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.

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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.