Tag 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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We LOVE Google Classroom…but is there anything to be wary about?

In the school I work, the teachers have embraced Google Classroom.  We see lots and lots of benefits:  student engagement, integrated technology, paperless environment and a huge cut in the photocopying budget, and many others.  But my job is to provoke critical thinking (my teachers love it when I do that) and so today I am reflecting upon all the positives I see but also ask some questions that may guide us as we move forward with integrated technology.

Here is a somewhat related example.  A number of years ago the smartboard was the tool to have.  And, smartboards can be very cool, interactive learning tools.  But, some of the research that arose from looking at classrooms with smartboards was that teachers  were moving away from small group instruction and collaboration and back to “sage on the stage” type learning because the smartboard lent itself to that style of teaching.

Here’s what I see happening in our classrooms that I love about google classroom:

  • Organization-yours and theirs. In the classrooms that are moving towards “paperless” kids don’t lose their notes and can access their work from any device. Teachers are able to see who has done what, in real time, and keep track of complete and incomplete work.
  • There is no doubt that our students are tech-savvy. They enjoy using the chromebooks to find assignments, interact with the internet, complete online dissections, access texts and materials.  It makes sense to them to use the technology.
  • Timely and immediate feedback. We are learning the value of being able to peek in on a student as they are working, or in the evenings and find out where they are. We can conference the next day, plan a minilesson or even chat back to the student online.
  • Differentiated Instruction. Within the google classroom teachers can upload a number of resources that may meet a variety of student needs. Those students who need the read and write feature can do so seamlessly.
  • Shy students may feel more comfortable. Students who may not enjoy speaking in groups often feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion. They may feel more comfortable submitting work to you for feedback online.

Here are some cautions that might be causes for concern… or not:

  • Would there be a temptation to return to the worksheet or booklet type of teaching because it is so easy to upload the instructions and the task?
  • Might we move away from the real time collaboration because our students are so engaged on line? Is there a need for both?  Do we get different results from different kinds of collaboration?
  • Are we creating too much work for ourselves in trying to give timely feedback to every student, every day? How do we organize it so that we are checking in but it is manageable?
  • Does google classroom lend itself to more individual work? How do we create that balance between collaboration and individual work?
  • While it is great to provide online feedback, is there still a need for face-to-face feedback and/or small group instruction? How do we decide when to do each?

If I invited you to our senior elementary school you would see students using technology in a seamless manner in every class.  We experiment with  iPads, chrome books and personal devices.  Technology is not an “event” but a part of how we do school.   Google classroom is successful in our school and we continue to find new ways every day for it to enhance student learning.  But embracing new ideas is about reflecting critically as well—as we go forward on this journey, are there other cautions?  Are my cautions needless worrying by a 20th century educator?  How will we refine our use of Google Classroom to provide the best educational experience for our 21st century learners?

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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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