Here are some thoughts about teacher leadership and facing discomfort when attempting to do the right thing, especially when it challenges the status quo.
Like most teachers, I’m a few weeks into the school year. I’ve dealt with shifting rosters, a classroom change, opening-school paperwork, and trying to establish a positive, productive classroom culture. Though my classroom actions and procedures, I’ve implicitly and explicitly emphasized certain behaviors and values, like collaboration, being on time, and organization.
What’s new this year is an emphasis on attention.
Without teaching ourselves–and students–how to sustain thought and practice concentration, I’m wary all of our innovative technology applications in the classroom can become merely engagement gimmicks, distracting us and students from deeper thought needed to make meaningful connections and compose or read longer texts. I’ve previously written about the phenomenon in the context of digital versus “old-school” reading.
Can students learn effectively–and deeply–without being trained—or practicing—the art of sustained focus and thought? Do we want classrooms to be places where digital tools and use are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult not to distract one’s self? It seems to be a disappearing skill for our young people, and while they might be clicking on hyperlinks left and right, Tweeting their friends, and completing a math assignment—all at the same time—I wonder how a generation of learners seemingly unable to pay attention will function.
But I’m not about to completely ban cell phones and discourage connectivity. Far from it.
I do allow students to use phones to access Schoology.com for classroom assignments and discussion boards. I do allow them to use the camera to take pictures for notes. They may use dictionary and thesaurus apps, and they do have ample access to laptops and desktops.
It takes self-discipline–especially for struggling high school students, to avoid the constant pull of social media, music videos on YouTube, Twitter feeds, and other information streams.
However, we’re doing a disservice if we don’t teach students how to use the amazing technology tools out there. In fact, to my amazement, only 4-5 out of my 80 students use Google Drive during an informal poll today. Tomorrow’s lesson? Explain how Google Drive helps my efficiency, productivity, and collaborative ability, then get them signed up, and share a document with a classmate.
Last year, I wrote about mindful use of technology, sharing these tips with the blogosphere. I’ll do the same with students.
I’ll explain that I can’t write this blog post very well, for example, with 13 windows open while checking my phone for texts every two minutes. I’ll explain that while it’s great to compose 140 character messages in thirty seconds, it’s even better to write a 500-word blog post. I’ll also admit that I feel the pull of digital distraction too, explaining that 20-25 minute focused bursts without multitasking is my preferred strategy for reading and writing.
It’s all the rage to supply all students with iPads or laptops, unleashing the power of technology tools for learning. We can’t forget what deeper learning entails, however, and whether or not our digital habits benefit academic growth.
So, can students learn effectively without disconnecting for meaningful periods of time? How do you handle digital distraction in your own life? Do you struggle staying productive? If you are a teacher, do you allow cell phone use in the classroom? Do you have a policy when and where phones are off-limits? How do you enforce it?
Great reflection by Christopher Lehman on several issues:
“am I giving these children the same dignity and respect that I ask in return?
am I teaching them the way I want to be taught?
am I teaching them compliance or independence?
am I teaching these students differently than I would others?
Does this feel right to me?
What can I change?”
This post is the second of two in response to CNN’s “Inside Man,” my first was posted yesterday. I decided to make this one separate because while the reflection was sparked from a few scenes in that program it goes beyond that one hour and that one particular school.
In this Inside Man episode, Morgan Spurlock visited a school in Finland where he took a stab at teaching a class, then as a comparison visited a charter school in New York City and retaught the same lesson. Watching footage of the New York City school, I was struck again by the sharp economic lines that are drawn between so many schools in our country and how in many those lines are strongly correlated with race.
Part of this post is to ask the same big question educators continue to grapple with, one that I am fairly certain we cannot…
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If you finish your homework, I’ll give you a candy bar. But if you don’t finish your homework, you’ll get timeout.
If you be quiet, you’ll get five extra minutes of kickball. But if you don’t zip it, you’ll lose those five minutes of recess.
Last post, I wrote about the ineffectiveness of traditional punishment in the form of in-school or out-of-school suspension. On the other hand, we should all question how effective rewards–whether they be candy bars, money, or verbal praise–are for sustainable success and motivation, and I’ve revisited one of my most influential thinkers: Alfie Kohn. Mr. Kohn’s article “Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” provides compelling research about why providing students excessive praise could be detrimental to student academics and behavior.
Kohn reminds us that this point isn’t to avoid making kids feel good about themselves, in case anybody thinks his notion is cold-hearted or off-base: “Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely.”
My own anecdotal experience as a teacher strongly supports several of Mr. Kohn’s conclusions about the effects of too much empty verbal praise:
Praise Junkies–“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us,” Kohn writes. True. I remember Steve, a student in 7th grade, who constantly wanted to hear if he was doing a “good job,” whether it be on a grammar worksheet, personal writing piece, or bellringer activity. At the time, I gave in and usually acknowledged his neediness. I didn’t give meaningful feedback about what he was doing, and the cycle continued until the end of the year. Research supports the practice of giving specific feedback, rather than praise or criticism.
Losing interest–“In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping,” Kohn writes. In my experience, true. I’ve had students–at the high school level–become conditioned in this manner, and they expect something in return if they volunteer to pass back papers or help a classmate out on makeup work. We’re not helping students if they must wait for approval or expect praise to do the right thing. I tell classes at the beginning of the year something along this lines: your reward for doing the right–or good–thing should be enough in and of itself.
Reducing Achievement–“Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming,” Kohn writes. Again, true. I’ve found that my most creative, successful students aren’t craving grades or my praise–they are internally driven. In my digital storytelling class, for example, telling a student “good job” is worthless due to the nuances and challenges in creating an original short documentary or audio slideshow.
I’ll admit that I’ve had to bribe some very difficult classes and, after trying all the tricks up my sleeve, it was the only way I could get them to stay quiet or complete an assignment. It pained me to manipulate the classes in that manner, but I had to stay sane and keep the students somewhat productive. Unfortunately, the students who could benefit most from a little internal fire are most likely to respond to dangling carrots, adding yet another obstacle to teaching at-risk kids.
School environments where students aren’t constantly seeking praise allow for creativity, curiosity, and failure. If we fail to foster these outcomes and dispositions, then our kids will stay mired in classrooms and mindsets where academic success and motivation largely rests on adult verbal response to menial and outdated tasks.
I’m curious about your experiences in the adult workplace and as parents. What motivates you to give great effort in your workplace, besides earning a paycheck? What type of feedback from your bosses gives you satisfaction? If you work with young people, or are a parent yourself, am I being idealistic about how to motivate children at home? Have you found yourself in a cycle of carrots and sticks that fails–or succeeds–in changing behavior for the better?
One of my goals in our Unleashing Digital Storytelling elective course is to help elevate student voice through authentic media creation. Taking matters into her own hands, Kaylie created this video, highlighting a journaling/discussion activity we do in class and the poignant voices of some of her classmates. Sadly, what teenagers and other students have to say, experience, and feel plays little part in the discussion of school and curriculum reform. Much of the most powerful and effective writing that students have produced in my classes is related to their fears, dreams, worries, and interests. If you enjoy this project, please comment, and I’ll be sure to share your responses with her!
*I did not create the idea of topic journals, as it states in the introduction. During the Louisville Writing Project summer institute last July–part of the National Writing Project–I learned about the idea from a book by educator Penny Kittle.*
A version of this essay originally appeared in Middle Ground magazine in October, 2008.
Don’t smile until after Christmas. I’ve always been puzzled when I overhear talk of this informal policy when it comes to dealing with students. Some teachers feel like they must convey a position of unyielding authority throughout the first several months of the school year. Even more unfortunate are those educators who continue in the wrong profession—not enjoying their line of work, thus unlikely to display overt happiness or joy. Regardless of the reasons for failing to display humanity in the classroom—in the form of spontaneous laughter, gentle joking with students, or smiles abounding—it is sad and even detrimental for students to be stuck in these environments.
Admittedly, it is difficult to assess school culture and its effect on students, enthusiasm for academic subjects, attitudes, and other qualitative measures. But these indicators of student learning, growth, and development are more important than the endless string of numbers describing school academic indices in this age of testing and accountability. Brain research proves that influential, long-term knowledge retention is linked to positive emotions. The way students feel when at school is critical when determining the effectiveness of teaching and learning, a counterpoint to traditionalists who criticize progressive educators and their penchant for being too touchy-feely.
Laughter, smiles, and other positive emotions are wonderful elements of our humanity. When teachers model these qualities, it is likely a sign of enthusiasm for their subject, and this excitement is likely to rub off on students. Good teaching and learning engages feelings, according to Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Jensen cites dozens of studies in his work that establish the importance of emotion in relation to learning, capturing student attention, and memory.
In what type of classroom are student emotions more likely to be tapped, triggered, or engaged, thus likely to result in more effective teaching and learning? Is it in a classroom with straight-rows of desks, much lecturing, low levels of banter, and little interaction between students and teacher? Or is it in a classroom full of spontaneity, laughter, and a sparkle in the instructor’s eye when elaborating on a familiar, exciting topic?
I remember milling about in Mr. Larry Wolfe’s classroom, lucky to be a member of the Wolfepack Village. Mr. Wolfe devised a way for eight and nine-year-olds to claim ownership in this “mini-town,” acting as tax collectors, mayors, wood workers, and bankers. I remember Mr. Wolfe assisting us with challenging tasks like balancing our checkbooks, leading sing-a-longs while strumming his acoustic guitar, and being brought to tears as he read us Where the Red Fern Grows. Palpable excitement surged through the room most days as we bustled about, unaware that we were learning so much in the way of academic and social skills.
In 8th grade, Mrs. Lewis brought in candles (probably outlawed these days) and spooky music for our ghost story readings. We got into it. In 10th grade biology, Mr. Browne always had a glint in his eye when introducing a new topic, such as behaviorism—we ended up training rats during class for several weeks. We got into that, too.
As a teacher, I strive to recreate the feelings like the ones I experienced in these classrooms for my own students, knowing that, perhaps, they’ll be as turned on to language arts and, more generally, learning. I don’t fear detrimental consequences if I laugh during the opening month of school. If laughter and spontaneity explode in my classroom due to joyful engagement with subject, I am ecstatic.
I’m not proposing a learning environment in which a teacher shouldn’t ever be stern or serious. Just the other day, a student blurted out an insensitive remark and others laughed. I frowned, pausing in the lesson to explain that these types of comments will not be tolerated, asking the students to think about being in somebody else’s shoes. Of course we can’t exude happiness and passion every day. But if we are able to display humanity and enthusiasm, research backs up claims that students are likely to learn more effectively. This isn’t even mentioning long-term—and hard to measure—benefits of students getting excited about a given subject, because he or she has seen his or her mentor do the same.
According to Parker Palmer, author of The Courage to Teach, great, inspirational teachers may differ in their instructional methods—some may rely on lecture, cooperative learning, or creative chaos, amongst other techniques, but they do not differ much in their enthusiasm for subject and willingness to expose their humanity, thus likely to trigger positive emotions in students.
When hiring teachers, administrators should do their best to go beyond basis content knowledge, and gauge the candidate’s passion for his or her subject. But enthusiasm for subject matter won’t necessarily translate to poignant learning experiences for students. The passion, coupled with an openness to explore the tricky job of triggering student attention and emotion, can result in transformative learning experiences for teacher and student. We need to get to the point where laughter and excitement in the classroom shouldn’t be contained in elementary school settings, but celebrated and practiced through middle and high schools as well.
What emotions do you associate with your most effective learning experiences? To what extent should learning be “fun” for students? Do you have any anecdotes to back up assertions in this piece?
See if you can read through this entire blog post without being distracted by e-mails, hyperlinks, instant messengers, or the phone in your pocket.
I bet you can pretty easily, if you choose to.
I also know most of the Stew readers are adults, many of whom raise similar questions of how the digital world is changing how attentive we are, how we consume and produce information, and how we communicate with others. I also believe that many in the blogging community choose to focus their attention on longer–by digital age standards, at least–texts and essays.
On the other hand, for students who have grown up in the digital world, capturing attention is a struggle, a currency, something us teachers and other adults can no longer take for granted. This thoughtful piece by Principal Cale Birk addresses how the onus is on presenters and teachers to create more engaging lessons and presentations so the audience doesn’t feel the pull to check e-mail or Fantasy Football rosters. Birk concludes, “Collectively, we have an obligation to engage those that we are teaching or working with. To simply blame technology for students being ‘more distracted’ is both limp and counterproductive. And by adopting this mindset, we will never succeed in getting the ‘full attention’ of anyone.” I mostly agree with Birk and, as a teacher, I’m constantly trying to capture the currency of attention using a variety of techniques and activities.
However, I don’t believe Birk gives enough credit to how little self-control many students have when it comes to technology. He writes, “We need to stop judging ‘young people’ and their being distracted, having short attention spans, or whatever other denigrating phraseology we can come up with about them being less engaged in classrooms across North America.” I will judge students, but it’s also clear we need to teach meta-cognition to young people–heck, even adults–the Pavlovian response many of us have regarding digital distractions.
Check out the student comments left on this New York Times blog post:
Almost the whole time in class all i think about is “oh i wonder if he texted me back”. So I can honestly say it does get in the way of learning.
When i do have my phone on while im studying i constantly go on the internet or talk to my friends and then I end up forgetting what I studied because im more focused on my phone.
Technology has many uses when dealing with education. It is true that it can be distracting for some, but it offers so many resources at our finger tips.
I definitely think technology has shortened my attention span. When I am at home doing homework I constantly check my phone, Facebook, etc. On top of that when I come across a tough problem in Math I can easily Google it. I most likely spend hours in front of electronics every day. I catch myself day dreaming at school, thinking of what I am going to do on the internet when I get home.
Digital technology definitely does shorten my attention span because I get distracted with the web and texting. If I have work on the computer, I watch some types of shows while doing my work on the Internet. I waste more time texting my friends then doing my schoolwork.
I can honestly say that most technology is a distraction to me. I’m constantly on my computer, iPod, and phone. Saying that, I know that there is a time and place to use technology, and that’s most certainly not in class or when I’m doing my homework.
Technology can be very distracting when it is put in front of you as much as it is today. When you have smartphones and computers and all of these other types of fancy gadgets, it makes you forget about the original material you were taught in class. Technology can shorten kids attention span because they go from a quick-easy way on the internet to a long, descriptive class that involves more detail.
I think technology can be very distracting in a classroom. But if teachers don’t make their classes interesting, students will find another way to get distracted. For me my cellphone is very distracting if I feel it vibrate I immediately have to check who it is.
This is hardly a scientific study, but the majority of students who left comments admitted they are distracted and even addicted to their gadgets. Yes, bored audiences and classrooms have always doodled, daydreamed, and passed notes. But now it’s just so easy to disengage, with thousands of games, messages, and websites to address. Do you worry about being disrespectful during meetings or presentations if you pull out your phone? What does it take to fully engage you in the classroom or during a presentation? Should we care, as a culture, about changing norms relating to attention? Is it silly to worry about how today’s youth, and many adults, are incessantly connected and distracted?
Glancing around the room, fiddling with his smart phone, and tapping his pencil, Michael will do anything but write. He’ll scribble a few sentences on the paper, and the chicken scratch handwriting belies his age–he’s a high school sophomore. He can’t tell you what a compound sentence is or how to use serial commas, but he can provide a look of disgust every time you pass out a grammar worksheet or explain why writing is important.
But then you ask Michael to write about a time when he was ignored or neglected. He knows about this. This won’t be tough for me to write, he thinks, remembering the time his mother forgot his birthday, instead opting to spend the night at the local bar with a new boyfriend. There is suddenly a rhythm to his pencil on the college-ruled paper. Two pages get filled up like a tall glass underneath a flowing faucet. He needs a bigger cup.
Most teachers would celebrate this breakthrough with Michael, realizing that if he’s allowed to write about his experience and feelings, he’ll actually put pencil to paper.
Count me as a teacher who would celebrate Michael’s effort, attempting to use it as a catalyst to greater writing proficiency.
Could it be somewhat true that, according to Common Core Standards architect David Coleman, as you grow up, people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think?
Should we only be mildly excited that Michael actually wrote? After all, the punctuation was still a mess. He failed to use specific details or imagery to help his story come alive.
Blogger and Writer Annie Murphy Paul alerted me to an essay in The Atlantic titled “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.” Former 5th grade teacher Robert Pondiscio reflects on his time in the classroom, coming to the conclusion that he didn’t do enough teaching of writing fundamentals to his needy students, spending most of his time modeling the behaviors and dispositions of authors and readers. According to Pondiscio, he fell into a trap:
…at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content.
This article has made me pause. Pondiscio is correct in stating that high-needs students are not empowered by simply writing about their feelings. To be a competent, functional adult writer, one needs to be able to analyze, critique, and write logical arguments.
Annie Murphy Paul also agrees with Pondiscio’s assessment, writing, “Robert is right—creativity springs from a mastery of the fundamentals, and we cheat students when we don’t teach them the fundamentals in a rigorous way.”
I’m scheduled to teach Creative Writing during our winter trimester, and I know I’ll have a handful of students who like to write but lack command of the written word. A few Michaels will likely sit in room 137, ready to spill personal narratives onto the page. If I were only teaching self-healing and writing therapy, that’d be great.
Pondiscio acknowledges that it’s not an either/or proposition–we don’t have to skill and drill students to death without allowing for personal expression. I agree once again. I know I’ll have to find a healthy balance between teaching writing fundamentals and allowing the students to just write what’s on their minds. I believe in the power of storytelling, in addition to the crucial role it plays in society, so I look forward to teaching the course for the first time.
Today, my sophomores slaved away during fourth period on their first official writing assessment, attempting to write literary analysis. I was about to paraphrase Coleman’s words in a pre-test pep talk, but I decided against it.
It’s true–their feelings don’t matter on this exam, but their command of formal writing conventions does. As does their ability to think critically. We’ll eventually write some personal essays. Hopefully, when we do, they’ll be able to incorporate some new skills to enhance their self-expression.
What do you think about the role of creative writing and grammar instruction in schools? Is it a good thing to swing the writing curriculum pendulum more towards analysis and argumentative writing? What do you remember as your most effective, lasting writing instruction?
“A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway. On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window. A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss. I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game. No consequences.”
When I reread the following essay I wrote over eight years ago about my first-year teaching in 2004-2005, I’m still shocked.
I’m shocked I stayed in the teaching profession after resigning from this job. I’m shocked that somebody thought it’d be reasonable for a first-year teacher to endure and persist working in an absurdly stressful and, at times, dangerous environment. I’m shocked–even angry–that there are schools like this across the country, where populations of highly troubled and needy students are corralled into schools staffed with mostly inexperienced teachers. Right now, we don’t have the political will to treat certain groups of students differently in order to give them reasonable hope for adult and career success.
Regardless of where you teach, the first-year on the job will inevitably be one of the toughest undertakings of your life.
Standing in front of the 8th grade class, my heart palpitated to near panic-attack speed as I watched the molasses-slow second hand of the clock. Please bell—ring early, I prayed. It was my second day of teaching middle school, and the boys were putting me to the test.
In the span of three minutes, the boys had gone from contained to out of control. Two students were shooting dice in the back of the room, and while I told them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shiny new basketball shoes. They began tossing them around like ill-shaped footballs. Before I could react, one boy successfully broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and yellow highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The bell soon bailed me out, and I survived the last periods of the school day—somehow—and eventually staggered out a back entrance and across the faculty parking lot to my car. I fumbled for my keys, started the Honda up, and headed toward the freeway to return to my sparsely furnished apartment. I should have screamed in frustration or cried tears of self-pity while on the expressway. But I did neither—I suspect I was too numb from the day to have any emotional response.
Just three months prior, I had been enjoying a care-free senior spring of college in the bucolic hills of Vermont, taking advantage of local swimming holes, hiking trails, and barbecue opportunities with friends. To say I was content would be an understatement. Life was wonderful. Plans were set to move to Kentucky and teach middle school for at least two years. I was eager to face the challenges of urban public education.
By the beginning of summer, I had resettled in Louisville and was enrolled in an alternative teacher certification program. I had roughly two months to prepare to teach 8th grade boys’ language arts. While I was well-versed content wise, I had no experience with classroom management.
Things got slightly better for a while after I toiled through the opening days. I gained the respect of some students, learning on the fly that conventional means of educating wouldn’t work with this group of belligerent kids. Operating within a school culture that tolerated extreme student misconduct, I had to battle fire with fire. At one point, I challenged a student to fight me in front of the class.
If I had to be unethical to reach the point where I could actually teach, I’d do it—let the ends justify the means, I told myself repeatedly. I wanted to “leave no child behind,” and was determined to overcome a nearly impossible situation. I stepped outside myself one morning to shatter a wooden paddle across a desk, sending splinters flying everywhere, then delivered a passionate 20-minute tirade to my most unruly class. Controlled explosions didn’t become routine, but they were one of many reluctant strategies I employed to try to get the job done. I started to make some progress, but was often derailed from potentially engaging lessons by a number of frustrations.
When I did gain control of the classroom, external forces almost always seeped into my room, seriously disrupting student learning. Roaming students might barge in unannounced to taunt boys in my class. Students would daily come to my room after spending two hours with a substitute teacher, hardly in a good frame of mind to sit down and focus. Some days, I was hardly teaching but 25% of the time; I was babysitting, containing mini-riots, and policing. A steady occurrence of shocking behavior further inhibited my ability to instruct.
A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway. On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window. A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss. I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game. No consequences.
Not one horrific event got me thinking about resigning, but after about three months the reality of the situation started to take a significant mental and physical toll. I felt constantly in a daze, and my neck and shoulders were knotted up with immense stress. I was at a crossroads—do I stay, or move on to something more manageable? It had come to the point where, even if I was able to make measurable progress in the classroom, the little gains came at too great a cost to my mental and physical well-being.
What ensued was the two absolute toughest weeks of my life. I endured some near-sleepless nights and a constant preoccupation in my brain—I just couldn’t tune out the question of resignation. I consulted family, friends, and colleagues, letting them know how I was feeling and seeking out advice. What I needed to do soon became clear. I resigned the day before Thanksgiving.
Making the decision to leave the job was the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make, but I know it was the right one. Not succeeding wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. I had been tossed around by negative forces way out of my control.
Substantial systemic change is necessary if we, as a nation, are truly committed to providing quality education for those who need it most. I haven’t given up the commitment to help others, but am unsure if I will resurface in urban public education. What I do know is that if I teach again, I hope I won’t feel like every child is being left behind.