Wednesday, October 22, 2008

If a teacher talks in a classroom and no one listens...

There are many more important topics this blog should focus on today, but I have to share a story instead.
Today in my reading class, we focused our learning objectives on identify cause and effect relationships as well as identifying problems and solutions. As with many students in underperforming schools, and for that matter, performing schools, complain about their schools. My students are no different. I regularly am reminded that school sucks or that teachers suck or that reading sucks. So, I figured we'd discuss this topic in relationship to our learning objectives.
I put the following on the board:

Problem: WGASH is ineffective (not good) at teaching its students.

Then, I asked them to think about and write down as many causes for our school's ineffectiveness. After a few minutes, I asked them to share their thoughts.

Of my nine students in the room, only three participated actively. Three sat indifferently. Three chose to talk and then practice their dance moves.
So there I was, torn between what approach to take in regaining engagement. I didn't want to lose the three who were participating, but the three talking and dancing were not responding to my directive statements. As I tried to keep the discussion going and attempt proximity with the three non-participants, the three engaged students began to falter. They were distracted. When I verbally tried to redirect the three dancers, they ignored me. And when I say they ignored me, I mean that they did not even acknowledge I had spoken to them. I then attempted planned ignoring, but by that time, there was no chance of having a discussion.

On the way home, I told the story to my wife. I heard myself saying that I must suck as a teacher. But that would contradict the anectdotal evidence from throughout the day when many at risk students stopped by my room to check in and give a fist bump. How can I have a positive impact on some of the most challenging students in our school and then walk into my classroom only to get ignored?
My wife said, "Well, it just shows that when you try to teach them, get them to learn something, you are the bad guy. But in the hallway, you can just be you."
I wonder how much truth there is in that. What extent of my trouble engaging some students in my classes is simply because I am trying to teach them reading skills?

17 Comments:

At 4:21 PM , Anonymous Ms. Ungerle said...

Do you think it is helpful that you are continually reminding or reinforcing to them that the school is ineffective? I'm not sure this helps them to take ownership over their own education. Aren't you the one who is always complaining about the students' lack of motivation? Telling them their school is failing them would seem to give them an "out".

 
At 5:10 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Ms. Ungerle,
One of the greatest disservices we can do to our students is refuse to engage them in conversations about reality. Last year, I engaged students in a similar conversation after outside auditors pointed out our failure as a school. The conversations was productive and informative. I learned about what my students think and why they think that.
This year, I have engaged other classes in the conversation and again was reminded of their perspective.
What I intend to do is give my students a voice, something that fearful urban educators often fail to do. It is time for us to teach our students that they must take ownership of the school, demanding that we educate them well.
Yes, I am the one who often complains about my students lack of motivation. But an effective reader of all my posts will see a trend of reflection for improvement. I ask questions to help me think through the major problems that exist in my building. So, please pay attention when reading my posts.

 
At 5:59 PM , Anonymous Joe said...

I don't expect that this will surprise you, but I find myself supporting Ms. Ungerle's stance. Certainly, you make some good points, Mr. McNamar. Placing students at the center of their learning is of paramount importance, but it is important to do so without at the same time seeming to judge them harshly. Your question might well imply to them that they are not well-educated. Such an implication, justified or not, is insulting and might lead them to refuse to engage. (I don't know for sure that this is the reason they did not engage, but I think it is worth considering.)

Perhaps you might back up a step and engage THEM in the process of identifying the problem that will be used as a model. Another approach might be to remove the implication by making the problem:School Sucks. This removes even the slightest implication of contempt for the students.

 
At 2:54 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Then let me rephrase my problem. Whe did the very same format work for the other periods, but not for the chaotic one?
And then let me give the part that I left out because I took into consideration the audience for which this blog is written. In the initiation for the discussion with all periods, I asked them: "how many of you have said, 'This school sucks'?"

What continues to bother me about blogging in general, and comments specifically, is that too often readers fill in the blanks left out because of the blog format. Blogs tend to give the most concise version of stories and thoughts which leads to unfair criticism.
It usually doesn't bother me, and I often let it go. But the point of the post is not to delve into the topic, but to address the question of why all of the attempts to bring the students back did not work. And then, more importantly, to examine if some of my students will always refuse to participate, as has been evidenced already this year, simply because I am teaching a class they have no interest in.

 
At 8:05 AM , Blogger Always Learning said...

I hope my opinion does not give you the frustration of others. I agree with your wife. As I walk through the halls at my school, I find that every student wants to say hello, that they crave adult contact. Yet when they sit in the classroom I volunteer in, there are millions of other things they would rather be doing, no matter how interesting or boring the subject is. Classroom learning has no bearing in these students' minds, so they address what they believe to be more important issues.
There are no easy answers to this problem. It's one that begins at the very core of what school is about for the kids. If school becomes busywork, and is not valued at home, the problem will continue. For others, their lack of scope when it comes to the future prevents them from realizing the value of learning in the classroom, so they focus on social problems. That is why you try to bring reality into the classroom - whatever their reality is. For you, it was "school sucks."
Just remember that we all run into this at some point, and those who can't acknowledge it will continue to be part of the problem.

 
At 12:10 PM , Anonymous Nathan said...

I see no problem whatsoever trying to use what you perceive as a springboard for a discussion. If you see the attitude that school sucks permeating your class, use it. If you see the problem of students completely ignoring you, use it. Take the few who are engaged and ask them to help problem solve.

I probably would have written on the board "Problem: X, Y, and Z are busy dancing instead of participating. A, B, and C are comatose instead of participating. Solutions?" and see what happens.

There's certainly no guarantee that it'll work any better than anything else, but I have become much happier as a result of verbalizing my thought process when this happens. Sometimes it even works to hook the wayward sheep.

 
At 7:58 PM , Anonymous Joe said...

Blogging IS an odd sort of way of communicating. Responding to a blog is pretty weird to. I think of James Taylor's line from B.S.U.R, "So, we circle around one another playing a guessing game/strangers at this masquerade/pretending to know each other, We strain to catch a name. Never seeing mistakes we might have made."

Sorry if I added to your frustration.

Joe

 
At 3:19 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Joe,
Thank you for your response, and you are typically one of the bloggers I enjoy reading comments from--except when you disagree with me.
Blogging really is a strange and wonderful tool. At times it allows me to gain solace in knowing that I am not alone. And other times it acts as a way to learn from others. Keep reading, keep commenting.

 
At 5:28 PM , Anonymous Ms. Ungerle said...

I think you just need to be honest with yourself. First, really, why do you blog? To help the masses? I doubt it. And if you are going to put your ideas out there, which takes great courage, then you need to be equally courageous about taking some constructive criticism. If you are worried about readers filling in the blanks then don't leave as many. And, you should give us a little more credit. We are not idiots and most of us are probably in similar classrooms, schools and situations on a daily basis.

Finally, your notion that "fearful urban educators" rarely give their students voices just proves to me that you have not been an "urban educator" long enough to know better. Take a look around you, at some of your colleagues and open your eyes. I bet you will see some people that starve to hear those voices.

 
At 7:59 PM , Blogger HappyChyck said...

Are your troubles simply because you are trying to teach them to read? Sounds like a question I ask myself several times a week. Trying to teach them to read. To write. To think. When the going gets difficult, the students get crazy. My students are finicky, too. One night they read something related to politics and they get excited about reading and discussing, so the next night, I bring in something related, and they aren't it at all. And when I mean they aren't into at all, they are in chaos mode, and I spend the period running around putting out fires and trying to encourage students to do the work. So exhausting.

On a personal level, I'm connecting with some of the toughest kids, but on nights when they can't settle down or they give up and act out, they are the most horrible students I've had, and our personal connections make no difference. Sure, they'll take time to talk with me, but H--- No! They will not read. Or write. Or attempt thinking. They will not use the tips I give. They simply...WILL NOT.

Their innate reaction to a little academic challenge is so sad. How can they grow and learn?

It's a confusing and frustrating position to be in as a teacher. One day I rock and I'm really reaching them, and the next day I'm up for the Worse Teacher in the America award.

 
At 11:10 PM , Anonymous kerry said...

well... the best method of mine is drop something like a pan or may be, i'll drop my self.

by that way... my students will take attention for me, after i got all the eyes, I said.. "got you!!!"

after that, i'll talk about how imporatant the subject is...

until now.. I succes doing this.. and the rate is about 80% success.

I found this tips from :
http://www.theteachingpost.com

you'll find more tips that might bw usefull for you, trust me!

they're providing, sounds, videos, pics, docs etc.... and know what?? 100% free!

 
At 5:18 AM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Ms. Ungerle,
I find it hard to consider your comments with much regard.
First, your statement, "I think you just need to be honest with yourself," shows a great deal of your own pretentiousness if you really believe or would assume that I am not honest with myself. The nearly 500 posts on this blog are all about my honesty, for better or worse.
Yes, I put myself out there for my benefit and the benefit of others. I want educators to think and challenge what they do because we of all professions ought to be our best. I wouldn't say your criticism is all that constructive considering you didn't even answer the question that was posed in the post. You immediately went into personal attacks, which immediately brought up my defenses. I don't like when readers behave like my non-reading students and miss the inferences, main ideas, or are unable to draw logical conclusions.
You add, "We...are probably in similar classrooms...." Okay, then blog about it. Why don't you share your stories and why don't you provide me with ideas on how to address the dancers in the back who refuse to acknowledge me while other students in the room want to learn and are craving to learn.
One doesn't have to be an "urban educator" very long to recognize that we are fearful of giving our students a real voice. Sure, we'll have get together after school in clubs that allow them to rap or write poetry, but are we really listening to them...all of them--even the ones who don't go to those clubs or bother paying much attention? No, we are not. So prove me wrong about WGASH.

 
At 6:02 AM , Anonymous Ms. Ungerle said...

I don't blog because, quite frankly, I don't have the patience for it. As I said in my previous post, that you somehow believe is a personal attack, it takes great courage to blog. However, I still don't believe that everyone that blogs is being completely honest. I wouldn't expect them to be. I'm not going to spend too much more time belaboring one little point because I don't know if you are capable of agreeing to disagree. I didn't miss the inferences in your blog. I just decided there was something else I wanted to comment on. Is that a crime? I didn't realize I was being graded and had to answer the assignment as posted.

You want advice? Build a community. You balked at the idea of finding personal connections with your students because "Connecticut schools don't allow that luxury." Well, I'm in a Connecticut school and the only reason I am successful at all is because I spend the beginning of the year building community. I had students who in September walked in announcing they "don't read." And, they dropped a couple of F-bombs and exited the room. Nice, huh? Now? They are reading and they drop those F-bombs when I ask them to stop so we can move on to another part of the lesson. Not every day is perfect. I would never claim that. There are days when they come in and say "school sucks." But on those days I adjust. I've had similar "dancers" just not dancing. They were actually practicing karate moves. I suggested to them that if we could get all the work done for the week that maybe we could have a free Friday when they teach the class some karate moves. They never took me up on the karate class but they did get to work that day.

Are those the kind of stories you'd like to hear? I have had experiences similar to yours and I understand where you are coming from. I guess, like you, I get defensive when I feel attacked and in many of your posts I do feel attacked, even though I don't work at your particular school. I feel a lot of times that you are questioning the motives of many urban educators. And apparently you don't respect those who try to reach the students by forming clubs encouraging rap and poetry, which I do.

So, that's where I am coming from... for better or worse.

 
At 12:39 PM , Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

Until we are succeeding in Connecticut urban schools, I will question the motives of teachers, administrators, communities and the State.
We aren't succeeding; instead, we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country. Perhaps you should read my most recent post.
Instead of posting only negative comments why not leave a few positive ones.

 
At 11:03 AM , Anonymous Ms. Ungerle said...

I applaud your effort in questioning the movtives of anyone that you want. That doesn't mean I'm not allowed to question your motives. And, if you want only positive responses then you might want to change the tone of your blog as of late. My goal is not to frustrate you but rather to engage in conversation about some pretty big issues. But, if you only want to hear positive responses from people who worship you and live for your every word then I guess I will stop responding.

 
At 2:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an easy one. Your students are not qualified to answer that question!! What do they know of assessment strategies, or curriculum, or staff development, or any of that stuff? Three students enjoyed the conjecture, and the others simply didn't care. A better question would be to have asked what the students could do better to help the school!

BEWARE the fist bump!! This may mean that they like you (and this is good) but is not in any way an indicator that you're a good teacher. Think about the best teachers you had while growing up...(not your favorite, the BEST) and how many of them did you bump fists with?

A victory with at-risks though is a victory!


Mr. Cassidy the average educator

 
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