Sunday, May 22, 2016

Getting comfortable

In my last post, I reflected upon my students that seemed to have learned to get by in earlier grades, but are now coming to the recognition that they are far behind in many areas and skills.  The result in Middle School tends to be acting out behaviors that mask their low academic self-esteem.

I am slowly learning from these students.  I am learning what they need, not just what works.  What some see as working is addressing the misbehavior alone through consequence and the like.  This creates a power struggle and actually gives students excuses to not invest in classwork and the class environment.

Brianna started the school year hiding.  She always wanted to sit in the back of the room.  When working in groups, she wanted to work alone.  When called on to think and consider abstract ideas, she would toss out silly answers or express that she didn't understand the question.

It was starting to become clear that she had learned that if she takes too long to answer a question, that the teacher will get tired of waiting and call on someone else.  Brianna had become an artist at diversion.  Her anti-investment behaviors were not overt, they in fact were very covert and hidden.  She did everything she could to dissolve into the mix so she would not be noticed.  It was her developed coping skills that she had perfected through the years.

There was another interesting manipulative skill that Brianna had developed.  When taking a test, she would come to me and ask me questions about the test questions.  She did this in such an artistic way that part of me believed that she really was getting it.  Unfortunately, after the test, I was in full realization that I actually took the test and she had mastered the ability to ask the right questions to get "help" from me.

I knew I had to help Brianna to recognize what she was doing before I could help her.  With the next unit, instead of watching her do nothing while the rest of the class jumped into their reading and writing, I sat next to her.  I wanted to know what she was thinking, not just about the reading, but as a human in school.

It took a while and a lot of "I don't know" and "nothing" responses before I finally got something that I can use.  Brianna said that she doesn't read and understand as fast as the rest of class so she waits until the class discusses the reading and that is how she learns.  This gave me some insight into her process, but didn't really tell me what she needed.

I knew I needed to start basic and find out what she is really capable of.  I found text of the same content, but at a much lower level.  This text was not of Brianna's expected 7th grade level, but at a third grade level.

I asked Brianna to read the text aloud to me, stopping after each sentence and explaining in her own words what the sentence was saying.  Reluctantly, she started.  The first thing that I noticed is the smile on her face.  As she read aloud, it was clear that she understood what she was reading.  Is was as if she magically became smart in her eyes.  She explained what the sentence was saying and could not wait to read the next sentence.  When we were finished with the read, I asked he to explain to me what she thought the section was saying.  She did!  Brianna actually said, "I feel smart".

I now knew that I needed to personalize her learning.  I found that this transcends every day differentiation.  Brianna needed a prescription that was taylor made for her.

We continued working this way on a daily basis with me leaving her to work independently and report her successes to me at the end of class.

The true test- Test day!

I had expected Brianna to come and visit me as she had always done during the test.  She did, but something was different.  Brianna asked me, "Is this asking about the reading that I did...", and gave a summary of her reading to make sure she was on the right track.  I was proud of her progress.  Small steps and at a much lower level, but with success and a recipe for growth.

I think my lesson learned is that my students need to realize success to overcome their low academic self-esteem.  It has to start with their self-perception as a student more so that the work itself.  I can only hope that this trend continues and that Brianna is able to self-advocate to continue her growth.

Brianna taught me more than I taught her.  I am fine with that.

No thinking, no learning?

I have come to the conclusion that the many students that struggle in my class, and other classes, have never understood how to do school.  It might seem that through the years, they have been getting through school by quietly going through the motions and doing the task...without the thinking and learning behind it.

Evidence:  These students do not like questions.  They do not like to be tested or asked to think.  They hide.  They feel pressure to "be smart" and realize that they are not as ready as they should be.  The result...behavior that detracts from learning.

I have to admit that I have witnessed this for my entire career.  For the longest time, because I wasn't looking, I was insure what was going on.  Since intentionally trying to dissect the cause and effects of this common behavior, I have been able to see all of the commonalities that lead to these behaviors.

For many, I have looked back to their performance and investment in school beginning in third grade.  What I have found...many of them start out as quiet and compliant students that seem to be doing what they were supposed to be doing.  They are on task and completing the task.  This is especially true if the task in simple as in a worksheet or fill-in-the-blank type work.  They were not the top students, nor were they really struggling to start.  The problem- They were not squeaky wheels and little attention was paid to them.  They got by.  They did the minimum and were rarely asked to think.

Fast forward to Middle School.  The same students are asked to move beyond their learned comfort zone.  They are being challenged.  These students never really grew and were fine with just getting by.  Now, they are behind.  They are behind in skills and the ability to generalize information and abilities that they should have developed while in elementary school.  They now suffer from low academic self-esteem.  They do not believe in themselves because on some level, they realize how much they have missed in academic growth and readiness to do what is expected in Middle School.

The result...Detracting behaviors that call attention away from the truth.  A diversion from realizing the realities of the situation.  They are behind and on some level they recognize it.

Who's role is it to "fix' this?  I say that I most certainly is not the role of the student.  In fact, I would guess it would be impossible for a Middle School student to be reflective enough to come up with some type of plan to remediation.  They are lost in themselves.

Coming next...

Some ideas to help these students to become comfortable where they are really at in thinking and making academic connections.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Just thinking

As I look around my classroom full of students, I often find myself wondering what exactly is going on in their heads.  I explain to the students, I read to them, I ask them to read, I ask them to write, I ask them to learn, but I have no idea what my students’ self-talk sound like.  I want to know.  I need to know.  Most important to me, I ask my students to think.  I am constantly creating formative assessments, both paper and experiential.  I may be able to know if they know what I want them to know, but I don’t know if they are truly thinking.  I need to know. 

I believe as teachers, we get caught up in having our students complete tasks that lead to learning all of the time.  These end up being effective and help to create student growth. I also believe that if thinking were at the core of what my students were doing, the level of growth would be amazing.

So…the magic questions.  The questions that might create magic if it can be answered and turned into action in a manner that is meaningful.  How can I know what my students are thinking and how they are thinking?  As well, how can I help my students to become better thinkers and help them to see value in thought?

To begin to answer my own questions, I will start with the idea of helping my students to know what thinking is.  What it looks like. Why we do it and how we get better at it.

My challenge to myself for the remainder of this school year is to simply and authentically ask my students to try to explain their thinking.  I want them to become more cognizant of what and how they think during my class.  Awareness sounds like a foundational place to begin.

My goal for next year is to create an environment in my classes that talking about our thinking is a common practice and a natural part of the flow of class.