January Links

I'm going to start posting a collection of links I'm loving that don't necessarily merit their own post once a month.  Here's January's:

Sarcasm creates such a stressful environment for students, and in my experience, particularly our diverse learners.  I loved One Lesson at a Time's post 10 Rhetorical Questions Teachers Shouldn't Ask & 10 More Effective Alternatives. Besides it being demeaning, I loved that she stressed that it's not effective, because it really isn't.

The Washington Post article, Report: Requiring kindergartners to read-- as Common Core does-- may harm some, rang true for me.  

A friend shared this Chicago Tribune article, Chicago Public Schools defies mandate on new standardized exam, PARCC, on Facebook.  I work at a charter, so I'm not sure what my school will do.  It would be a huge relief not to have to torture my students with yet another standardized test.  Last year ISAT (the test which PARCC is replacing) was so incredibly miserable.  

I didn't completely agree with Are You A Truly Bad Teacher?, but I did appreciate this part:
"But I also think this preoccupation with bad teachers in the absence of the more urgent strategy for attracting and retaining good teachers is deeply unfair to students and in fact, unequally distributed, because it falls much harder on teachers in low-income communities who teach in far more challenging conditions and therefore are much less likely to see visible signs of success on a predictable basis."
 Did you read any of these same articles or posts? What have you been reading this month?

Dream.

SaaunB/Twitter
This year, like last year, I'm wondering what to teach my students about Dr. King.  And next month, I'll wonder what to teach and discuss with them about black history.  Some of the children's books I've seen about Dr. King don't mention a single thing about race or racism. And those that do tackle racism talk about it only as a thing of the past.  As a white teacher, with all students of color, I never know the right tone to take or the right things to say.  But I'll be trying, and I hope my fellow educators will be too.

In the meantime, check out this collection of photos from #ReclaimMLK events across the country.

I might not be beyond discipline: Follow Up


After my Class Dojo-inspired crisis, I did what I should have done in the first place, which was to turn the problem over to the students.  I set up the above "tree map" (my school uses thinking maps), and they passed the marker around, adding things they like and don't like about the program we're using.  I was happy to see that even my most reluctant students actively liked several parts of the program.  I addressed each of their dislikes and then we brainstormed ideas to make our time together more fun, but still productive.  I wrote everything down, even if I knew it wasn't going to happen (i.e., free time).  Here are the changes they came up with based on our meeting:
  • My favorite suggestion (and one I was hoping they would come up with!) was doing a read-aloud for part of the time.  Last year I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Phantom Tollbooth with two of the students in the group, and it was so rewarding for all of us.  I love that one of them actually wanted me to read The Phantom Tollbooth again. I had three books ready to offer if the suggestion came up: A Wrinkle in Time (a personal favorite), Coraline (I thought it would appeal due to the creepiness factor), and The Watsons Go to Birmingham (I haven't read this, but two of the students are very interested in civil rights, so I brought it as an option).  I loved watching them decide what we should read with very little guidance on my part.  The two girls wanted Coraline, and the two boys first chose A Wrinkle in Time, but then switched over to The Watsons Go to Birmingham.  I wasn't sure how they were going to resolve the split, especially as we had one absent student.  One of the girls suggested that she didn't think we should read Coraline after all, because the absent student gets frightened easily.  Then another student said that Black History Month is coming up, so The Watsons Go to Birmingham would be appropriate.  I'm so, so glad they generated the idea of the read aloud themselves and then got to choose the book.  We'll be reading it for 15 minutes a day out of our hour together.
  • One student suggested class jobs, and they were all very into it! I wouldn't have thought of doing that since we're only together three times a week and we're actually in a large closet instead of my regular classroom.  They came up with the jobs of passer, collector, greeter (weird charter school thing... there's a designated kid to "greet" any visitors and explain what the class is doing), tracker (more on that later), and substitute. 
  • All of them agreed that they didn't like the Phonemic Awareness portion, which is the sound drill I mentioned in my previous post.  I explained to them how important phonemic awareness is in becoming stronger readers, and I gave the example of how several of them are much better at differentiating between short e and short i now.  I said that we could compromise and put a time limit on it, as long as we were extra efficient within the time limit.  Of course, they have no sense of time, and suggested a 20 minute limit, when in fact we rarely spend that much time on it anyway.  I said ten minutes, which is actually a win-win, because I'd rather have them engaged and "on" for 10 minutes than whiny and annoyed for 15-20 minutes. 
  • All but one of them were really insistent on wanting to use Class Dojo.  I explained why I wasn't sure about it by saying that I didn't want them to be competing with each other when we should be focusing on learning.  Still, they all wanted to use it, and the one reluctant student changed her mind by the end (as you can see by the top line scribbled out under 'Do Not Like).  I am thinking of making it so that you can only get a point if nominated by another student? I'm not sure on that part yet. The 'tracker' job will be to keep track of points on the iPad. 
I really felt the atmosphere become palpably less tense as the kids expressed their opinions and came up with ideas.  I didn't realize how much I had been attempting to bend the kids to my will until we had this meeting.  Not because they said anything like that, but just because I could feel myself letting go of that control as they started generating their own ideas.  I'm really happy for them to take ownership of our time together.

This post and the last are kind of a little case study for me on the struggle of letting go of control. The first item under "Do Not Like" is "lossing [sic] my marker."  We use dry erase markers during one portion, and I kept taking this one kid's marker away because he was messing with it.  The fact that out of all the things we do in the program, the first thing he thought of was the fact that his marker was taken away two or three times really speaks to students need for autonomy.  I immediately felt like a huge jerk.  Did I really need to take his marker away? I told myself it was to keep the other kids from getting out of hand with the markers, but Kohn says, and I agree, that the more you trust children, the more they'll rise to the occasion.  

If you by any chance got to the end of this, I hope you found some part of my thought process helpful, and I'd love to hear other teachers' experiences with this sort of thing! 

I might not be beyond discipline.


Confession: I used Class Dojo today.  
Their cuteness makes the dilemma all the more confusing.

In theory, I'm against all external rewards and punishments in the classroom.  I started out the year with none at all. Slowly, however, they've crept in.  My students keep track of their sight word knowledge, accuracy, fluency, and LexiaCore level on my data wall.  They get a certificate and a prize when they reach the next benchmark in any category.  I really wanted to acknowledge my students' hard work, because many of them struggle so much.  I think I didn't trust that they would care or be motivated by the somewhat abstract concepts of "accuracy" and "fluency."  That was slip-up number one.

This year I started a somewhat-scripted, very organized reading program called Phonics Boost.  In general, the program has been great.  It's multi-sensory and engaging.  But, the students do need to do things in a certain way for it to be fully effective.  Because many of my students have ADHD and ADD, the interruptions during certain parts that are essentially drills got to be too much to bear.  It was making class harder for everyone-- I timed it once, and that particular section could take as little as 7 minutes with no interruptions.  With the interruptions, it can take 20-25 minutes.  I only have most of my students for 30 minutes a day, and it seemed unconscionable to waste half of their time with me.  All this to say, I started using stickers.  In this drill-type section, the students take turns "stretching" a word into the sounds, and then blending it together.  They then answer a few questions about the word, i.e., what was the vowel phoneme? is it short or long? I started giving a student a tiny sticker if he got all the answers correct.  I defended it to myself by saying it wasn't for behavior; it was rewarding academics.  And it worked.  It cut the time we spent on it in half. That was slip-up number two.

I used the stickers with the above group to curtail constant interruptions.  They were in second grade.  With my fourth graders that I do the same program with, the problem wasn't really interruptions, but more negativity and borderline sabotage.  If you've ever done a program like this, you know what I mean. Kids taking as long as they possibly can to put their magnetic tiles back.  Kids refusing to accept help.  Kids complaining.  Not by any means outright mutiny, and for the first few weeks they actually all quite liked it.  And still, they all come willingly three times a week, and at least one of the students is more than capable of digging his heels in (literally) and refusing.  But this recent negative vibe was a real downer.  And so today, I thought, what can I do to make it more fun? I (pathetically) thought of the stickers I use with my younger group, but I didn't think it would have much effect with fourth graders.  Class Dojo popped into my head, and I quickly set up an account in the ten minutes I had left of my prep.  When I showed it to my fourth graders, they were delighted.  They had seen it before, and they were excited to use it.  They kept asking me about the negative points, which I told them I wouldn't be using.  They actually argued about that, which was kind of disturbing.  I mean, presumably they aren't hoping for negative points for themselves, so the only reason they could want them would be to watch other students get them, right? Anyway, our hour-long class ran very smoothly.  I have one student in that group that struggles academically more than anyone else. She frequently refuses to participate, which is really frustrating, because the less she participates, the farther she'll fall behind.  Today, she participated in every part of the lesson. 

If a fellow teacher told me all this, I know what I'd say:
-The program you're using isn't authentically engaging if kids are interrupting, sabotaging, and complaining enough to throw your class off track. Alfie Kohn says, 
"Let's be honest: students frequently perceive the tasks they are given as not worth doing-- and sometimes with good reason... Even an assignment that could in principle be worthwhile may fail to engage students because its meaning and relevance were never explained, or because students had nothing to say about how it was to be done." (Beyond Discipline, p. 19)
-Your ADD and ADHD students need more accommodations.  They need motor breaks, they need fidgets, etc. etc.
-Your reluctant learner needs to become intrinsically motivated to learn, not bribed into it with points.

To which I say:  these kids HAVE to learn how to read.  They have to.  Low-income, minority children are at such a vast disadvantage, everything else aside.  And I work with those that have these disadvantages, and then a learning disability (or other label) on top of it.  I can't trust that they'll have a dedicated special education teacher working with them every year. In this district, I can't even trust that they'll have a special education teacher, period, working with them every year. I can't trust that they won't slip through the cracks.  I can't trust that they'll ever learn how to read if they don't this year.  It sounds dramatic, but that's the reality. So, when I only get kids for 30 minutes a day, or for 3 times a week, what do I do? Given the resources I have, it seems like this research-based program is their best shot at being able to really read by the end of the year.  And for it to be most effective, they need to be paying attention and actively participating.  And sometimes, for a lot of reasons, some of them valid and some of them not, they don't want to. Sometimes he's annoyed at the student next to him, frequently for a reason it really doesn't seem productive to spend time talking about (he cut me in line, he got the seat I wanted, etc.).  Sometimes he stayed up late watching movies because his parents work nights, and he's just tired and cranky. Sometimes she's just bored and wants to go home.  I know Alfie Kohn would say that to build a community vs. just eliciting compliance, we need to address those things.  But how many times can I stop my lesson to talk about how Student B really needs to go to sleep on time, and how Student C needs to learn to read so she can go to high school and then college? Can I sacrifice our 30 minutes a day? Can I risk it at the expense of their going through life illiterate? Kohn says that he asks this question at workshops,
"What are your long-term goals for the students you work with? What would you like them to be-- to be like-- long after they've left you?"
He states that he invariably gets answers related to character ("caring," "happy," etc.) rather than those related to intellect or specific knowledge. When I first read Beyond Discipline, I nodded along in agreement.

...but now? I want my kids to be able to read.  Not that I don't want them to be caring, happy, responsible, delightful "citizens of the world", but when it comes down to what my main goal is? Literacy, without a doubt. I feel cold-hearted saying it, but that's what I feel is going to make the most difference in their lives. 

And so where does that leave me?
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