Friday, February 21, 2014

Do We Expect Children to Be Perfect?

The lessons my children teach me. . .

My older son is in sixth grade.  Like most moms, I have a hard time believing how quickly time has passed to change my sweet little boy into a preteen.  In many ways I don't feel ready to be the mother of a middle schooler, but since I don't have a choice in the matter, I'm learning to accept it.  Although he's not perfect, I can honestly say he's a good kid. He doesn't cause any serious trouble, and overall he does well in school.

Every week, Jared's teacher sends home a progress report via email, listing the assignments and grades earned so far for the trimester.  As I scanned the list yesterday I noticed a few low grades, including a couple that were 50%.  She noted that the grades had been reduced because the assignments were turned in late.

I immediately felt a lecture coming on.

This has been an issue with him before, and it was discussed at his parent-teacher conference in the fall and has been many times since.  He is horribly unorganized and quite forgetful, a nightmare for both teacher and parent.  Just this morning, right after telling me he had band today, he walked out the door without his clarinet.  He does this kind of stuff all. the. time.  As you have probably guessed, it drives me crazy.

The lecture never came though, as a funny little thought popped in my head:  "So what?"  He got a C on a paragraph about some randomly assigned "Person of the Week."  So what?  He earned a B or better on the others.  He earned a score of 50% on a science assignment that he turned in late.  So what?  He later earned an A on the test.  As I said earlier, overall he does well in school.  He always has.  I know that he is a bright kid.  It suddenly occurred to me that what I was upset about was the fact that he wasn't doing everything perfectly.

My husband and I took a Love and Logic parenting class last year and one of the ideas that really stood out to me was to let your children make small mistakes now when the consequences aren't too serious.  Making mistakes is how we learn.  If children are micromanaged and never allowed to make mistakes, and experience the consequences, they won't know how to operate in the adult world.  I can't someday send my child off to college if he has never learned to be in charge of his own learning.  He doesn't need to have his mother hover over him, making sure that everything is done just right so he can earn a bunch of A's on his report card.  Instead, he needs to learn that if he doesn't organize his materials, complete assignments, and turn them in on time, he is not going to be successful.  This is the life lesson that will have lasting meaning. Straight A's aren't always an indication of learning.  Sometimes the C's, D's, and F's represent a much more valuable lesson learned.

As I thought about my own children and my expectations for them, I wondered how often we teachers expect the children in our classrooms to be perfect.  And what do we look at to determine their level of perfection?  A bunch of numbers dutifully recorded in our grade books?  Score reports from standardized tests?  Do we demand that they do everything perfectly every time?   Is this truly what education is all about?  Undeniably the pressure is there for us to ensure our students are successful.  But is that what the data really illustrate?

The fact is my son is not a collection of data.  He is a complete human being.  He goes out of his way to thank a ride operator at Disneyland for letting us ride twice after a mix-up when getting on.  He holds doors open for others.  If he has a question, he confidently asks those who might have an answer.  He doesn't understand why the kids at his school can't play tag, so he is questioning those in charge and has started a petition to get the rule changed.  He worries about our cat who was just diagnosed with diabetes and makes sure we have given her her insulin.  He cares about his elderly grandparents and truly enjoys visiting them.  He fights like crazy with his little brother, then holds his hand when walking through parking lots.  He reads and reads and reads, sometimes needing to be reminded to get out of the car because he is lost inside another story.

No, he isn't perfect.  He's wonderful.

When my students walk into class Monday morning, I will welcome each and every wonderfully imperfect one of them.  And I will remind myself that every mistake they make (or I make, for that matter) is not a failure but a lesson that points the way to future success.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Getting Students to Respond (and Have Fun Doing It!)

A few years ago our staff was presented with the opportunity to participate in a professional development program called Success Math.  It required a three-year commitment but promised to teach valuable strategies for improving math instruction.  One of my colleagues, Janelle, agreed to participate.

Over the last three years we have been offered glimpses of what she has learned.  Watching her teach a lesson, math seemed…dare I say it?…fun.  That was not a word I often associated with math.  I grew up a bookworm and majored in English in college.  I was never bad at math, it just wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, and because of that, it was difficult for me to get enthusiastic about teaching it.  Or maybe it was more the follow-the-textbook-lesson-by-lesson approach that I didn’t enjoy.  What I noticed when I observed Janelle's lesson was that all the students were actively engaged, something I'm afraid wasn't always happening when I taught math.  

Fortunately for me, this year Janelle, with the support of two of her coaches from the Success Math program, was given the opportunity to share with the rest of us third grade teachers some of what she learned.  We have received instruction, participated in a practicum, and we have been observed and coached.  It has been quite an experience.  I can honestly say that the training has improved my teaching, not just in math but in all areas, as the strategies we have learned apply to all subjects. 

One strategy that we have focused on rather intently is modes of response.  Teachers have students use a variety of ways to participate and to respond to questions.   The key is to choose an appropriate mode and tell students which mode to use before asking your question.  I am pretty sure the only mode of response my teachers used when I was a kid was the good ol' raised hand.  Don’t get me wrong; I still have my students raise a quiet hand on occasion.  But I use a variety of other responses as well:  thumbs up if you agree, cross arms if you disagree, show me on your fingers, write it on
your whiteboard, whisper to your partner, etc.  These different modes of response work great in math, but I find that I use them all day long.  Now, even correcting homework is something that everyone actively participates in.

The benefit is that I get a better feel for how well every student in my class is grasping the content.  In addition, involvement is greatly increased because every child is expected to respond instead of only the one called on.  It also allows those children who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to actively participate without wandering too far out of their comfort zone.  Even those who may have more difficulty understanding the content, and therefore are prone to tuning out, can continue to participate with the support of their peers, thus greatly increasing their learning.  Behavior management becomes easier because everyone is actively engaged in the lesson, leaving little time to get off-task.  

Yesterday was a perfect example of how this strategy can have an impact on student learning.  One of my students has great difficulty staying focused for any length of time and is often lost and confused as a result.  We recently started studying geometry, and my lesson was on polygons.  Students had to learn the definition of a polygon as well as the names and definitions of different polygons.  Because students were constantly active, looking at examples and non-examples to come up with a definition, drawing their own examples, and responding to questions in a variety of ways, this particular student had no difficulty staying actively engaged in the lesson.  It was a win for him because he was able to learn the content, and it was a win for me because I didn't have to constantly redirect him.  Both he and I were able to walk away from that lesson feeling energized and confident.

I have found that this one strategy alone, successfully implemented, can improve classroom management and student involvement and provides me with the feedback I need to direct my teaching to better meet my students’ needs.  It definitely has made our lessons more fun!