Thursday, October 17, 2013

Social Media and School....Ugh

I am writing this to sort out my own thoughts and feelings. I apologize in advance for disconnected points and pointless rambling. 

My school is confused.

My school stresses technology in the classroom, but the school has not set up a necessary infrastructure for ubiquitous use. My school allows students to bring their own device, but strongly discourages cell phone use. My school claims technology is good for student learning, but bans all social media. My school has a Facebook and Twitter, but students can find themselves in major trouble if they are sharing photos with each other on Instagram. We claim students need strict rules to develop discipline, but they are not given a chance to make an actual choice or a mistake. 

I push the rules as far as I can. I let the students bring in personal cell phones and use their own networks if possible. If my school lacks bandwidth to handle student traffic, I want them to access the Internet anyway they can. The first few months of school have been successful. We made movies, set up websites, created QR codes, shared Google graphs, built societies in Minecraft, programmed robots, and coded for Scratch video games. Its nice hearing all of that. 

I thought all was good.

I received a text message Friday saying our kids were lightening up the Instagram world and, gasp, posting pictures at school. My first emotions were anger, humiliation, and disappointment. I thought I had developed trust, respect, and honesty. If students had their devices out, they were expected to be doing school-only activities. I didn't need to be a hawk over their shoulder because they would never betray me. And I felt betrayed. I also feared the response of my administrator. A few days earlier, I assured her the students would always use their devices "responsibly" and were wonderful self-monitors. 

Then I took a couple deep breaths and started laughing. Was this really a big deal? I gave the students a choice. I gave my students the opportunity to use it in a way deemed fit by my school. This is how true self-discipline is achieved- by having the opportunity to actually choose right and wrong. Given the rules at my school, they made a bad choice. Bad choices and mistakes are at the core of learning. The bigger question would be--how can I use this in the classroom? How can we learn from this to make a good choice next time?

We talked as a class and I told them they needed to delete the accounts and make better choices. I told them I still trusted them and they would have multiple chances to improve their decision-making in the future. I thought the talk was good, but there was a deeper issue here. The students picked up on it. Why are students banned from Instagram in the first place? What is so bad about social media? Can't we use this stuff in the classroom? Can't they change their "handles"? Are we forcing them to lie? 

Talking to them after class, I realized how heart-breaking this was for them. Those pictures were part of their lives. They loved sharing with each other. They were devastated. The school was taking away a part of their world. I was enforcing a policy I didn't believe in.

My school is confused.

Clearly so am I.   

Chalk Walk

I recently learned this strategy in a post graduate class I am taking. It is quite simple. Put a word or concept on the wall and allow the students to mark up the whiteboard. The students can connect the word or concept with a memory, a experience, prior learning, or other ideas it leads to. The students can also use other comments to write new ideas.  I was introduced to the Chalk Walk as an introductory activity to build schema, engagement, and comfort for English Learners. My seventh grade class is a collection of English Learners, bilinguals, and English only students. It was engaging for all different levels of the class. I used it as a way for my students to debate the proper balance of freedom and order. The freedom and order debate emerged as an engaging theme in our reading of The Giver. The Chalk Talk led to some amazing, high level exchange of ideas. My whiteboard overflowed with critiques, philosophies, and opinions. The end result was a brilliant cacophony of student thought and voice. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Phil Jackson the Teacher

I try to read a lot. I read everything. I try to mix up education, non-fiction, young adult, classics, and spirituality texts. I love books because they force me to think deeply about questions, situations, and subjects. This is often a challenge because so much information is truncated. Blogs, Twitter, and other 21st century information exchanges often focus on quantity, rather than quality. I love me some Twitter and blogs, but I also need to read qualitative arguments and well drawn out thoughts. 

I recently finished a book written by Phil Jackson. What is so fascinating about Phil is the way he leads and constructs the team. In an era of big egos and authoritative figure heads, he has a totally different approach. This approach wields unbelievable success. 

I need to write more about the learning and inspiration I draw from books. With that in mind, I share my favorite quotes from Sacred Hoops. It is amazing how analogous some of the thoughts are to education.  

"In basketball -- as in life -- true joy comes from being fully present in each and every moment, not just when things are going your way."

"Winning is important to me, but what brings me real joy is an experience of being fully in whatever I'm doing"

This reminds me of the concept of 'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. This idea of complete, absolute engagement in a task is very important to teachers.

“The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”

Speaking of the triangle offense

"what they liked about the system most was that it was democratic: it created shots for everyone, not just the superstars. 

Phil believes it is imperative to make every member feel important and worthwhile. Only when each member feels their contribution valuable, will the whole team shine. This is a powerful concept. We are only as strong as our weakest link. What does that mean to you?

"We try to create a supportive environment, that structures the way they relate to each other and gives them freedom to realize their potential"

See Daniel Pink. Humans crave autonomy! So do our kids.

Speaking of the book Leading Change by James O'Toole
"Value-Based Leaders, O'Toole says, enlist the hearts and minds of their followers through inclusion and participation. They listen to their followers out of a deep respect for them as individuals"

"Some coaches try to force players to bond with each other by putting them through hellish Marine Corps-style training. That's a short-term solution, at best. I've found that the connection will be deeper and last longer if it's built on a foundation of true exchange."

"What I've learned as a coach, and a parent, is that when people are not awed and overwhelmed by authority, true authority is attained"

See Alfie Kohn's work on reward and punishments.

"Skillful means is used to describe an approach to making decision and dealing with problems that is appropriate to the situation and causes no harm....a parent who packs a kid off to bed for spilling milk instead of handling the child a sponge is not practicing skillful means"

How do you approach "classroom management"? This seems very humane and works for long term change.

"Eventually, everybody loses, ages, changes. And small triumphs- a great play, a moment of true sportsmanship count even though you may not win the game"

Such a valuable learning and life lesson.

"Make your work play and play work"

"My primary goal during practice is to get players to reconnect with the intrinsic love of the game"

This is my mission as a teacher, pure and simple. We all love learning, we just don't like doing it at school.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Just Talk it Out

When I write, I often share my perfect days, my unequivocal successes, and my bright spots. I search for positives in the darkest of situations. This attitude has helped me through many tough situations, both in the classroom and in life. I view every mistake as a learning opportunity, every snide remark as a chance to repair a relationship, every outburst points to a failure in lesson/classroom design, rather than a personal defect.  

All that being said, I still have my struggles. I love my classes and the way I teach, but not everything is perfect. I, too, have the classroom management issues, the difficult students, the challenging individuals. I let a lot go because my students need the freedom to make discoveries, explore, play, and stumble to meta-cognition. Their end products often justify the freedom and lack of structure I tend to favor. They do amazing things and claim to genuinely enjoy the periods I teach. Still, there are students that push my buttons and consistently cross to the side of disrespect. 

A number of my students in eighth grade habitually make inappropriate comments, distract others, and generally make themselves the center of attention. They like to cross the line and do just enough to get their "boys" to focus on them. I teach middle school after all. In short, I have some students who are not creating a respectful classroom environment each and every day. I don't blame them entirely, it points to some failures by me, the teacher. Regardless, things had to change. 

I could solve this in the short term by handing out "respect marks" or detentions, but I would rather shape long term behavior. I would rather get to the bottom of their behavior rather than simply make the class a blind exercise in primitive behaviorism. I would rather focus on relationships and conflict resolution more than power dynamics. 

Knowing the make-up of my eighth grade classes, I spent much of the first few weeks collaboratively constructing rules. I hoped this would help the rules seem more genuine and worthwhile because they had a stake in them. Unfortunately, they used our collaborative exercise as a time to make jokes and did not take it seriously. 

When reminders of the rules did not work, I used a strategy coined by Larry Ferlazzo called Three Things I Want.  Basically, I had an adult conversation with the kids where we each listed the three things we wanted from the class. They wanted more freedom of speech and democracy (I wasn't quite sure how they could have more) and I wanted more respect for me and their classmates. We agreed on some concrete steps to make this a reality. It has actually worked quite nicely for most of the ring leaders. 

One student in particular seemed unaffected by our agreement. He continued to test my limits. Out of options and without a new plan, I went back to basics. I just sat down and talked with him. In the most honest way I could, I told him my feelings. I told him this can't continue and I would like his help in fixing our relationship. I told him that I was not going to threaten him with punishments. I told him I had nothing to offer him except improving our relationship. I pulled out our three things and told him they were important to me, just as the relationship between him and I was. I told him I honestly believed he was important to this class and I looked forward to things improving. I told him I knew he could better his behavior and I was excited for us to work on our communication. This seemed to have an effect on him. My honesty made an impact. While things are nowhere near perfect, I see gradual improvement. It isn't a total and unmitigated success, but we are moving in the right direction. 

I offer this new strategy---an honest talk.