Saturday, February 27, 2010

What I'm Missing

Last week, there were several moments that highlighted for me how our newly expanded school feels different from what used to be our small school family. I had glimpses, three times, of the kinds of connections I thrive off of, and which I have so rarely these days.

Wednesday was Math Night, when the school community comes together to do math activities and celebrate student math learning. The kindergarten through second grades were in the auditorium, which turned into a giant math playground. I got to hang out and talk with kindergartners and first graders, students who I never see this year. (In previous years, they were right down the hall -- this year, they are on another floor, and our paths don't cross much.) More importantly, I ran into families of past students who I haven't seen lately. We exclaimed over each other, exchanged hugs, and said how much we miss seeing each other. Parents of second through seventh graders stopped me. I know a lot of families from all these years in the school, and that's what makes it feel like we have a school-based family: knowing kids and their siblings and moms and aunties and dads, and connecting with them on a regular basis.

I had glimpses of that feeling at Math Night, and realized how much I miss it. Since our school is so much bigger now, there are many strangers in the hallways. Unlike the old days, when pretty much anyone I saw would know who I was, they don't know me, and I don't know them. Maybe the differences have less to do with location and distance as they do with simple size. Hundreds more students and families, dozens more teachers and classrooms -- it all equals a lot of strangers.

Friday morning I was sitting in my classroom before school when a kindergarten teacher popped her head in to chat. Then a fifth grade teacher came by. We talked, and laughed about how much we'd been in the building this week, and how messy our homes are because we are never home. It felt good. Again, I feel like I have many fewer chatty conversations with colleagues this year. Partly, that's because I don't know them so well -- so many of them are strangers. Partly, it's because school starts earlier in the morning, so there's less down time before school. And partly it's again because of space and size.

Friday afternoon, our whole-staff meeting was canceled, and the second grade team had time to sit together. We have daily planning meetings for about 35 minutes, which we try to dedicate to certain subjects (Tuesday is math, Wednesday is reading, etc.). But those meetings are short, often interrupted, and in the middle of the teaching day, when our minds are likely to be elsewhere. This year, our Friday afternoon times have been very structured, and we've had less time for simple brainstorming and cross-pollinating of instructional ideas. We tried to begin our meeting with some structure, but it soon became a free-flowing swirl of ideas and connections: our class said this during math today, it made me think about this part of teaching reading, we tried small groups for this activity and it really worked, I don't think our students really understand this idea yet, what should we do? At a conference I went to I learned this, maybe that will work; Oh! that reminds me of something I read about recently, you do it like this... etc. etc. It felt great. It wasn't necessarily super productive; we didn't come out of the meeting with lesson plans or next steps. But we shared and built on each others' ideas. I love doing that, the stream-of-consciousness idea-swapping, and I've missed it this year.

I know I need more moments like this, and there are perhaps some coming: a meeting about redesigning our schoolyard tomorrow with some of my favorite people; dinner with a colleague just to catch up and be together; a group meeting on a monthly basis to share teaching quandaries and ask for ideas. I'll have to cultivate these opportunities to help keep my soul fed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ah Ha

I am a little tired of educators referring to the "Ah ha! Moment." I don't know where the expression originated, but it's overused at this point.

Even my jaded, cranky old teacher self has to admit, though, that sometimes it perfectly expresses the moment when a new idea crystallizes into something understood. Tonight I watched that moment happen over and over again as I ran a math activity at Math Night. Families and children came out to play math games, eat dinner, and catch up, and I was working the giant hundreds chart, which is exactly what it sounds like -- an enormous hundreds chart (from 1-100) that you can walk on.

As each child approached, I asked their grade level, and started them on a series of tasks. Anyone in grades 1 or higher started like this:

"Stand on 23. Okay, now what is 23 + 10?"

Once they told me it was 33, I asked, "What is 33 + 10?"

Then, 43 + 10.

53 + 10.

63 + 10.

And so on.

Several children came and dutifully walked ten steps from 23 to 33. When asked what was 33 + 10, they counted carefully as they walked along the numbers to 43. 43 + 10? Once again, they counted by ones to arrive at the answer.

I watched Elijah do these problems, painstakingly counting by ones 7 times.

63 + 10?

64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73.

Then, 73 + 10. He looked ahead, looked down, and stepped directly to the 83. Bam. There it was. I grinned.

"83 + 10."

He stepped on the 93. He looked at me. I looked at him. We smiled.

"How about 45 + 10?" I asked.

He walked to the 45. He paused, frowned, and stepped to the 55.

"55 + 10." He stepped to 65.

I started to mix up the order.

47 + 10.

82 + 10.

15 + 10.

Then, I switched to subtraction. "73 - 10." He stood on 73. He looked around. He thought. "Hmmmm," he said. And then, he stepped to the 63. Each subtraction problem took a little while, and I am pretty sure if I asked him tomorrow, he would have to repeat the process of counting by ones until he relearned the pattern.

But to be there for that moment, that split second when a look passes over a child's face and something new is realized, is precious. Then to throw my arms in the air in celebration and exchange a high five? Priceless.

I knew there was a reason I was a teacher. I was just having a hard time remembering it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


For years I have been a disciple of Alfie Kohn who, along with many other professionals in the field of child-development, holds that rewarding (and punishing) children, whether for academic performance or behavior, is harmful to their development.

There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators— including A's, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward. (from Educational Leadership, Volume 53 No 1, Sept. 1995)

While each year I develop and implement behavior plans for individual students, designed to monitor their work habits and/or conduct, in general I try to avoid the practice of rewarding my students. My standard line, which I have held to for nine years of teaching, is that I want students to be intrinsically motivated to learn and to do the right thing, not externally motivated by rewards and punishments. Instead of doing their schoolwork in exchange for an extra recess period, a pizza party, or free choice time, I prefer that my students focus on learning because it brings them a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and joy in learning.

Of course, this sounds lovely on paper, and is much harder to implement in practice. Some children are hard to motivate to learn. Others may be quite intrinsically motivated to achieve in, say, math, but have no interest in working hard in writing. Intrinsic rewards are, of course, nebulous and abstract things, not particularly friendly to the developing minds of beings whose top priority is their evening video game or an extra cookie after lunch. And, let’s face it: behavior plans are hard to implement and manage, often ending up increasing the bureaucracy of my classroom and giving me one more thing to think about.

Still, I have in general done a good job of adhering to my principles. Students reflect often on their work and how they have improved over time; I tell them what I notice about their work habits, behavior, and citizenship in the classroom; and we regularly communicate progress to families. Rather than ply them with generic praise such as “Good work!” or “You’re a good reader!” I try to comment on specific skills or attributes of their work and effort. To encourage an air of quiet focus in the room, I comment out loud on who looks particularly studious, which has the effect of encouraging others to similarly bend over their work. (And yes, I know that the fine line between praise and reward is paved with good intentions. And that this last example perhaps increases competition, or encourages compliance based on a desire to please me, rather than an honest engagement with the work. But I’m no miracle-worker.)

This class, though, has me stymied. One reason I have been a less-frequent blogger this year is that I am so often discouraged and dispirited after work. My class is not very intellectually engaged, has a hard time with self-control, and is often mean-spirited. My classroom is often a hard place to be, for all of us.

Finally, after a particularly grueling day, I decided last week that the whole class needed a behavior plan. This is not a problem of a few individual students pushing the others over the brink; this is truly a class-wide problem. It could not be nipped in the bud through my tried-and-true methods, no matter how I adjusted them. And so, on Thursday, I told the class they could earn a point for each quiet transition, each studious period, each time they worked and behaved like scholars. These points are irrevocable, except in the case of unkindness. When someone is unkind, the whole class loses a point.
We began by brainstorming rewards. What would they like at the end of the day if they met their goal of earning 7 points? A pizza party. An extra recess. Marshmallows and candy. No homework.

I quickly realized that their ability to come up with realistic rewards for one day of good behavior was limited, so we put the rewards they came up with into categories: rewards for one good day, one good week, one good month. Several times, I said, “Students at this school do not work or behave in exchange for junk food.” After all, I have principles.

We finally settled on playing a game together at the end of the day if they earned 7 points. By lunchtime, though, the situation wasn’t looking too good. In 2 hours they had earned 2 points, then lost both of them because of unkindness. We decided to revise our initial goal, and lowered our standards: we could play a game if they earned 4 points in the afternoon. I knew it was important that they be successful this first day.

The afternoon was better, and they did earn 4 points. We ended the day with a fun group game that provoked laughter and cooperation. Friday, a half day, was even better. They set a goal of earning 4 points, and earned 5. The line they made at lunch was quieter, safer, and more orderly than any line I have seen in all our six months together. They walked through the halls almost silently and stayed in something approximating a straight line. We heaped praise upon their heads. (Sorry, Alfie. Nothing is black and white, after all.)

At the end of the morning, they had met their goal, so I put on the “Cha Cha Slide,” a dance song my classes have loved for the past few years. With a raucous hip hop beat and scripted dance moves, it provides a structured way for all of us to get down. Last year, my class danced to it all the time. This year, I have never dared to put it on.

We danced, and it was marvelous. All three teachers boogied like crazy with the kids. Adults walking by stopped and popped their heads in, wide-eyed, to see where the pumping base was coming from. (All year, in our new, cavernous building, we have had so few visitors to our classroom that I think in those 5 minutes we had more visitors than we had in the previous 6 months.)

After dancing, we settled into a circle and said our “wish,” a little recitation with which we end each day. Dynasia requested that we pass a squeeze around the circle to recognize their good work. Then they laid down on the rug (without anyone getting hurt, crying, or yelling), and I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory out loud. When buses were called, two students came to hug me good-bye. That has never happened before.

The day left me wondering why I hadn’t implemented a reward system before. As a group, these twenty children do not seem to be able to stay focused, respectful, and encouraging of each other without a lot of help (and a sizable portion of their teacher's sanity). But with the promise of a reward, they did more than they had before.

The real beauty of the thing, though, was that it was one of the few times all year that we really enjoyed each other. Of course, there are moments every day of laughter, of a wink passed between myself and a smiling kid. But the whole class, doing something fun and just relishing each other’s company, has rarely happened. We are so often so angry at each other. I am angry because they try my patience about two hundred times a day, and make it hard for me to spend my time teaching, which is, after all, why I am there. I feel ineffective. They are angry at me because I make them do things they don’t want to do, and because I am angry and disappointed in them. It is not such a nice place to be, many days.

If the reward for focused, scholarly behavior can be enjoying each other, then this behavior plan is not only acceptable, it is necessary. We can’t make it through this year without a little more joy, even if it’s only in pockets. I may not be able to make it through many more years of teaching without more joy. I still hold to the idea that children should want to work, and learn, and be kind because it feels good, not because they are being bribed. But in some cases, bribery will get you what you need.

Each morning now, we set a goal of how many points to earn as a class, every day increasing it a tiny bit. They have met their goal 3 out of the past 4 days. We also choose a game or song we would like to do together if they meet their goal. (Or, I should say, if we meet our goal. I’m as much a part of this behavior plan as they are. Also, I should mention that we do sing and play games at other times during the day. It's not as if this is the only fun I have ever offered. This is extra fun.) During the day, after each transition or work time, I ask them what they think. Did they earn a point? What did they do well? What could be better next time? They are, to a person, honest and reflective each time. They know just as well as I do if they have earned a point.

It is still hard for them to line up quietly, talk nicely to each other, and listen. Very hard. The next four months are not going to be much easier than the first six were. (And oh, what joy to realize we are past the mid-point!) But if we continue to have more moments of enjoying each other’s company, we will be making a tiny yet essential bit of progress.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Nigerian Music

Last week I went to pick my class up from music. They were standing in the sunshine in a semi-circle around the piano while Mr. K, the music / drumming teacher, played. Mr. K teaches them a lot of African and Caribbean songs -- he is Jamaican, and specializes in African drumming and music.

It was the end of class, but Howard raised his hand.

"Yes, Howard?" Mr. K called on him in deep, accented tones.

"I know a Nigerian song," Howard announced.

"Oh you do?" Mr. K asked. "Could you sing it for us?"

"Yes," answered Howard bravely. He squared his shoulders and stepped forward. Lifting his chin, he looked directly into Mr. K's eyes and began to sing in a high, earnest voice:

I like the way you do me, do me, do me.
I like the way you do me, do me, do me.
I like the way you do me, do me, do me.

Over and over again, he repeated this refrain, with no variation in the words. My eyes widened and I looked around, waiting for the class to giggle. But they watched him intently as he sang. Mr. K looked surprised, then raised his eyebrows in resignation and kindly waved his hand, using his signal for "stop."

"OK, Howard," he said. "That is pop music. Do you know what pop music is?"

"No," Howard answered.

"It's like radio music," I piped in.

"Yes," Mr. K said. "Probably people listen to that song and dance to it in Nigeria, where your family is from. But it is not a traditional song, and, Howard, it is really not appropriate for school."

"Oh," Howard said, with interest.

"Perhaps you could ask your family if they know a traditional Nigerian song," Mr. K suggested. "What language do you speak? Ibo? Yoruba? Find out. Find out, and bring us a traditional song in your language."

Howard nodded amiably, and we went to line up to return to class. But all week I haven't been able to get the image of Howard, singing so bravely and clearly, out of my mind, and I often find myself humming tunelessly, "I like the way you do me, do me, do me."