Tuesday, January 13, 2015

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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