Category Archives: Inviting Schools

A Child Struggles in School: Where Does the Problem Lie?

In a conversation recently with a caring, conscientious teacher, she commented that she had success working with struggling learners and helping to make them feel smart.

But when they got to the next grade and perhaps had a teacher that wasn't as effective at reaching those children, or perhaps thought there was a pace for learning and students should stick to it, or perhaps simply saw the onus for learning as being on the student, the students really struggled again.

She worried that perhaps she had led those students to have an unrealistic view of themselves by not being more up front with them about being struggling learners. She wondered, despite her success helping those students to learn, to feel successful, and to feel smart, if she shouldn't be more direct with them about being struggling learners, to prepare them for possible pain and disappointment later.

And I caught myself wondering, is the problem that each child isn't where the school is in the curriculum?

Or is the problem that the school isn't where the child is in the curriculum?

 

The Connection Between Facilities and Learning

Auburn needs a new high school, and we're working through the process to get a new one built. The issues were especially brought to light by our accredidation, which placed us on warning status in the curriculum and program category because of our facility. Also, until recently, we thought we'd have to go it on our own, without state funding.

This led (naturally) to questions from the public about what the connection might be between facilities and learning. Plenty of folks believe that you can throw a tent up in the ball field and teach kids (effectively) there…

So I did a little digging.

Turns out there's strong research on the connection between the quality and condition of a school building and student academic achievement, student behavior, and teacher stress levels.

Key elements that impact learning include natural lighting, noise reduction, heating, cooling, and air quality, and overall conditions, such as maintenance and cleanliness. (Maybe this is why an academically oriented accreditation process examines the state of the facilities…)

Studies have controlled for family factors (such as family background, free and reduced lunch rates, race/ethnicity, attendance, and suspension rates), and found that building condition not only significantly impacted achievement and behavior, but was a stronger predictor of academic achievement than many family background factors and socioeconomic conditions.

Researchers also found that many of the environmental factors that contribute to student learning can be improved with proper building maintenance, construction, or renovations.

See Barnes, R., Chandler, J., Thomsen, B. A Problem Based Learning Project Analyzing State Assessment Instruments Used for School Facilities. pp 32-35 for a summary of the research.

 

Tone of Voice Matters (In Surprising Ways)

In one of the schools I worked with a while ago, we were working hard to implement an engaging, project-based curriculum with hard-to-teach students, the hardest in the city. As with many hard-to-teach students, ours could be challenging. But where some of the teachers found that to be true, others seemed to have little problem with them.

I did a series of classroom observations to see if we could learn why. What could we learn about how different ways of interacting with students impact student behavior?

It became clear from the observations that there are generally three kinds of tone of voice teachers use with students and that the (hard-to-teach) student reaction to each was fairly predictable. My experience in classrooms since then has confirmed this pattern. Granted, easy-to-teach stidents will have much less reaction to tone of voice, but easy-to-teach students aren't who we're struggling to reach and trying to develop more success strategies for.

Disappointed Voice
It is no surprise that the classroom observations showed that teachers who used the “disappointed voice” (a tone that indicated that the teacher was disappointed, upset, or angry with the student) generated the most difficulty with students. Students who might have been calm and compliant would quickly become loud, defiant, and oppositional. Students who where already acting up generally became worse.

Interestingly, feeling angry (and perhaps showing it in your voice) is human nature when students act rudely or are persistently off task or disruptive. Wanting to subtly assert your authority is perfectly understandable. Grabbing an object a student won't put away seems a normal reaction. But actually doing any of these was totally counterproductive.

The disappointed voice did not necessarily happen only when students were off task or misbehaving; in at least one case, it had more to do with the teacher's natural tone of voice than it did with how the teacher was feeling. I was further surprised that some teachers were not aware that they were using the disappointed voice, showing how important it is that we be very conscientious, deliberate, and intentional about how we interact with students.

Teacher Voice
It was student reaction to “teacher voice” that surprised me the most. Teacher Voice is that voice that has just a little formality in it, or says I'm the teacher and you're the student. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the teacher voice. Such a tone seems completely appropriate, and I doubt that any principal or colleague would even notice during an observation that a teacher was using it (it's that normal and natural).

But it certainly caused problems with our challenging students! Again, it drove them to act up and be confrontational.

I think, where many children simply hear an adult tone or a formal tone, many hard-to-teach students hear authoritarianism or standoffishness (even a little “I'm better than you”), attitudes that they seem to take as confrontational and aggressive. Teachers certainly didn't mean any of these and I suspect that the teacher voice is fine for easy-to-teach students and some underachievers, but these observation certainly suggest that teachers will be more successful with their hard-to-teach students if they avoid that formal tone. Rather than debate whether students are right or wrong in their reaction to the teacher voice, I think we have look from the perspective of what works and what does not.

People Voice
It was interesting to see (and perhaps no surprise) that the teachers who seemed to have the best rapport with hard-to-teach students talked with them as people – they used what I have come to call the “people voice” (as if they were just talking with another person – I think some teacher educators call it the adult voice). There was no positional authority in their voice. Emerick (1992) reported that teachers influential with underachievers were willing to communicate with the student as a peer. That was certainly confirmed during these classroom observations.

The teachers who used the people voice still drew the line with behavior, set expectations, and intervened when students weren't doing what they were supposed to. In other words, even though they didn't wield their authority through in their voice in general, these teachers still used their authority when appropriate and necessary.

Ironically, in the past, I was a middle school teacher and had very good luck connecting with my students. But later I was moved to the high school and had a really horrible year before moving to the university to work with preservice teachers. I realize now that I had used the people voice with my middle school students and the teacher voice with my high school students. In light of these much more recent classroom observations, I can't help but wonder if using the teacher voice had had something to do with the quality of my year…

Tone of Voice Matters
Some of these differences in teacher behavior can be explained as stylistic differences. For example, some teachers relate more informally with students while others are more formal, and some teachers are more straightforward about their content, while other teachers work to make it more fun.

Although various behaviors, approaches, or reactions are natural, logical, understandable, or one's personal style, they can still be nonproductive or counterproductive. Much of this blog is about teachers being strategic, deliberate, and intentional in using productive behaviors, approaches, and reactions, even over those that are natural or otherwise “appropriate” but less effective. Teacher behaviors and approaches have to not just be “ok,” they have to work.

Clearly challenging students are very sensitive to the teacher's tone of voice, and teachers should avoid both the disappointed voice and the teacher voice in favor of the people voice. It would appear that using the people voice is a much more effective way of dealing with hard-to-teach and underachieving students

 

Sometimes Humor is the Best Way to Correct Behavior

So, one of your hard to teach student has just acted up in class again. Or maybe he isn't acting out, but just won't do the assignment or get into the lesson.

What do you do?

You've got to do something fast, before that student's behavior starts affecting the rest of the class…

Just as helping students save face can be a powerful tool in reaching hard to teach students, so is the use of humor. Several of the students in the underachievers study said they preferred teachers who used humor. Humor builds and preserves relationships. In fact, I often find that humor works better than many other strategies, especially when trying to correct student behavior.

I had a student named James, who was the kind of student who was always inappropriate, but in funny ways, and I was always trying to get the class back on task after his antics while trying not to laugh uproariously! I really enjoyed him and I wished I didn’t have to teach the whole class while he was there! I just wished I could have him one on one and help him learn whatever I could, and then deal with the rest of the class separately.

I prayed for those days James was absent. But, of course, he never was.

One day James was driving me crazy and I finally had to send him out in the hall. I followed him out, wondering what I could possibly say to James that he had not heard a thousand times before. He got dressed down in the hall regularly: I’d be walking in the hall, and there would be James with another teacher, and I would say to myself, “Oops! He did it again!” Clearly the traditional scolding wasn’t changing James’ behavior.

I had to think about what my goal was. Was it to punish and chastise James for being a pain (which clearly had a track record of not working)? Or was it to get him to settle down so I could teach the class?

Out in the hall, I closed the door and maneuvered so that James’s back was to the door, so I could see the class through the narrow window. I wasn’t sure how to get what I needed, but, on a whim, decided to try humor. My intuitive response to James was, “Do you want to play a trick on the rest of the class?”

This was not what he was expecting, and, although he wasn't really sure where this was going, said he would, albeit a bit hesitantly.

I whispered, “I’m going to start yelling and screaming at you about your behavior and I want you to throw yourself up against the door.” Given his facial expression, he was now a willing coconspirator, without reservation!

As I yelled, “James, I’ve had enough of you!!!” he’d throw himself against the door. Boom!!! Boom!!

Then I'd yell, “I’m trying to teach the whole class and I can’t do that while you’re in there fooling around!!!” Boom!!! Boom!! Boom!

And this continued for a couple more rounds.

Well, he was the consummate actor and kept up the show as we returned to the room, staggering, like he’d taken an awful beating! Hamming it up all the way. I just went in with a straight face and went right back to teaching as if nothing had ever happened. The whole class was on its best behavior, playing along, seeing the whole event as the hoax it was, but now playing the properly cowed students!

This approach was a bit of a risk, and it only worked because I knew James and my other students well (and they knew me). I knew what was likely to work with James and what wasn't; there were certainly other students that I would never dream of doing something like this with.

But it did seem to be exactly the right move with James. The change in him was great, at least for a couple weeks (Only a couple of weeks!?, you say… What was the last intervention you did with a hard to teach student that lasted more than 5 minutes, let alone a couple of weeks!?!). I had to hardly speak to James about his behavior at all. We’d just see each other and laugh. But I got want I wanted: James to be settled enough that I could teach the class. As his old ways started to creep back into class, I would look at him sternly and ask, “Do you want more of the same!?” and he'd laugh and playfully protest, “No! No!” and he'd settle down for a couple more days.

Since then, I've figured it works out better for me (and the whole class) if I do whatever I need to to get the behavior I want (from any student, not just James), even if it doesn’t include punishment. There’s no doubt James knew what was right and what was wrong. There is no doubt that James' behavior warranted punishment or a scolding. There’s no doubt that James knew that he was disrupting the class. But it turned out I didn’t need to yell, or scold, or punish him. Besides! None of those worked when other teachers did them!

What I got was something much more useful: we ended up being allies.

By using humor, I could work much better with James (and much more importantly, James would work with me!). Over time, I got much more of the behavior I wanted from James! And this lesson helped me get much more of the behavior I wanted from my other hard to teach students, too.

 

The Importance of Helping Students Save Face

Are your hard to teach and underachieving students friendly and kind? Easy to get along with?

Or are they often the students that drive your blood pressure up and tax your patience?

If your experience is like mine, I'm guessing many are in this second group. Getting frustrated with their behavior and performance is an understandable and logical reaction. And speaking to them sharply is often a very human and logical response to their behavior.

But I had an enlightening experience with Josh, one of my challenging students, that helped me rethink things some…

Josh was the kind of student it seemed I had to talk to every five minutes. One day, when I had finally had enough with Josh, I took him out into the hall to talk to him. When I asked him what was up, he responded, “You don’t like me!”

I was really surprised by his statement and asked him what he meant by that. I said, “I live near you and! when I’m out for my walks, we stop and talk. I tease you, which I only do with students I like. I always ask you how you’re doing and I’m interested in what you do. What do you mean I don’t like you?”

Josh said, “You yelled at me in front of the class.”

Now, Josh's actions had warranted a sharp response, he had been disruptive and out of line. But clearly such a response did not lead to Josh settling down. It had not helped me be more successful with Josh.

And suddenly I realized it wasn't about what Josh deserved for his actions (to be chastised or punished), but rather, about what would get me the results I desired (Josh settling down so I could teach the whole class).

I realized that working with Josh (and probably other hard to teach students) would require more psychology than it would require logic.

I started by reminding Josh, “You know, I need you to behave so I can teach all thirty kids in the class. When I’m talking to you every five minutes, I really can’t teach the other twenty-nine.” He had certainly heard this frequently from his other teachers.

But then I said something that really surprised him, “So, what do you need from me so you can do that?”

It was clear that, although he had had more than his share of dressings down, he wasn't used to being asked about his needs. When his jaw came up from off the ground, he said that all he needs is not to feel that I hate him. So success would depend on my not reacting sharply to Josh, especially in front of his classmates.

Josh had taught me about the effectiveness of allowing students to save face.

I have a friend in Louisiana who likes to remind me that one “aw shucks” wipes out a thousand “atta boys.” It doesn’t matter how many times we handle situations delicately with a student, the one time we are sharp with him in front of everyone else, we negate all of our past (positive) history.

Perhaps more than with any other group of students we work with, having a safe and respectful atmosphere is critical both to helping hard to teach students learn and to helping them behave in class. Whenever we are working to correct student behavior, the importance of relationship and having the right kind of environment become even more important (and we certainly seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the behavior of hard to teach students!).

Josh and I made an agreement that when Josh got to be “high energy,” I would come over next to his desk and discretely say, “Josh, do you remember what we talked about?” It was private and personal. No one else knew what we were talking about and, when done in an upbeat tone, didn’t even sound like I was admonishing him.

When we implemented the plan, I would just say it in a positive way, and he would say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” (with a smile) and settle down. I had to do that every once in a while, but he was much better at monitoring his own behavior. It even began to feel like we were working together on it, not against each other. Occasionally we would have to go back out into the hall, but it wasn’t all that often, certainly not daily or every five minutes like it used to be. It made a huge difference in my ability to work with the whole class and with Josh feeling safe and comfortable.

All because I found a way to let him save face. All because he taught me the importance of letting students save face.

 

Kindling Fires of Curiosity

“A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” (Plutarch)

I am a Mainer who has lived in several homes heated by wood stoves, and have done living history, and have gone camping, so I am no stranger to trying to build fires.

Therefore, it won’t surprise you that my connection to this metaphor is deep.

Most folks know you can’t start a fire just by simply piling up logs and holding a match to them. What a lot of people don’t know is that that method doesn’t even work all that well when lighter fluid is applied (there is usually a short-lived flame that goes out without creating a sustainable fire – and you never want to use accelerant in an enclosed wood stove!)

Fire starters know that building fires is a two stage process: first you have to get the fire going, then you can feed the fire. Both have their own set of strategies. I think when most folks think of having a fire, they think mostly of the second phase and a lot less of the first. Further, I think most folks can feed a fire; it’s just a matter of not adding too much wood too soon (or things get too hot), not letting the coals burn too low (or there arent enough coals to keep the fire going), and adding wood in a way that allows a little air to circulate (or, again, the fresh logs won’t ignite). Even with these caveats, the strategies are fairly forgiving and it isn’t too hard to keep the fire going.

On the other hand, starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take a little more strategy. And if you aren’t experienced with fire, these strategies may not be as obvious as those for keeping the fire going.

A good fire starts with some kindling (a variety of small sticks and pieces of dry wood that catch relatively quickly, but will burn long enough to catch the larger sticks and logs that will be added soon) and some tinder (such as newspaper, shavings, twigs, or dry grass) that will catch easily with a match and burn long enough to ignite the kindling.

Even with these components, you aren’t guaranteed a fire; they need to be used properly. The kindling should be stacked in one of a couple of ways: often with smaller kindling and newspaper organized in the center of larger kindling in a “log cabin” or “teepee” configuration. When you light the newspaper, it catches the small kindling, which in turn helps the larger pieces catch. Then, once those get going, you can (carefully) put on the first logs.

You don’t have to use much more strategy than that if the fire catches quickly and cleanly. But what if it doesn’t? Have you ever been camping and tried to light a campfire with damp wood? Or maybe you got the small kindling going, but the larger sticks weren’t catching well? What do you do? How do you get that fire going?

Do you take another match and hold it under the part of the log that isn’t burning?

Of course not! (And, yet, how often do we try that!?)

Instead, you blow where the wood is already burning. Or you add a little more kindling where it is burning. You can’t get your fire lit by attending to the part that isn’t burning. You get it burning by nurturing the fire that is already started and let it spread to the rest. In fact, paying attention to the part not burning will often let what little fire there is go out, leaving you with no fire at all…

Ok. Ok. I feel some of you getting noodgy, wanting to talk about the “logs.” (and yes, at this point, we’re starting to mix metaphors…) Are the logs seasoned (dry?) or are they still moist with sap or wet from a drenching? Sure, most folks can make a fire with well seasoned logs without really trying, but talking about unseasoned logs sounds a little like an argument about why you shouldn’t have to make a fire because some of the wood isn’t dry. I’ll even concede that there are probably some logs that can’t burn, no matter what. But those are few and far between, and should never be used as an excuse to avoid making a fire with less than perfect logs.

In truth, experienced fire builders can start a fire with the wood they have.

The fire building strategies above work well with both dry and damp logs. Whether you get a good fire raging or not probably has more to do with your kindling and tender, or how you nurture the fire, than it does with the logs themselves.

So perhaps, we just need to understand how fires ignite, catch, and burn :

  • Have we thought about what kindling and tinder we will use?
  • Which technique will we apply to the kindling and tinder?
  • How will we nurture the fire as we add the first logs?
  • How will we attend to damp and unseasoned wood to get it burning well?
  • How will we blow on the flames that are already burning, rather than hold a match under the unlit portion?
  • How will we monitor the fire and know just the right time to add to it so it doesn’t burn too hot or burn down and go out?

If teachers are fire builders, perhaps their primary job isn’t to give students information, but rather to inspire and nurture them as they work on their own learning. Sometimes when we are teaching hard to teach students we forget about their interests (don’t blow on the flames) or about making it interesting (adding a little more kindling to the flames) and instead keep plowing along through the curriculum (holding a match to an unlit log). Perhaps, we need to focus on how to use kindling and care to make them burn brightly.

In fact, Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don’t need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

Personal aside: This saying has spoken to me since early in my teaching career, and has certainly shaped my growth as an educator and my work with schools to reach all children. It probably even played some direct role in focusing my dissertation research on motivating underachieving students and in starting the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.

At the very least, it has said something to me about changing my assumptions about what it was to teach. And when I think about schools serving all the children of all the people, and about easy-to-teach students and hard-to-teach students, and about students at various levels of engagement, I think we probably need to challenge our assumptions.

How might the fire building metaphor help you think about reaching your students or having conversations with your colleagues about reaching students?

Harassment & Engagement – Social Media Study Group

Note: This is one in a series of blog posts to be used by Auburn’s Social Media Design Team to conduct a study group before making recommendations for social media policy. If unfamiliar with this series, you might find reading this post helpful.

Core Issues Study Questions (Bullying & Boredom)

  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to bullying and school climate?
  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to fostering student engagement in academics?
  • What is considered best practice around bullying?
  • What is considered best practice around engaging students?

Although intended as a tool for Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, everyone is invited to use these posts as a resource. And if you are not a member of Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, you are welcome to post comments, too. But please limit/be thoughtful of the sharing of opinion and stay focused on the focus questions – we a trying to use these posts for fact-finding, identifying resources, identifying best practice, etc. Thanks!