Tag Archives: Helping Students Succeed

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?

 

Moving Towards Standards-Based Grading

One aspect of transitioning to Customized Learning is finding systems for tracking and monitoring student learning, as well as, ways to report learning progress, especially to parents. One piece of this is some sort of standards-based grading system.

But moving too quickly to a new system of grading (and report cards) can be problematic. For example, it takes time for parents to be ready for iconic changes like approaches to grading. They might need to see other Customized Learning changes work first (like student pacing, multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, etc.) before they believe that a new grading system is needed. In fact, we put making structural changes to school one of the last steps of transitioning to Customized Learning.

(Note: a colleague in another district believes that moving early to a new grading system forces important community dialog about the changes toward customizing learning. I think there is much to learn about doing school change work well by following the multiple approaches and how they evolve over time. I may write about how we are approaching school change, but that doesn't mean I believe it is the only effective way to do the work.)

Saving large scale change in grading practices until late in the Customized Learning implementation process that doesn't mean in the meantime teachers shouldn't find ways to move toward standards-based grading practices. There are a couple key intermediate steps that can be pursued:

  • Trying standards-based grading-like practices within the traditional system
  • Looking for models and examples of how others are doing standards-based grading practices
  • Getting feedback from the students on how it is going (to let you know when you are on track, or what course corrections need to be made)

I recently came across Frank Noschese's blog, Action-Reaction. Clearly, he is not only working on standards-based grading in his classroom (among other things), but he is sharing what he is learning via his blog. He may not know it, but he is addressing the three intermediate steps above:

 

Capacity Matrices: Examples & Overview

As Quality Learning Australia points out:

A Capacity Matrix is a tool to describe, document and monitor our learning. It allows us to clearly identify what is it we wish to learn, derived from the curriculum and student interests, and then track learning over time. It can be very effectively used with the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle and supported with a portfolio that provides evidence of our learning. Capacity Matrices are also used for self-assessment as well as peer assessment.

In Auburn, we are starting to use Capacity Matrices in this way. Our teachers are wondering where they can see examples and where they can learn more. Below are a handful of resources to help address that need.

General Information about and Examples of Capacity Matrices:

Cheat Sheets: Tricks for Teaching Tech Quickly (3 of 4)

Below, is the third of four posts highlighting techniques that will help insure that teachers are helping students succeed with their work by teaching them the technology skills they need, but doing it quickly, so that most of the time could be spent focusing on content from the curriculum.

Cheat Sheets
The third trick for teaching technology quickly is a strategy that works hand in hand with mini lessons: the use of “Cheat Sheets.”

Cheat Sheets are help guides: step-by-step instructions for using a specific program or doing a specific project. (My students always preferred this name to “help guides” or “instruction sheets,” although I’m not so sure my former Assistant Superintendent liked the name….)

If students were learning how to make Web pages, the teacher might give students a handout with step-by-step directions for making new pages, saving pages, inserting graphics, formatting text, making links to other pages in the project, making links to other Web sites, and creating tables to use for formatting the project.

Unlike mini lessons, there can be many sets of directions on the cheat sheets because students can go directly to the one they need, when they need it.

When teaching mini lessons, it’s valuable to have the teacher model following directions on the cheat sheet. For example, many middle grades students aren’t all that good at following step-by-step directions, and when I was a middle level technology integrator, had students that wanted to start with Step 3, or wanted to do the steps in a different order. In many cases this was simply because they hadn’t been shown how to follow directions (or hadn’t been shown for a long time). Saying, “Where do we start? What's the first step?” or “So, what's the next step? What step number are we on?” can go a long way…

Further, when a student asks how to do something that is on a cheat sheet, I’d often ask her what step she was on. Some students find it easier to ask the teacher how to do something, than to go back to the directions and do it themselves. Redirecting the student to the cheat sheet helped make them more self-reliant and freed me to work with the students who really did need my help (after all, why did we put all the time to writing out directions?).

I often found that after students followed the directions on the cheat sheet three or four times, they had learned the skill and didn’t really need the cheat sheet again. But they always had the cheat sheet to refer to if they came back to do this type of project in the future.

Be sure to share any cheat sheets you create with your colleagues. No reason each teacher needs to create all the cheat sheets themselves. Remember: many hands make light work!

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

 

Not All Motivators Are Created Equal

I continue to get questions from educators about motivating seemingly unmotivated students. The teachers are often frustrated because they are “trying hard” and “working hard,” but with little to no payoff.

When I talk more with those teachers, I find two common misperceptions that stand in the way of the teacher being more successful (they are hard to teach students, after all. We can't expect complete success motivating them!): (a) motivation resides entirely within the student (the teacher has no role in student motivation); or (b) all teacher efforts to motivate are created equal and should have the same impact on students.

The teachers who believe (a) have larger issues… (The research is pretty clear – as is common sense: teachers who don't believe they can influence student learning, don't.)

But we can work with teachers who believe (b)!

Most of these teachers who are struggling to motivate students, are simply trying to leverage the wrong motivators, often undermining their own efforts.

Many of the struggling teachers I have observed have the right instincts and do try to motivate students, but most of the motivators teachers say they use, or were observed using, tend to be “low payoff” motivators such as showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or using manipulatives.

They also used “no payoff” motivators such as grades, or statements like “you’re going to need this in high school (or college, or work, etc),” or “it’s going to be on the state test.” These may be motivators for easy to teach students, or important to teachers, but they tend not to be motivators for hard to teach students. In many cases, this approach only succeeded in agitating the hard to teach students or exasperating undesirable behavior. It’s no wonder that if teachers are putting a lot of energy into these kinds of motivators that they are frustrated with the results, and the students.

But, trying to teach hard to teach students qualifies as extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary efforts.

Teachers need to not just “try” or “work hard”; they need to try the right things and work hard at effective practices.

Teachers who were more successful motivating the students used strategies such as making the material interesting, using real world examples, or leveraging their positive relationship with the students.

Teachers need to be using “high payoff” motivators, such as these:

  • Project-based learning
  • Connecting with students
  • Connecting learning to the community and the students’ lives
  • Focusing on higher order thinking activities
  • Learning by doing
  • Making learning interesting
  • Involving students in designing their learning

(It's not hard to see how these map onto the Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus 5)

Dewey reminds us just how important using effective motivators is:

Our whole policy of compulsory education rises or falls with our ability to make school life an interesting and absorbing experience to the child. In one sense there is no such thing as compulsory education. We can have compulsory physical attendance at school; but education comes only through willing attention to and participation in school activities. It follows that the teacher must select these activities with reference to the child’s interests, powers, and capacities. In no other way can she guarantee that the child will be present. (1913, p. ix)

 

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.