I need to contact.

If we want the state of public education to improve, then schools need to have one rule: No student will be allowed to detract from the learning environment of any other student.

There needs to be a place where overly disruptive students can go to get their issues resolved in a way that doesn't keep other kids from learning.  That place CAN'T be just a holding tank, like in-school suspension.  It needs to be a place where someone can talk to them about WHY they are choosing to behave the way they are.

As many people on both sides of the gun control debate have stated, we don't have a crime problem.  We have a mental health problem.  We NEED to be providing our students with adequate services to get them what they need.  There should be counselors in abundance in schools, especially in middle schools.

Sometimes, my students just need a minute to calm down, to talk to someone about why they are so angry and then come back in and be awesome!  But without somewhere to send them for that, they simply stay in the room and disrupt the environment.

In most of the classes I've had, there's only one or two at a time and I'm able to deal with it on my own.  But my 4th period this year, since the introduction of 13 new students a few weeks ago, has felt a bit like the baby nightmare from Shrek.

When I pull a student aside to talk to them, three more start in on it.  They are all friends so I can't just move their seats.  My room is too small to adequately separate them.

I have much thinking to do over the break.  I need to reach out for some help.  I don't think I can solve this problem on my own.

They say one rotten apple spoils the bunch, but I don't think that analogy works for two reasons.  First, a single apple can be thrown away, saving the rest of the bunch.  A more accurate analogy would be a moldy strawberry. Once it's in the package, the whole package is trash.

Second, we can't (and shouldn't) throw the students away.  We need to help them to become better however we can.

I think a more accurate analogy for poor behavior and decision making in education would be the flu, or mono.  When someone gets sick with either of these diseases, we isolate and help them as much as we can.  We don't expect doctors to treat a flu patient in the middle of a healthy crowd.  We know that the flu will spread, making others sick.

We don't throw that patient away either, leaving them to die.  We help them as much as possible and stay with them until they are healthy again.

We need to be doing this for our students.

Also, I spent the day wearing this hat:


  1. Justin, when I read the response your students gave when you tried to allow them to explore, be creative, think critically today... It reminded me of my students. They have told me before that my class isn't "active" enough and they should have "more worksheets". You and I may work in a similar district. My style of teaching (or what I'm trying to do) is so foreign to students that the students would prefer what you and I would classify as boring and low-quality teaching. It's a shame. I don't have a fix either. It's a fight I think is worth fighting. It was nice to read of someone with similar issues.

    1. You're absolutely right that they aren't used to it and I fully believe that if they do it, they will greatly benefit. The trick is how to persist through their refusal long enough for it to take hold.

      What do you use as a stick/carrot when you don't have a stick/carrot?

  2. I used to have two boys (freshmen were my youngest) who'd drive me nuts when they got in each other's faces. And they drove the rest of the class nuts too. And after a while, it was almost a game for them, to see who could make me break first. So I'd make them get a drink of water. I sent one one way and the other the other way, and they also had to run around the whole school (it was a huge campus) before they came back. This gave me a break, gave them a break (and if they started something stupid in the hallway, security would pick them up), and the rest of the class could actually get some help from me. At first, I told them quietly about their time away, and eventually it was a loud announcement to "GO get a drink!", and everyone knew what it meant.

    Maybe you need a errand for this guy.

    1. If it were just one, then I could do that. The problem is that there are 6 that I can think of in a class of 27. Before they dumped 13 new kids in, there were only 3 and I could send one off and separate the other two.

  3. Do you have support from admin? Is this the predominant behavior in the school? You are up against a culture in the school which allows this. It's tough to be up against this situation on your own. Several times in our school, a few of us got together to combine resources and stand firm on behavior and academic expectations. Strength in numbers. You could use the cavalry by your side for this fight. Is there another colleague who will stand with you?

    1. My direct administration is VERY supportive, but much of what I want/not allowed to do is from up on high. Everyone seems to agree that the policies are counterproductive, but we aren't able to change them

      Sadly, it IS the predominant behavior in the school. This isn't because we have bad kids, but because our hands are tied with the dozen or so students who need to be removed from the environment. Since they do what they want with no consequences, kids who are on the fence fall onto the side of chaos.

      The staff is great, but all over in terms of discipline and consistency. It's one of our major shortcomings. We develop a policy among the staff that would be effective and a third of the faculty says "That won't work in my room" and they do something else. I follow the rules in the students handbook and enforce them consistently. The kids know this, but they also know that others don't.

  4. That's always a tough situation for teachers and kids - consistency is important with behavior expectations. We have the same thing at our school with a few who don't enforce rules. It's a constant "mom vs. dad" thing. Kids know how to work it! You're right, they're not bad kids. Our district just revamped the Rights and Responsibilities for behavior making it more difficult to suspend kids. I wish I knew a surefire answer for those kids with personal/behavior issues. We try behavior contracts, in-house suspension, calling on our district behavior intervention team. Sometimes it's not enough. Thankfully, there are only a few at our small school who need such serious intervention.

    Keep writing and talking about these important issues, Justin. Just want to let you know your fellow teachers stand by your side - we'll keep throwing out ideas and messages of support!

  5. If it helps, you officially have my permission to use worksheets, and even rote work, as a tool.

    I like your rule: No student will be allowed to detract from the learning environment of any other student.

    It makes me think... if students can only keep it together in that one class when they have something straightforward to do that they are already confident at, then it may be that you need to harness that for this class.

    So... if they like worksheets of things they already know how to do, let them do those. Bring in the higher-order thinking through individual worksheets, with things like (for problem-solving):
    Include mathematical stories (i.e. the set-ups of simple word problems) on worksheets and ask students to illustrate them with diagrams. Slowly add more grade-level math into the stories, but start with simple ones. Ask students to flip the paper over and re-write the story in their own words on the back. Ask them to write a list of questions they have about the story (or about a picture that's math-y, like from estimation180). Let them, as extra credit, answer a specific question you have about the story, but emphasize that's extra credit. Some still won't do it (too boring, too corny, not feeling it today), but it disrupts the "I can't" and the "It's too hard to start"

    Another thing to do: Give a sheet of problems, some of which they don't like or don't know how to do. Their task: rate all on a hardness scale from 1 - 10, sort them, solve the 5 easiest ones, and write one sentence about why the 5 hardest are hard.

    Another thing to do: Cut out released problems from the PSSA test. Make stations with some questions and an iPad at each station, or give each kid a pile and an iPad if you have enough. Kids choose questions from the pile and use the iPad to record themselves talking about the problem: read it outloud (for the recording), tell if it's an easy or hard problem, why, tell one thing you would try, and tell what you think the answer is, etc. Kids take turns being the one to hold the iPad but everyone in the pair or trio can talk & help. I did this with some kids whose Algebra II teacher had quit and they had a series of subs, and in the meantime some local teachers were wondering if their kids could do any of the questions on the Keystone exams so I brought some iPads to this tiny class of grouchy kids and we made videos for the other teachers and most of them got pretty into it and I learned a lot about the kids!

    The point, I guess, is that you can give kids tasks that scaffold them to problem-solving, that are very concrete and doable (rate this on a scale, illustrate this, re-state this), that kids will actually do, that gets them thinking. You learn a lot about them, too.

    I'd make a big deal out of collecting them, and then give kids sticky-notes with ONE praise and ONE question and have kids revise or respond to your stickies. The stickies means you're not writing on their work (and they often become collectors items among kids!) It's a manageable thing if you do this once a week or so and writing 2 things (one praise, one question) per kid is all they can process and it saves you time too. You can even just have green and red stickies or write smiles and ? marks on stickies and put one on each kid's sheet with an arrow!

    So... if the kids can't handle group work, open-ended challenges, solving written problems, or working through Mathalicious lessons, mix rote worksheets (which still spark thought and conversation when kids work together on them!) with worksheets that break down problem-solving into small, do-able actions, and let yourself off the hook for getting the kids from "I can't do anything" to "I have lots of ideas to try" in a few short months!

    1. First, hang in there Justin. Second, Max you rock! I'm going to try some of your suggestions with my students. Thanks to both of you for pouring your hearts out!


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