Category Archives: student behaviour

Classroom cultures that support, not just teach, social skills and well-being

While we know that we are responsible for the 3Rs and other curriculum stuff, we also know that teachers have a role to play in shaping students as they grow into healthy and competent adults.  I met with a woman this week who is interested in developing a program for schools that teaches kids about skills such as growth mindset, autonomy, resiliency, autonomy, kindness, empathy, persistence, etc.  I liked her ideas but it did make me think how do we actually go about doing those things in schools?  After all, over the years there have been a number of “programs”.  There have been posters and puppets and film clips and blackline masters.

It is important that teachers know the skills we want kids to develop, but I am not convinced that they learn them from a course or a binder of lesson plans.  Sometimes when a school adopts a particular program it is useful to have a common language, but if that is all there is, it doesn’t change much.  What does work?  I suspect that when you are able to shape the teaching in the school to support the development of the skills is when you get the greatness traction.  What types of things do we do and how might they help students to develop these important life skills?

When we have multiple opportunities for students to try things in our classrooms without being graded, without needing to get it “right” the first time, and with our trust that they will figure it out, I think that we help them to develop growth mindset, resiliency and persistence.  For example, they know in Maker Space that it is not about getting the project to be done, or to be the best, that is important, but understanding the science behind the mistakes that is important.  They know in problem solving in math that students will solve the problem in a variety of different ways.  They know that they may be asked to share their answer that is incorrect, and that is ok.  They know that we will give them immediate feedback on their writing so that they can improve it BEFORE it is graded.  When we listen to student groups and do not take the lead, or participate as an equal, or make a small suggestion and walk away, we are saying “I trust you to figure this out”.

Empathy, kindness, and autonomy (being in charge of yourself) are also developed in our classrooms.  When our students recognize that different kids get different supports it helps them to develop empathy.  When we have them read novels with strong characters or complex issues, they develop kindness and empathy.  When we allow them to make choices that are good for them in their work, they develop autonomy.  When they have opportunities to redo and retry they develop grit and persistence; they get to know themselves as learners.  When they see us treating students with kindness, respect and understanding, even when that student is struggling, they learn about kindness, respect and understanding.

I do not think that students develop all of these social and well-being skills through lessons alone.  An anchor chart on growth mindset will not ensure growth mindset if the classroom environment doesn’t support it.  A lesson on empathy won’t have any impact when students don’t see their teachers showing empathy and understanding.  But when we purposefully shape our classroom instruction and environment so that students have many, many opportunities over the year to experience the effects of these skills, and we, at times, name them and celebrate them, then I do think that students learn them.

Programs may guide us and help us to know the skills but the program alone won’t make the difference we want it to.  Students will always be learning social skills and personal skills in the context of the classroom.  We can choose which ones we want to develop by how we shape the instruction in our classroom:  a room that is about competition, compliance, completion and grades or a classroom that supports problem-solving, multiple attempts, and challenge.  A school of rigid and unbending rules or a school where staff model inclusiveness, empathy, understanding and kindness.  It may be worthwhile thinking about how we do this in a planned and purposeful way.

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A Day in the Life of a Student at Your School

A group of teachers was talking the other day about the pros and cons of prep periods at the end of the day.  There was talk about having to be “on” for 4 periods and how exhausting that was.  There was some talk about whether it was harder to teach kids at the end of the day.  And then there was a comment, “If we feel wiped after 4 hours in a row of school, imagine how the kids feel.”  It reminded me of an article I had read where a teacher had followed two kids for two days of high school and done everything the kids had done.  The full article is here: https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

The author, a high school teacher herself, made some interesting discoveries:

  1. Sitting all day long is boring and exhausting.  The author was astounded at how tiring it was to just sit.  As teachers we forget that we stand, sit, kneel, and walk around as we teach.  Mostly the kids sit.  I know that when I go to an all-day PD session, even if I get to change workshops every hour, it can be exhausting.
  2. She found that for 90% of the day students were passively receiving information or regurgitating information: listening to the teacher or other students present, or writing a test.
  3. She felt like she was a bit of a nuisance. By the end of the day the teacher felt that she’d been nagged at all day long.  Even though she personally never got “in trouble” she felt that all day long students were being told to line up, be quiet, get to work, listen carefully and so on.  As well, she heard a fair amount of “sarcasm and snark”.  Interestingly she reflected that as a teacher she probably did the same.

It might be worth thinking about what a day in the life of a student at your school would be like.  I know as a teacher, I was usually engaged. But I was organizing my time, and I tended to love my job.  The author of the article reflected that after her experience she wished she had done things in her classroom differently.  Here are some things that might help to make the time fly at school for kids:

  • Keep teacher talking to a minimum. I usually suggest no more than 7 minutes.  It seems short but it is doable.  Plus, you will feel guilty at 15 minutes which is probably the maximum.  Also, think about student presentations, particularly in the upper grades. What about having students present to small groups?  What about a few presentations over a shorter period of time?  What about kids doing their presentation to a smaller group and video taping it through an ipad so that you can watch it later since you won’t get to them all?
  • Collaboration and working in groups.  When I go to a conference I like to hear others’ opinions.  I also find that when I talk about what I am hearing I consolidate it more readily.  Humans are social by nature.  Sometimes we spend so much time telling kids to be quiet; maybe it would be easier, and more engaging, to give them rich problems to discuss. If I had to be quiet all day long, and work on my own, I think I’d be antsy and tempted to talk (or text) to my friend.
  • Teachers can incorporate a stretch, a quick dance video, a run around the school, some jumping jacks just to get blood moving if they find that there is a pervasive sleepiness in the classroom.  Although we worry about using up “content” time, perhaps 50 minutes of good work is better than 60 minutes of so-so work.
  • Are the tasks you give the kids engaging?  Worksheets are not.  Challenges and problems are engaging.  Try doing the activities you give the kids.  Is it engaging?  Is it fun?  Did you have to really think to do it?  Did you have a real sense of accomplishment when it was done?
  • We all know that a little bit of humour goes a long way. However, I do know that in my practice, particularly by the end of the day, or when I was frustrated, or my head hurt, or my shoes pinched, I could be sarcastic and nagging. The reality is that most kids are not misbehaving yet they probably heard my response to the few.  And I was just one teacher of 5 or 6 they had in a day. Or, in the days when I taught primary, I was the only teacher they had for the day-even when I was having a bad day.

I hope, at our school, that the author would have a more positive experience walking in the shoes of our students.  But, still I wonder.  Is there more we could be doing?  Do we need to rethink the type of furniture we have in classrooms?  Do we need to build in more movement?  Are we reflecting enough on the activities we know are engaging and trying to replicate those?  I don’t believe that going to school should be the equivalent of a birthday party.  But, it should be engaging.  Maybe you should ask your students:  does time fly while you are at school?  When I am engaged, that is what happens.  Usually time flies for me at school and especially when I’m teaching.  The time should fly for both us and the kids.  We are in charge of the time.

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Differentiating the physical space in your classroom – increased movement and flexible groupings

Have you ever been to an all day workshop where you sat in the same spot all day long?  When I have those kinds of days I feel tired and achy.  I find that I start to lose my focus by mid-afternoon or earlier.

As a teacher you have multiple opportunities during each period to sit and stand and walk about.  What about our students?  What is their day like?  A high school teacher shadowed students for two days and has this report:  https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

Many teachers I know have been experimenting with different designs of classroom furniture.  In our goal of being planned, purposeful and proactive it may be worth examining how you arrange both your classroom desks and how much movement your students get during their time in your classroom.  No one method is “the answer” but all may be worth a thought or two.

  • Sometimes students may wish to work in groups and sometimes on their own. Having a variety of seating arrangements available may be easier than moving desks around all the time.  Within a single class students may move to different seating or standing arrangements to work.
  • Some teachers are experimenting with desks facing the wall. It both provides students with an opportunity to work on their own and for students to be more accountable with their technology as you can easily monitor what they are doing.  Plus, it will give you a lot more floor space–read on.
  • There is a trend towards standing desks. Standing while you work should be an option for all students.  Particularly students with ADHD will find this beneficial.  Studies have shown that students use 17% more calories just by standing at their desks.
  • We tend to use PDA/outside time  as a “reward” at the end of class. Two teachers I know are having their students do 10-15 minutes of DPA at the beginning of class and find that their students have much more focus.
  • In most classes the guided learning table as become the centre of instruction where students know that they can get support and help. Teachers who use this space regularly find that students ask to work there.
  • When students are doing group work, try having them work standing up at the white board. If you can find enough space try having all your groups stand up and work on non-permanent surfaces.  The standing up means they can move as they talk and the non-permanent part means that they will take more risks.
  • One teacher has let her students sit on the window ledge. I sat there and it was fun (and I could focus).  The students were able to stretch out in ways they can’t in their desks.
  • Think about having a few exercise balls that replace chairs.  Although our natural inclination is to think of all the negatives, the classrooms I know that use them find that after a few days the novelty wears off and students who need the balls for seating, use them.
  • Students often like to work on the floor in the hallways. It allows them to spread out.  Of course, the difficulty with the hall is that it is often hard for you to supervise.  Can you arrange the room, even temporarily to give all groups a space?
  • Table groupings based on a specific theme are also useful. Grade 7 history students adopted a particular perspective for the War of 1812.  They sat in their 1812 communities, using their 1812 identify.  Some of them started to sign all their work with their 1812 name!  The grouping of the students helped them to stay in character and enhanced their understanding.

And a caveat….in the midst of all this movement and flexibility, there will be some students who need to sit in the same spot every day.  It is comforting for them.  Even grownups tend to gravitate towards the same place in the room time and time again (think about staff meetings).  So, do keep that in mind as well.  A differentiated classroom is not just about differentiating the assignment.  It is also about differentiating the physical space students have and the amount of movement they may require to be able to focus for the whole day.

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High Expectations …for kids.

A group of teachers  and I went to a workshop and watched a video of a grade 6 literature circle.  We had a chance to discuss it in our group and we thought that the students had done a pretty good job:  they were engaged and lively in their discussion, they talked about the book, they made reference to the book and talked about their connections to the main characters.  It sounded rather like a book club meeting I would go to.  When it was time to share with other table groups we were surprised that others had thought it was not a good discussion.  They thought the conversation should have been deeper.  They thought that the students should have referred back to the text more.  They thought that all students in the group should have spoken.  They thought that students should have not interrupted each other and used politer language (eg. Have you thought about this point?)  We wondered if our expectations were too low or were theirs too high?

A student in our school who spends a lot of her day with one-to-one support has been very unhappy by 1:00 p.m.  When we met to talk about strategies we began to realize that this young lady has constant “teaching” all day long because of the individualized instruction.  None of our other students are “on” for that long every day.  She probably needs more down time.  Maybe our expectations were unrealistic—most kids get lots of down time at school.

The grade 3 team was doing some teacher moderation of student writing.  We used our rubric to examine each piece.  As we get better at teaching, we also get better at knowing how to improve each student’s writing.  We needed to remind ourselves that many times this was good voice, good plot development, good arguing for grade 3.  Maybe the description was a little overdone; maybe the plot didn’t flow well.    Of course we could do better.  But they are just learning.

Our math teachers do lots of group work.  They have noisy classrooms.  Upon entering my first reaction is that it needs to be quieter.  But when I listen in on the conversations, they are all about math.  The students are all talking about math, all the time.  I don’t think that 30 grownups could talk about math quietly, so I shouldn’t expect that 30 students can.  In fact, I am impressed that 30 students are all talking about math for 20-30 minutes at a time.  There is an expectation that the students will be mathematicians who argue, and figure and ponder together.

So I have been thinking about all these things and wondering about the expectations we have for kids.  We want to set high expectations for all kids.  We want students to set goals and reach them.  We want our students to learn that it takes effort and hard work to achieve goals.  But, they are kids.

Imagine the following:

  • You have to sit on a hard plastic chair all day long. I hate long meetings.  I can’t wait for the break.  Sometimes I go to the bathroom just for a break, not because I have to.  Sometimes my head hurts because I have been concentrating so long.  Do we let our students stand, get up and move, go for a run around the school?  Should we purchase more exercise balls to sit on?
  • Your best friends are sitting right beside you but you can’t talk to them. Have you ever been to a meeting with your friends?  Don’t you talk to them?  Does your group at a PD session always stay on topic?  Do you ever laugh and joke around?
  • After you have worked a really long day, you have to take more work home (I know, you usually do; you’re teachers) and there is no research to prove that the work you do at home makes any difference whatsoever. A little bit of homework is ok.  But, in the grand scheme of life, is homework going to make or break a kid’s life?  And what if everyone else at work didn’t have to bring work home except you, because you didn’t really get it?
  • You’ve just been introduced to something new. You don’t quite get it. It’s new.  It’s different.  It doesn’t quite make sense.  Don’t you want someone to sit with you and explain it again?  Don’t you want some time to struggle with it before you have to show anyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some feedback as you go along?  Don’t you want someone to maybe show you exactly what they mean?
  • You have to write a test. You have studied.  You paid attention in class.  The questions on the test don’t look like what you did in class.  You’ve never had to think like that before.  Some of you will relish the challenge but many of you will panic.

We are doing a great job of having high expectations.  It is always good to remind ourselves that they are just kids.  How does school look from their perspective?  High expectations are important; we want to make sure that the expectations are also reasonable for children-children who are curious, anxious to please, have lots of energy and short attention spans.  High expectations, yes; but not unreasonable ones, not ones that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves, not ones that don’t celebrate and recognize that they are children.

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Collaboration in the Classroom that works…7 ideas.

Collaboration sounds like a good idea.  You are keen.  You have watched the video.  Your desks are in groups.  And…it isn’t going as well as you’d hoped.  Your students are not acting like the kids in the video.  What are some of the factors that you need to consider once you have decided to try collaboration?

  • The Task. The task you ask the students to do needs to be meaningful and challenging.  There is no need to collaborate if the answer is apparent.  There is no desire to collaborate if the problem is irrelevant.
  • Summarizing or gathering information is not collaboration. A few years ago I was taking a course on line and we were supposed to collaborate in a wikispace.  The problem was that usually the task was to summarize the chapter.  Philip, another participant, always did that first.  After he had done it there was really nothing more to say.  There are lots of reasons for students to share summaries or compare summaries or write a summary together but that is not collaboration and you need to recognize that.  The same goes for dividing up the work load to gather information.  It is sometimes a good practice but it is not collaboration.
  • Collaboration needs to be knowledge building. A great structure for building collaboration in your classroom is to use knowledge building circles.  If students are working towards collectively answering a collective question (e.g. Should the tar sands be developed?/ How can we best protect the swamp habitats?/ What is the best design for a paper airplane?) then having them share their learning as they go creates a collaborative culture.  In a knowledge building circle, students react to each other and not the teacher.  While the teacher may begin the conversation with a question, the student who contributes first then chooses the next person to contribute.  If you have never tried this, the following link will get you started:  http://www.naturalcuriosity.ca/pdf/NaturalCuriosityManual.pdf
  • Background knowledge and curiosity are key. It is hard to collaborate and work with others if no one has any background knowledge about the topic.  If my girlfriends and I were asked to collaborate about fixing a car engine, I suspect that we would get off topic fairly quickly.  Students also need to be curious about the topic if they are going to proceed with the inquiry.  If I am in a group that is discussing a topic in which I have no interest, I probably will not collaborate.  Check out this article for more information:  http://goo.gl/TECxKu
  • Organize your group members carefully. Depending on the topic you may want heterogeneous or homogenous groupings.  Groups that don’t collaborate well, however, often have a member with considerably more knowledge or interest than the others.  Groups with similar interests or similar skill sets may work better at collaborating.  I rarely let kids choose their own groups.  It is not that some kids won’t choose a group that works well; it is that some kids will never be chosen to be in a group and you have already lost if members of the group are feeling unwanted.
  • You are still the teacher. Collaboration doesn’t mean that kids will figure everything out on their own.  You are there to guide, facilitate, ask questions, fill in the tricky bits, lend a hand, suggest an alternative, listen, summarize, find the teachable moment, join in, model.  There are still times when you will need to stop the whole class and do some direct teaching.  Collaboration is not a replacement for good teaching.  It is a pedagogical tool that supports and scaffolds learning for students.
  • Relax. Groups are social.  When you go to a meeting, are you always on task?  Does your group get off track or make jokes?  Of course you do.  Do we need to have higher standards for students than we do for ourselves?  Kids are kids.  Kids have been trained through years of schooling to NOT talk to each other.  If you are introducing collaboration after years of individual silent work, you will have to teach them about collaboration.  It might not go well at first.  But, take a deep breath, regroup and try it again.  If your expectation in the classroom is that this is how we do things, it will work.

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What happens when students choose their partners?

As a principal I get to go into classrooms in different ways than as a teacher. First of all, everyone sits up straighter! Sometimes, a hush falls over the room. But, what is interesting for me to reflect upon are the practices which have been around forever because I get to see them as an observer instead of as a teacher. One of those practices is picking partners.

There are many activities we do every day where kids need a partner or a group. And, as a teacher, I often didn’t give that a lot of thought. The quickest way for me to manage was to say find partner, find a group. Of course there were always kids left over but I fixed that and my lesson went on.

As I have observed classrooms more than I have taught them over the past few years (although I still love the teaching, so do ask me in when you want a break), I have noticed things about picking partners that I thought I would share.

1. The minute the teacher says there are going to be groups or partners, kids stop paying attention and start making eyes at each other to make sure they get in the “right” group.

2. Some students, in every class I’ve been in, immediately look at their desk or the floor. Their shoulders hunch in. They look unhappy.

3. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, some students have multiple people coming up to them asking to be their partner. Often that person spends a lot of time deciding exactly who to take. There is often begging. There appears to be a lot of power on the part of the partner of choice.

4. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a few students run about madly asking a number of people to be their partner. They seem a bit desperate. I wonder if they aren’t worried about being left out.

5. During the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, a couple of students hang back and don’t say anything. Sometimes they are approached. Sometimes they are not approached by anyone at all. They make no effort to find a partner. They are usually hanging out at the back or edge of the group.

6. At the end of the process of choosing the groups or partners, in every class I’ve been in, there are students without partners or group members. The teacher then intervenes and places these students in groups or together. In every class I’ve been in, someone has made a face or rolled their eyes, or said something negative about their group member.

So…what is a teacher to do in order to have this process go smoothly and make everyone feel included and welcome?

 – Start with having your students understand that a working relationship is not the same as a friendship. Mutual respect in the classroom means that we can all figure out how to work together. Have very direct conversations about the types of comments and behaviours that will not be tolerated when students are asked to work together.

-  Mix up your groupings frequently so that kids have the opportunity to work with many different students all the time. For some activities you want homogeneous groups but for others heterogeneous groups might work.

-  You know who the friends are, so let them be in the same group sometimes, but not always.

-  You always choose the groups whether it is random or by design. Never leave choosing groups to the students or someone will feel left out.

 – Random groupings can be chosen by handing out coloured cards, by assigning numbers, by colour of hair, by height—there are lots of ways.

 – I suggest that working groups are created by the teacher and that students work together long enough to develop trust.

-  It is often handy to create partners for the month. You could even do it by homeroom so that no matter which class students were in, the teacher could say—find your partner—and it would be done. The next month, new partners.

The easiest thing for us, as teachers, is to say “find a partner”. But, guaranteed, someone is going to feel left out and lonely. I’m sure you aren’t planning for left out and lonely in your lesson plan. It is easy to avoid.

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“Kids will do well if they can”, Dr. R. Greene

I went to an interesting workshop on managing challenging behaviour and I thought I’d share some of Dr. Ross Greene’s ideas.  Not only do his ideas give one cause to think about misbehaviour, but they also help us to understand kids’ academic behaviours as well.  (If you want to learn more visit his website:  http://www.livesinthebalance.org/)

We often think that kids don’t do well at school or misbehave because they want to.  How often do we say to kids:  Are you making good choices?  I do it myself.  But, implicit in the question is the belief on my part that the student could make good choices if he or she wanted to, which, logically leads to the belief that the student has purposely made a bad choice.  In my question I am implying that the student could have equally have chosen the other path.  We also tend to say, when faced with a student who is behaving badly, that the student is acting in this way because it gets him or her something:  attention, a way out of doing work, an escape.  Again, in this assumption also lays the assumption that the student is choosing these behaviours to get the desired, albeit socially unacceptable, effect.

Greene posits a different theory:  Kids do well if they can.  After all, it is always more agreeable to do well if one can.  I can’t really think of a time when, all things being equal, I actually chose to do less than my best or to be mean or to purposely not do a good job when I could or to lose my temper just because.  There have been many times when I have, in hindsight, wished I had chosen differently.  Even if in the moment I am flooded with guilt at my choice, it is always after the fact. But, I can’t really remember ever choosing to do bad.

This puts misbehaviour in a whole new light.  It suggests, then, that really challenging students are operating from a skills deficit model.  If they had the appropriate skills, they would do well.  If we look at challenging students in this way, it may change how we deal with them.  A model of imposed consequences will not remedy deficit skills.

Let’s take this to the academic arena.  If we start with “Kids will do well if they can” then it may change how we view academic progress.  After all, if you could do the math problem, or write a really good essay or play a piece of music or organize your work, wouldn’t you?  Do you ever plan a not-so-great lesson even though you could have planned a great one?  Do you ever write poor report card comments even though you could write better ones?  Do you ever mark work incorrectly even though you could have done it correctly?  Do you ever write a letter to a parent that is disorganized and with poor spelling even though you could do it properly?  Do you ever assign work you know in advance is inappropriate for your students even though you could choose a better assignment?  Probably not.  It is always preferable to do a good job.  When we have the skills to do so, we access them and proceed.

When we are lamenting that students are not doing well, EVEN THOUGH WE HAVE TAUGHT IT, there is a tendency to think that they just don’t want to do what we have taught.  But, maybe they haven’t learned it yet, and, therefore, we need to teach some of those students again (and again and again).  Once students really understand what they need to do, they tend to do it, and feel proud of their work.

Of course, this mindset makes our jobs harder.  It’s easy to lay it all on the kid’s doorstep and impose consequences or poor marks when kids do badly.  It is much, much harder to figure out which skills are missing and work with them to teach the skills.  And the kid has a responsibility here, too.  In both behaviour and academics we need to work with students and listen to them when determining what the problem is, which skills are missing and how we are going to go about solving the problem.  The student needs to feel that he or she is understood and has a role in solving the problem. It is hard work for both us and the student. In the end, though, when we feel like we are solving a problem rather than being punished, we tend to be willing to try.  And when kids see success, within a supported environment, they begin to believe in themselves and believe that the adults in their lives really are there for them.

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