No more “problem” students

I was recently reading a post by a friend and it immediately got me wondering, “what are the actions and behaviors of students that teachers find annoying? How did I view and react to them before, versus now?” I agree with the premise that there are just things people do that irk others, including the most well-intentioned teachers, and I think it ought to be a given that we treat those kids (and colleagues) with respect, regardless. But it got me wondering…

Before this year, I’d say that the behaviors that annoyed me were things like kids who bullied other kids, kids who were fidgety, or whiny, or smart-asses. Now I’ve got students who sexually harass others, use aggressive/intimidating language toward each other or teachers, and refuse to cooperate. I think, before, I would have just seen these things as annoying behaviors I needed to tolerate, ignore, constantly address, or navigate around.

I now have a different approach, and am struggling against tolerating behaviors that get in the way of their learning or the learning of others’, and I’m struggling against indirect or passive-aggressive approaches of discipline. So, instead of saying things like, “Max, stop talking.” Or, “Max, I’m waiting for you to stop.” Or, “I see Abby sitting the smart way.” (Those last two wouldn’t cut it in high school anyway! Haha).

Teachers always have rules in their rooms, usually that magic number five, and include things like, “respect people and property, raise your hand and wait to speak, stay in your seat when working, do your best work always.” But there is a lot unspoken in that short list of what we really expect and know kids need to do to be “good” students.

So, instead of doing that list of rules, I taught students about their rights and responsibilities as students in a NYC public school, using the blue code of discipline book as an official document. Using this document shows them that my job dictates what I need to do and what I expect from them; it’s not personal. You, Stevie, are not expected to sit quietly and listen during the lesson because I asked nicely or authoritatively, or threatened to move your name to red. It’s not something you owe me because we’ve developed an “understanding”. You are expected to do that because those behaviors are required for learning to happen for all in this room.

After discussing their rights and responsibilities, we discussed how hard it actually is to always live up to them, and how there are behaviors that get in the way. I then asked them to name those behaviors (see chart below). I then had them discuss the kinds of things they could do in place of those behaviors (after they admitted, in part, that those behaviors come from not knowing what to do in class, or it being hard to focus). We then agreed upon a list of responses that I would give, to get them back on track.

This was a big shift for me — I now could no longer ignore those behaviors, or just give “teacher looks” — I needed to make them aware of the behaviors they were exhibiting and make apparent to them what behaviors were expected. So, I had to say things like, “Jim, right now you are throwing papers at other students. The expectation is that you are reading the whole time. You need to do that.” If he refused, or tried and failed, we went to the next reminder, and often make our way to the behavior conference where they reflect on the actions, what was causing them, and how to address them.

This is really challenging because we’ve been trained as teachers to avoid these kinds of kids, so as not to provoke them further, or because we “just don’t know what to do with them anymore”, or because we have the idea that it’s hurtful, maybe, to point out to them what they do that makes learning hard for them, or because we’ve been trained to think that just exerting a certain kind of authority, or having a certain kind of relationship with the kid contains those behaviors is enough. But the problem with this is it hides from the kids the kinds of things they need to learn to fix, and it hides from them what “annoys” teachers and why. Creating a social contract in this way empowers students to identify, self-correct, and help others to correct these behaviors—not just because you create this document, but because of how you then use it and teach them to use it.

So, it’s no longer just this vague list in my head of behaviors that are okay, and behaviors that aren’t, so that kids get labeled or label themselves “good” or “bad”, depending on the response they get from me for whatever they happened to be doing. There is a clear list of what’s expected, and students are challenged to self-correct those behaviors and learn to self-regulate. Now the challenge for my class is getting them to engage in shared regulation, where they are saying things to each other like, “talking during the lesson interrupts the lesson and gets in the way of my learning, so please stop.” We’re not quite there yet, but the maladaptive behaviors kids have learned as ways to avoid learning or avoid feeling stupid, or whatever, are becoming minimized and increasingly isolated. Together, we are creating new social norms and expectations they can hold each other to.

The way I see it is those behaviors will always exist because we are just starting to unearth years of “I’m a bad kid and this is what bad kids do” beliefs, but there are no more “problem students” in a fixed sense.


Developing Joint Intentions for Learning

When i would start planning a new Readers or Writers unit, or a new Math unit, I’d look at the materials given to me and ask myself, “what will be difficult for my students? Where will they struggle? Where will they find their strengths?”, and then I planned ways to mediate those challenges and build on those strengths. “The standard says they need to write for information, so I will train them on the 5-paragraph essay structure. The standard says they need to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers, but Sandra can’t add yet, so I will give her activities where she can practice adding and connect it to multiplying 1 digit numbers. We’re reading historical fiction this unit, but there aren’t any historical novels at Lin’s level, so….” You get the point.

Now, I don’t use pre-fab units based on someone’s interpretation of the standards. I don’t hide the standards from students and hide how far from them they are. With the Learning Cultures curriculum, students have unmediated access to the standards, and the challenge is on them (in conjunction with the teacher and their classmates), to figure out where they are and they do this to engage in active problem solving and planning the actions and practices they need to reach the grade-level standard. The challenge is on the teacher to make those standards meaningful to them by not imposing them from the outside, but bringing them in to show the kids how what they’re doing connects.

So, this year, I have a beginner ESL student in ninth grade who comes from a politically volatile country and so rarely went to school before coming to the U.S. last year. She speaks two languages, one of which is spoken but not written, and she is marginally literate in the other.

Normally, in the traditional, transmission model I used to teach in, I would work with her one-on-one or in a small group (probably with some low-level text I’d chosen), to guide her to learn to read. I’d introduce letter sounds to her, choosing which ones she needed to learn, and choosing vocabulary for her to learn as well. I’d directly teach the things I knew she needed to learn. I’d also explain why she needed to know them, and help her see how it’d help her to become a stronger reader and language learner. Maybe I’d find out what were topics she was interested in, and if it fit into the Readers and Writers unit of study that month, I’d find her books that were relevant, or encourage her to write on that topic.

All her learning would essentially be dictated to her, with some limited choices allowed.

This is the direct opposite of how I’m teaching now. We start with the student’s innate ability and desire to learn (which often has been so numbed and even removed by the traditions, transmission model, that just getting some kids to identify that desire is extremely hard), and we start by helping the students to use the standards to see for themselves where they are now, and where they need to be.

With this student, for example, she had chosen a novel to read which I quickly realized was way above her head; she can barely sound out new words and relies on her limited literacy in her home language to do even that. So, we sat, and I asked her to show me what she was working on. She pulled out this book and I asked her to start reading to me. She could sound out a few words correctly, here and there, and when she got stuck, she’d look to me for help. She couldn’t really tell me with great accuracy what was happening in the story. In my previous teaching, I’d have said (or been expected to say), “I notice you’re having a hard time reading and understanding this. Is this book your level? Does this book fit where you are right now?”, and then I’d help her choose a lower level text.

That’s not what I did this time. This time, I asked why she wanted to read the book, and then I said, “What’s hard about this book?” With this question, I’ve flipped my previous expectation of who determines this. I’m no longer starting with what I think is hard for her and then moving her attention there. I want to see what she can identify as her challenge; can she identify what is troubling her? (Hint: many students can’t or for too long have learned to hide those weaknesses out of fear of being labeled or shamed). It is very powerful to put this in kids’ hands.

She shrugged her shoulders at first, and then said “The English.” I asked her to be more specific. She said she didn’t know some of the words. So, we read again, and when she couldn’t pronounce a word, I asked her, “what do you do when that happens and I’m not here?” She said she would skip the word. I then asked her how many words does she end up skipping, and she said quite a few, like 5 per paragraph and in reality it was probably more. So, I said to her, “what you’re doing, trying to figure out what words sound like and what they mean is in the standards. Let’s look and see what the standards say and how to make what you’re doing stronger.” (She got to see, then, that part of this is reflected in the ninth grade standards but we had to look at the lower grade standards to find phonemic awareness, and we discussed why that was something valid for her and how it would lead her to ninth grade standards.)

So, then I started to prompt her to think through how she could learn how to pronounce the first word she had stopped on (“creep”). She had a computer handy, so she went to google translate. But, instead of just looking up the meaning, we noticed that google translate will read the word aloud to you, in English. I explained to her that this is an important step in learning English, rather than just learning what words mean. Together, we devised a plan, using other websites she found, and books I had, for her to continue this practice. I didn’t just impose this on her as an intervention disconnected from what she initially was moved to do (read that interesting but far too challenging book). I helped to guide her in identifying the problem herself and then worked with her, to devise a plan and set a goal for herself around this. I didn’t circumvent her desire to learn and use it to guide her attention to what I alone thought she needed. I used her intentions to learn, and my intention to implement standards to create joint intention by following into where her attention was already focused.

So she came to the same conclusion that that book was too hard for her but knew why and knew what she needed to learn to get there. I didn’t tell her to stop reading it. She may choose to on her own or she may use another strategy I have taught and modeled—like reading with a partner, chunking and annotating through close reading, etc., to keep at it a little longer. She may read the shorter stories I have recommended.  For me, it is less about her finishing a whole book (right now) and more about her being aware of her needs and making decisions for herself with knowledge about her needs and the expectations. Using curriculum based measures, I also conference with students so they can periodically set goals and measure their movement toward them. That’s for another post. 

In recounting this story to my husband, I learned that that’s how he actually learned to read in English as well. When he first came to this country at age 16, his cousin lent him Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton. He wanted to be able to read and share this book with her, so he would sit with a dictionary and use the strategies he’d acquired learning to read in his previous two languages, as well as his desire to relate to his cousin, to motivate him to read it. It took him two months, and no doubt it was difficult despite his experience as a literate person, but his motivations were just as important in his success as his literacy skills. Had he been in high school and this book had been assigned by a teacher, with a two-week time limit, he might not have persevered.

Cooperative & In Unison

“Why did you choose this text?”, I asked the ninth grader, noticing the I Have A Dream speech in his hands.

“I had always heard about MLK and wanted to read the speech,” he smiled. He gave me a copy and gathered the other two members of his group to the table.

They began to read aloud together and at the second sentence, a student breached, or stopped the group, “Five score? What does that mean?”

“A game?” a student replied.

There were no handy dictionaries, so I gave them my phone to google it. They learned a score was equal to twenty years, so five score meant 100. “Why didn’t he just say that?” a student quipped. “Well, it’s a speech, and that’s an old-fashioned way of speaking, so maybe he is just trying to make it sound special or formal.” Satisfied, the group kept reading.

They breached again at the end of the next phrase, “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

“What’s injustice? I mean I know justice is something that is good. Like the police.”

“Or not, like when the police beat Black people up.”
“Well, if justice is like doing the right thing, maybe injustice means the opposite.”
“Maybe that’s what “in-” means”.

I take a moment to point out what they were doing, following in to where their own attention already was focused– and explained how they were identifying parts of the word they knew, and taking strong guesses at the “in-“, which I told them was called a prefix, a term they’d heard of.

Then the focused turned to “withering”, and the student leader said, “let’s use the strategies we’ve learned so far so we don’t keep looking up words. I notice –ing which means a kind of action. So withering must be some kind of action.”

A second student responded, “we could read around it, break it down into parts, sound it out…”

“None of those really help,” his friend replied. “Let’s re-read the sentence and think about it.”

“It is also talking about injustice, so withering is describing a kind of injustice and the earlier part about being seared in the flames.. That’s really negative. It’s talking about the horrible things slaves went through.”

Although I was itching to explain or have them look up the word, I understood their desire to just try and understand the gist without looking up every unknown word, especially since their motivation was to challenge themselves. I pointed out the strengths in what they were doing but suggested we jot withering down to look up later, before moving on.

They continued to read, noticing how MLK says 100 years ago, connecting to what they had read earlier. They also noticed the metaphor and poetry in his use of phrases like, “flames of withering injustice”, and “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

What was so exciting about this particular UR was that while one student knew more word attack strategies, one student knew more of the history and context. Reading independently or with my constant instruction and interruption, would never have allowed this kind of shared learning and student success. By allowing students to create the focus, they are able to identify problems in their reading, and are challenged to delve into their collective banks of lesrned strategies for such problem-solving. Rather than me playing the role of pre-planner and problem-solver, I am freed up instead to follow in to their noticings. This allows me to teach at an authentic point of challenge and difficulty, and I can use what I learn through their struggles and successes for whole class “grassroots” lessons, rather than pre-planned lessons for which I have to create “connections”.

One of the literacy strategies I had learned as a new teacher was guided reading, where a teacher gathers a small group of children to read a book that is just above their independent reading level (guided reading goes hand-in-hand with a leveled classroom). The teacher chooses the book because it can teach a skill or strategy the students need practice with, whether it’s differentiating the sh vs ch sounds, or keeping track of multiple characters in a book laden with unmarked dialogue.

As an ESL teacher, I abhorred guided reading (GR) for two main reasons: I hated reinforcing the levels in class and because I didn’t feel it helped my students to really learn whatever skill or strategy I had chosen for them to learn; I never felt it stuck with them.

I think if I had had more freedom over what we learned or read, perhaps I could’ve used GR in a way that I felt could be beneficial but it wasn’t until I read the book on Unison Reading (which I have posted about here), that I realized the whole theoretical foundation GR stands on is problematic.

I started using Cooperative Unison Reading as a tool for teaching reading since joining my new school in September. Some background: Five-six student leaders (which rotate) choose a short text they’d like to read. In my ELA class, there are no restrictions on content but in my Citizenship & Sustainability class, the leaders are encouraged to choose a text relevant to what we are studying, and there are options available in the class.

The chosen texts get posted in the room and students choose among the five until there are five students in a group. The next day we begin reading. The teacher takes notes on the “breaches”, leading kids to notice and discuss the strengths of their Unison Reading.

A humbling curriculum


I feel I have always been a very reflective and responsive teacher; if I saw something I was doing wasn’t working properly or supporting the kids enough, the next day would be different. Sometimes that meant a new center, chart to reference, a new approach to behavior management or reorganizing the room. I was self-critical enough to learn from my mistakes but not dwell on them. I believed I was a good teacher because my students grew quickly; I could assess their learning and it was even obvious to them. They often made more than a year’s progress, sometimes going from a first to a fourth grade reading level.

So, why was I worried every time I stepped out of my room to let a cluster or sub teach them? Why was I scared about what would happen to them in middle school?

Even though part of my worry was knowing how little some teachers understand about ELLs, or truly horrible experiences my kids have had with other teachers, it was also because the students themselves were worried. They weren’t entering middle school as confident language learners and problem solvers.

It wasn’t until I became apart of the Learning Cultures curriculum that I realized just what a disservice other forms of teaching are, especially for ELLs and special education students. This curriculum, which puts student independence and student-led problem solving as the pivot around which everything else moves, really humbles you as a teacher. You start to see all the things students don’t realize about their own strengths and weaknesses or how to identify, initiate and solve problems, and you start to really wonder about yourself as a teacher.

In trying to conceive of ways for students to learn things without my constant guiding hand, I have had to really examine my beliefs about learning and teaching, and I’ve had to re-imagine some activities that used to be student centered but very teacher-directed (such as teaching academic language to ELLs). I have constantly asked myself, “what do they need to learn? Why? How can they learn it through real practice and independence, which requires them making mistakes to learn from?”

It has not been easy, and there are teachers who look at a curriculum like this and say, “that’s not teaching. How are the kids learning? Where is the rigor?” Kids as similar questions, like, “why won’t you help me?”. That one question absolutely defines how students have come to see teachers, and it’s the students who say that most frequently who need me to intervene (in that sense) the least so that they can unlearn that self-destructive habit.

Of course the help or instruction I give comes via the joint intentions we create through 1-on-1 conferences where I learn the work the student is doing (since everyone is doing their own work dictated by both Common Core standards and their own interests), their perception of their strengths and weaknesses, and then we problem solve together in a way s/he could replicate without me. (It’s not as neat and easy as that sounds, but it is definitely the first time I ever felt student conferences truly mattered and had a place in the curriculum since it is where I get my lesson ideas — unlike the TCRWP approach I was initially trained in).

This curriculum is humbling but only if you allow it to be. It’s too easy to try it out, half-commitedly, and then declare it isn’t working and kids aren’t learning. Spontaneity will always drag you back to what’s familiar and the “norm”, even if it was honestly not better. Going against the grain by nearly totally upending the ways you have been teaching, before you see the benefit,is definitely a challenge for the daring. It is also for those who want to stop worrying about how their kids will do with the sub or with next year’s teachers. I want to believe, when I wave at kids at the end of June, that they are leaving me more self-aware, and more equipped to self-advocate than before.

Breaking Bad and Making Good

Breaking Bad: Box Cutter (#4.1)” (2011)

Jesse Pinkman: At least we all understand each other now.
Walter White: What do you mean?
Jesse Pinkman: I mean, him and us, we get it.
[Makes cutting motion on his neck]
Jesse Pinkman: We’re all on the same page.
Walter White: And what page is that?
Jesse Pinkman: The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.

We all know about teacher burnout—all the ways in which this profession can slowly squeeze the life out of you. I never thought that’d be me, but I had gone from being someone filled with excitement, tenacity and purpose to wishing the teacher in me were dead.

From September to December, I found myself constantly coming up against the same problem I always faced, only much more intensely—to let go of my ESL training and principles, and teach in ways I believed to be unfair—but the familiar rush of indignation and resistance was not there this time. Those months found me just trying to keep up. I was exhausted and intellectually stagnant.

So, I started to feel like maybe, actually, the problem was me; I must be inadequate as a classroom teacher, unable to teach in this way, unable to get all of my students to pass the state tests. Like most teachers I know, I had been living a double life, doing what I thought was right “when the door is closed” and yet allowing the same frustrating expectations to stand for me, my students, and all other teachers (think: “I am not going to teach to the test,” but still worrying how your kids will do and eventually giving into the pressure. Or think: “my students moved 18 levels in reading” but still have to give a fail grade on report cards because the system only has one definition of success which locks out ELLs).

To live that double life, you often have to break some big “rules” you feel are damaging to your students.

My students were ELLs in a curriculum that wasn’t just designed for native speakers, it was designed in ways that undermined their needs and strengths. There was no way I would meet their cognitive and intellectual or academic needs by remaining within the confines of the Teachers College Readers and Writers curriculum. You might think that’d be obvious, but I had friends at other schools who were denied tenure because they were being held accountable for teaching in ways that could not benefit their students. So, it meant breaking rules. It meant doing my best to meet expectations and still meet my students’ needs. But that only took me so far until those outside pressures became just too great. I just couldn’t keep up with the dichotomy anymore.

Then, around December, I started to realize I was not alone in how I was feeling and, in fact, teachers I greatly admire in different schools around the city (and country) were feeling this exact same overwhelming self-doubt and undermining of their efforts and talents. Some call it lack of appreciation, or lack of experience from their administrators, while others call it systemic injustice.

So I started to refocus the question I saw in front of me: if it isn’t just me, is it the whole profession? If my dream of teaching differently was just a dream, then what?

I felt I had three choices: to leave the profession entirely; to accept it and continue wishing I was “dead”; or find a way to change the situation. I started with the latter—which I knew meant major upheavals and transformation of everything I was doing, but how? So, first, I contacted a friend who had inspired me to be a teacher to see if maybe, just maybe, public school education as a whole was not lost.

My friend told me about this and genre practice, and I devoured the book, Unison Reading by Cynthia McCallister. This book helped me to see the true source of my outrage; NOT me and NOT my administration, but the philosophies and approach embedded within curriculums like the Teachers College Readers and Writers Project itself. I could have continued running myself into the ground trying to adapt this to meet the needs of my students or find a curriculum that actually had a better chance of benefitting them.

Then I had the opportunity to meet and see other teachers and principals who were educating students in this new way, and I knew I had found a way to save the teacher in me. My outrage quickly returned (and clearly resonated with others).

Unfortunately, I had to change schools to be able to teach in this new way, but I’m excited. Now, the questions that guide my teaching have shifted from, “how am I going to adapt every part of this curriculum so I can support the needs and strengths of my students?” to, “how will my students’ interests, needs, strengths, and intentions shape the curriculum and build their independence?”. Now I’m thinking, “How can an ELL, beginner or advanced, develop intentions in grappling with big concepts without my constant scaffolding? What needs to be in place so my students can do academic work and learn to confront and identify their own confusions and needs without waiting for someone to tell them how, or always waiting for me to teach them? How will their purpose drive their writing, or their understandings drive their math work, rather than what genre or math concept I have pre-selected?”

The former is driven by a pre-fab curriculum designed by people who don’t know my students, the latter by my students and state standards.

This new approach may not have an answer for everything, but it isn’t a “don’t think, just do” approach, either. To teach this way, you really have to grapple with the underlying philosophies, reading and discussing what this could look like in the classroom, while emphasizing that mistakes will happen, it will be messy and that’s ok because we will learn as we do this. This means that while there may be teachers who don’t totally agree with the approach, or who are apprehensive, also aren’t just “on the same page”, out of fear.

It is overwhelming to plan like this and I am constantly confronting knotty problems that aren’t easy to solve. And, yet, I am happy to say I no longer feel like [makes cutting motion on my neck].

Another new leaf

“Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower.” – A. Camus

This September finds me in a new place. I will be teaching ESL at a high school for the first time. I’m very excited about it. I probably won’t have time for blogging though 🙂

Why the exaggerated pause?

I know I said I’d be posting soon about academic language and how to incorporate it into your teaching of ELLs. But you know that feel when you have just discovered something that just totally rocks your intellectual boat and you just can’t get past it? Or, has your mind ever been like a boa constrictor where it has taken in so much that you know it’s going to be weeks before you totally digest what you’ve just learned? Well, choose whichever metaphor suits you, and that describes me of late. I just can’t wrap my head around explaining anything else until my mind stops reeling. I love moments like these but they can be frustrating, too, because they cause such writer’s block. I’m not capable of writing about even the most mundane daily tidbits. So, please indulge elsewhere for a little longer. I’ll be back soon 🙂