Saturday, November 8, 2014

Communicating with Our Students

My school has started a new initiative to look at how we set and discuss goals with our students. We spent time exploring John Hattie's Visible Learning website and are basing our next steps off his work. Hattie notes that what he calls "student reported grades", or as the website describes, "strategy involves the teacher finding out what are the student’s expectations and pushing the learner to exceed these expectations. Once a student has performed at a level that is beyond their own expectations, he or she gains confidence in his or her learning ability." To keep it simply we're calling it goal setting in our building.

I immediately decided I wanted to start goal setting with my fourth grade reading group. There are four students in the group, all of whom speak English as their second language. They are all reading about a year below grade level, and we are using the Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) for our guided reading work. We meet four times a week, so we're doing about as much reading as we can.

On Thursday I gave the four of them a sheet which asked them to identify what they do well as readers and then what they want to get better at. On the back of the sheet I had a list of reading strategies for both decoding and comprehension so really all they needed to do was read the list and copy something.

When I introduced this they looked at me like I had three heads. One student immediately wrote "being lazy" under the question that asked him to say what he was good at as a reader. At least he was honest? Realizing this wasn't going as I thought it would we went over the list of reading strategies together and talked about what they each do as readers. They still sat and stared at me. I hadn't planned for this to take more than five minutes and now I was watching that my thirty minute reading block wash away. I made one of those teacher decisions that you can't take back once it is out there. I told them I didn't care if it took the whole reading block- we were going to fill out this sheet.

Finally one after another picked up the pencil and begrudgingly started to write. They wrote, and at least two of them were honest, although not detailed. None of them identified strengths that I would have given them, and none of them identified the same areas of improvement that I would have identified for them. One just copied randomly from the list (OK, that's what I would have done as a kid) and the other absolutely refused. "I'm not good at anything with reading" he kept saying as though this was a fact I couldn't argue with. "And I have to get better at all of it."
The others watched my face as he said this and I could tell he was speaking for all of them. Why bother to identify what they were good at if they didn't feel good at any of it?

The whole incident forced me to reflect on the group and my teaching. What kind of teacher was I being if these kids couldn't even tell me what their strengths were in reading? We get through the lessons, I push fast, I take a running record on at least one of them each time, I take data for their IEP goals and I note their progress. I could tell you about each one of their strengths and weaknesses, but apparently I hadn't told them. Or if I had, they hadn't believed me. On paper I was being a great teacher, but in reality these fourth graders showed up every day to get a new book, but were they really improving their reading? If they are improving their reading but don't realize how they are doing it, does it even matter?

I immediately changed the feedback I was giving them as readers. In the time I managed to salvage from the end of the group I explained exactly what I noticed on their running records. I labeled their strengths, and made them record those strengths on their goal papers. Then I tried to be clear with what I wanted them to do on their next read.

Next week I am determined to spend more time giving them specific feedback about their reading. I want them to own their reading skills, and I want them to feel like making progress in reading is achievable. I want them to understand the individual steps needed to get to the next step and be able to articulate how they will get there. I want them to feel ownership of their work, and to take pride in the work they do in reading each day.

We can do hard things, even when reading is one of them.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It's Not About Us (Even when it feels like it is)

On Friday I sat beside one of my kinder friends in a whole school assembly. This wasn't an ideal situation because my friend doesn't do well with changes in routine, large crowds or loud noises, which is exactly what a whole school assembly is. So I sat beside him on the floor of the gym, armed with his sticker chart to give frequent reinforcement for his good behavior.
It was going well. In fact, so well that I let myself have a moment where I thought, "wow, this is going really well, I'm so proud of how far my friend has come," which of course is the wrong thought to have. Ever. 
Immediately as those thoughts entered my mind my friend decided to lay down across the gym floor. We were sitting right up front so he just pushed some head start preschoolers out of the way and spread out. 
"Sit up" I hissed. 
"I'm bored of sitting," he whispered back.
"You can sit up or go stand against the wall," I whispered firmly (or as firmly as one can whisper)
"No." he said.

It's not about us
Let me remind you that we are in front of the ENTIRE SCHOOL. The principals are up in front talking and I am standing up in front of everyone whispering to a kindergartner. I'm sure my face was bright red. All I could think was, "I can't believe this is happening. Everyone in this gym is going to think I am a terrible teacher who can't handle kids. No one will ever listen to my recommendations on working with challenging behaviors again." 

I stopped thinking about the kid and just thought about myself. How I, the adult, needed to save face. How I wasn't going to let some five year old hurt my reputation in the school.

In twelve years of teaching I have learned one thing for sure- the minute we stop thinking about the child and start thinking about ourselves is the minute we stop being productive teachers.

Of course the kid didn't comply. His classroom teacher came over, whispered something in his ear, and he stood up and walked to the side of the gym. I followed, red faced, feeling like a failure. 

His teacher looked at me and explained, "I did exactly what you told me to do. I told him I had a job for him to do. Making up jobs was your idea."  Oh. Yeah. Offering jobs. I did recommend that. That does work for this kiddo. And yet I'd been so aware of my own embarrassment that I'd forgotten any strategies I had to work with this kid. I'd stopped making it about him and started making it about myself. Making it about myself only made the situation worse, almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

I am still MORTIFIED by having the little episode play out in front of the whole school, but I am an adult and can get past embarrassment. It happens. It was an excellent reminder to me that being worried what others think of me only limits my effectiveness as a teacher. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Power of Wait Time

My understanding of teaching improved drastically the year I spent teaching a self contained class for students with intellectual disabilities. I learned so much about the basics of how we as humans learn new concepts, how teachers can break down concepts into the smallest steps to help students learn, and ways to think about re-teaching when you think you have already exhausted every concept and yet your students still are not making progress. But one of the most important lessons I learned that year was about biting my tongue, standing back and simply waiting.

So many of the students in the intellectual disabilities program needed to be taught to do tasks independently. Independence was our gold standard. It did not matter if the student could do a task 100 times with you right there. If they could not do it by themselves it did not count. So we kept track of every time we helped a student. We counted every time we prompted a student to sit down. We made made mental tally marks of every time we gestured for a student to follow directions or verbally reminded a student to do the work. Once you start making note of every time you are prompting your students you quickly become painfully aware of just how much you are aiding your students when they do not even need you. Often I'd find that if I just bit my tongue and waited a moment before I jumped in and correct a student the student would do the task independently. It was just up to me to stand back.

Every day in an elementary school starts with a teacher who has a long to-do list for the day. We cram so much into every single moment that we spend our seven hour days constantly feeling behind. And because of that feeling we are constantly on top of our students, reminding them what the directions are, telling them to hurry up, repeating ourselves, and quickening the pace. We do not have time to wait. Plus we are in charge. When you are in charge we often want to show we are in charge by filling silence with orders. We talk. We talk a lot. We talk constantly throughout the day. It's in our job description. Or is it?

Our rapid pace often limits our students. We are so busy talking that we do not give them time to follow through with the directions on their own, so we often do not even know what they can do. Will they follow directions if we do not remind them what the directions are? Will they give us an answer to our question if we wait in uncomfortable silence while they process their thoughts? If we say nothing else will they line up on their own? Most of the time we don't know. We never give our students time to find out. We keep our pace fast in our lessons. We expect students to do what we say when we say it, and we expect them to answer questions as soon as we ask them. We forget to give wait time. We don't give them time to process the directions, think about their answers, or figure out what to do next. 

Not only is our fast pace keeping us from seeing what our students can do independently, but we are creating learned helplessness. Students begin to know that they do not have to listen to the directions the first time because we will repeat it. Mrs. L gave a direction? I know she'll repeat it in a minute so I can keep talking to my friend. (If you don't believe me think about how we act in staff development meetings. After directions are given there is always a low hum as teachers clarify the directions with the people at their table. We don't always listen either.) 

Our children who are learning to speak English, or who have difficulty with receptive or expressive language, are the ones who benefit from wait time the most. Yet often we don't give it to those students because we are working so hard to close the achievement gap that we want to make every moment count. We repeat, remind, and restate over and over again because we want to keep our pace going. We have things to teach, assessments to give. We have over a year's growth of progress to make.

Our constant reminders and nagging of children with processing delays or who are learning English can also start to cause behavior problems. Once children start to feel like they do not belong in a classroom, once they feel the teacher is exasperated with them, or feel that the teacher is "always on their back" they will start to resent school. They will see themselves as someone who is often in trouble. Once a student sees themselves as one of the bad kids it is hard for them to turn that around. And who wants to work hard in school, or even come to school when you don't think your teacher cares for you? 

Giving students wait time- giving a direction and then standing back quietly to see who will follow it- asking a question and giving students time to formulate an answer before moving on- allows students to process information. They will either use peer models (a great life strategy), think through their auditory memory to find the directions and then follow them, or get off task, at which point it is time to intervene. 

When we interrupt a student's processing time- whether it is because of a processing delay or because a student is learning English- we are starting the student's processing clock over again. If a student takes five seconds to process a direction and we interrupt at the three second mark by repeating the direction then we have just started the clock again. Now the student needs five more seconds to process what we said when we repeated the direction, but we've added the stress factor of the student knowing he should really already have figured out the direction. 

So we can stand back and watch. We can stay quiet and see who follows directions, who lags behind but eventually follows, who is confused and needs a reminder, and who is not interested in following directions but understands them perfectly. By waiting, even when it is uncomfortable, we learn about our students. We gain information about how they learn, what they like, how they process information and what supports they need. We take away the crutch of the teacher prompt and take a step closer to independence. Sometimes we teach students more from being quiet than from jumping in.