The Student: An imitation poem

On Wednesday, my students and I read and imitated “The Poet” by Tom Wayman. The poem characterizes using negative comments, yet the mood of the piece isn’t pessimistic.  Here’s my imitation inspired by my own likes and dislikes as a high school student, and how they inform my current teaching.

“The Student”

Ignores lessons he finds irrelevant to his life

May speak rapidly when excited about a topic

Cannot sit still for 56 minutes (who can?)

Does not read books assigned to him, but this

Does not mean that he dislikes reading

Cannot stand teacher questions  that have obvious answers

 

Has great difficulty finding test-prep engaging

Has difficulty recalling vocabulary words that seem to exist in a vacuum

Cannot compose a story about a topic that was pre-selected for him

Cannot recognize historical figures when they are de-contextualized and mentioned on multiple choice exams

 

Has difficulty classifying and categorizing his many needs and responsibilities

Has difficulty retaining facts that were mentioned on a PowerPoint and then never again

May recognize what he wants for his future one day and not the next

Awareness and Reactions

The following post is inspired by my recent reading of the blog Zen Habits, the work of Richard Brady, and my attempt to apply their work to my teaching.

I encounter a new situation everyday in school, yet I imagine people with other jobs don’t have this experience. People come into the office daily, repeating the same tasks with the same result.  They hear little about if they’re doing a good job or not. For me, this is far from the truth.

Consider the variables that affect each day:

  • 115 students
  • The time of day and day of the week when I interact with students (some classes meet at different times during the week)
  • The type of lesson planned for the day (kinesthetic, discussion-based, a group activity, individual reading or writing)
  • The situations that may have occurred in the hallway, the previous class or any of the students’ home lives.
  • The feedback students provide (spoken, written, through body language)

So, while habits and routines may seem repetitive late in the year, it’s easy to see how each class and moment in the class is unique. There’s no way to plan or predict the situations that may arise.

And this leads me to the important skill I’ve been working on lately: being aware of my emotions and reactions to them during class.

On any given day, the following occurs:

  • A student asks me a difficult, thought-provoking question.
  • Students struggle to grasp a concept I introduce, or struggle to understand the directions I provide.
  • A student seems shut-down and withdrawn, or especially loud and gregarious.
  • A student is excelling far ahead of peers on an activity, or lagging greatly behind peers.
  • A class is filled with interruptions like requests to leave the room, phone calls, announcements, or fire drills.

Most of the aforementioned events  requires a decision and reaction from me.  Lately, I’ve practiced recognizing my immediate thoughts and emotions about these situations, evaluating their potential effect on the situation, and pausing briefly to decide the best course of action.

Consider the class filled with disruptions.  Let’s make it Friday. Last period. I have an intricate lesson planned, and it’s one that is crucial to students’ success on the project they’ll begin over the weekend.  I arrange students in groups, distribute materials, and…the phone rings. Then, a student gets a nose bleed. Then, an adult comes to the door to speak to a student (albeit, for a valid reason). Then, there’s an important update to the athletics schedule communicated over the loudspeaker.  (Yes, I’ve experienced all these in a single class before.)

Without awareness, I would likely respond to the situation in one of two ways: stubbornly push on with my plans, facing the resistance of students who know I’m rushing to get through a lesson; or abandon the lesson altogether, feeling defeated about losing control of how class time was used.

There is a third option, which I’ve recently tried to practice. It first involves being aware of the causes of my immediate feelings and reactions: I hoped that students would get to finish the lesson; I felt offended that the lesson I planned was encroached upon. It’s probably a little bit of both.  As soon as I pause to consider these, I can control my action instead of defaulting to my gut reaction. So, I accept that the schedule has changed, give students a focused question to write about and discuss with a partner, and take a few moments to edit and abridge the lesson, which will be continued during the next class.

This habit of mind applies to interactions with individual students, whole classes or even when working and planning on my own. I don’t always do it well, but it’s something that I’m aware of and working on. While I trust experience and I often trust instinct, knee-jerk reactions are part of my teaching that I’ll continue to develop some control over.

No Fear Peer Feedback

I forget that students interact with each other (or don’t) outside of my classroom.  That seems ignorant, I know, but it’s a kind of cognitive bias that seeps into my consciousness every so often.  I see students in my room, acting generally civil as they work and learn, and I assume that they all feel comfortable with each other.

And then…”tomorrow, bring a clean copy of your draft for peer feedback.”

Silence. Looks of trepidation. Uncomfortable glances around the room.

After witnessing scenes like the one above throughout the past few years, I reflected on the process of peer feedback I’ve implemented.  For me, it involves selecting small groups for the students, providing guiding questions for students to consider as they read; for the students, it means handing their paper over to classmates they may or may not be friends with, and getting the paper back with comments written by those students.

As a student, I wouldn’t be too thrilled by that process.  It feels impersonal and intrusive.  The process could work better.

I decided on three main factors that were negatively affecting the process, but that I could also easily change:

Factor #1: Student writers receive their paper back with marks all over it. This is a defacement of their thinking.

How to address it: all peer feedback comments go on a separate piece of paper.  No red marks scribbled in the margins.  This encourages readers to write narrative-style comments, instead of the dreaded “awk” or “good vocab.”  Readers sign their names at the bottom of their comments.

Factor #2: Readers focus on elements of the writing selected by the teacher, instead of providing an authentic response to the writing.

How to address it: all comments are framed in terms of the reader’s reaction to the writing, and the readers cite specific moments in the text where applicable.

So something like, “You were really unclear in this essay, you should re-word it,” is unacceptable for this process. This is judgement and advice, not feedback.  The advice is vague and could be wrong, and the judgement feels rude.

A similar comment could be framed by the reader as, “I got lost in the middle of paragraph three” or “The sentence beginning with, ‘_______’ confused me.” Now, the writer gets an honest glimpse at what the reader’s reaction to the piece was, without the condescending directions imposed by the first type of comment.

Factor #3: At the end of the process, writers may be unsure of the next step. How do they use this bunch of words provided by others as a means to improve the writing?

How to address it: writers begin the process by noting their “intention” for the piece. This is a description of how they want the piece to effect the reader. It could be something like, “I want this piece to make the reader feel the sense of awe I felt when visiting the Grand Canyon, and I also want this piece to teach the reader about the geography about that area.”

After student writers receive their writing with a separate sheet filled with peer feedback comments, they have a specific standard to measure themselves against. They consider the comments of the readers, and notice if the readers reacted in the way that the writer intended them to react. If, using the example from above, a reader noted that, “This piece left me wondering how the writer actually felt about his trip to the Grand Canyon,” the writer knows that he must return to his piece and make some changes.

The results:

After trying this with a few classes, I noticed an improvement in engagement and the overall atmosphere of students during the peer feedback session. The quality of the reader comments was not at the level I believe they can be, but in the future, more modeling of the kind of comments that I think would be help writers may lead to an improvement in that area.  Students responded authentically to each other’s writing by explaining what the pieces taught them and how the writing affected them; most of the time, their comments matched the writer’s intentions for the piece.

So, while this was no educational miracle, it never hurts to put myself in the mind of a student in my classroom, and imagine what the experience is like. It’s important to consistently ask myself: is this an activity I’d find meaningful, relevant and comfortable doing?

Listening Through Distractions

Can I listen carefully to one student in a class of 24, hear what he or she is communicating, and respond in a way that shows I understand?

Even when the exchange is brief, this is a challenge.

Pencils drop, students speak to others near them, hands raise with requests for the bathroom or clarification.  And coinciding with these external events is my internal dialogue: how much times is left in the period? Remember to close with the question you thought of…Who is working, who isn’t?  Why?. This internal and external noise is part of the flow of the classroom, especially when I give students chunks of time to work while I conference with individuals.

The classroom and the students within it are a microcosm of modern society: multiple forces fighting for my attention, all with value, each with a different voice.  First, I decide whom to devote a burst of attention towards, then I have the challenge of maintaining that attention.

Developing the skill of listening in a busy environment is essential for me. I don’t always succeed, but I strive to stay aware of how well I’m doing.

At times, I’ve thought that taking so much time to conference with individual students is the wrong approach. As I mentioned above, 100% of students don’t stay on task 100% of the time while I do this.  This is something I’m honest with myself about.  These are two alternatives:

Option 1:  Change the class structure so that conferencing is not required or simply not part of the class. Students listen to me drone on in a whole-class lecture format, which leads to boredom and/or disruptive behavior as students lose their attention.

OR

Option 2: Students work independently or in groups, as I act as “overseer” or “supervisor” to their work. I avoid having individual conversations with small groups or students, because then I can’t keep an eye on every student at all times.

As with so many other decisions that I find both difficult and “right,” the best choice for me involves awareness, trust and surrender of total control.

So, taking the time to sit next to individual students, listen to them carefully, ask a few questions, and respond to them meaningfully is a “non-negotiable” for me.  And with things like exercising, eating right, or having conversations with certain people, it’s even more important to do when I feel that it may be too difficult (i.e. in a large class, in a class where some students are talkative, etc.).

What better good can I try to provide students in today’s distracted society than an example of what it means to stop, pay attention, and listen?