Journal entry: Assault

April 12, 2008

The textbook [for the class at CSUSB] arrived today, and I read the first chapter.  The prose is dull and repetitive.  If this were a Humanities class during my freshman year of UCI [25 years ago], this would have given me license to whine and rag on the book endlessly, for my own self-righteousness and entertainment.  Since I’m more mature now, I’ll try to make lemonade.

If I wasn’t already convinced, the first chapter convinced me that interpersonal skills are important.  I would dispute several of the related points, however.  Is the definition of what a human is only related to an individual’s position amongst society, or are such things as the ability to reason, to solve problems, to use one’s mind to explore one’s mind, and to consider the infinite and the infinitesimal also part of the definition?  I will grant that language – being irrelevant without contemporary and future co-inhabitants of Planet Earth – is at the top of the list, but isn’t one of the primary purposes of language, especially written language, to store information, not necessarily for recall by others?

I keep coming back to a relationship which I would rather not have to think about.  A freshman student of mine has decided that I am The Devil.  He and I had no problems that I know of throughout the first semester, but we can’t get through a week this semester without an incident.  These incidents are usually relatively minor – although I have taken to documenting them thoroughly in light of the overall turn of events – but they keep recurring.  This student shoved me out of his way one day when I blocked his access to his backpack during class, as he was preparing to walk out.  (I won’t do that again.)  I chose not to pursue expulsion or arrest, in the interest of taking the high road, and I’ve tried to stay out of his way as much as possible, but he keeps making efforts to provoke me.  This week it was some sort of rhythmic hand-clapping during a quiz.  I believe the efforts are escalating, which I guess is an indication that he’s not getting the reaction from me that he wants.  He’s frustrated because no one will let him transfer out of the class, and as a result of the “assault” (so labeled on the behavior incident) and his failing status in all of his classes he can’t play school sports anymore.  My communication efforts with him lately have amounted to leaving him alone except when he makes it impossible to ignore him.  I don’t honestly believe that asking him to sit down and discuss things would be productive; I think it would be more likely to frustrate him further.

April 13, 2008

I’ll find out next Tuesday whether formatting the journal like this is acceptable.   I have chosen the usual typeface and font size, with one-inch margins all around.  I’m also eager to find out whether I’m discussing the right things, in the right depth.

On the subject of communication, my children [teen-agers] are chronically annoyed with my skills.  Technically, they’re satisfied with a dad who can spell and doesn’t say “between you and I,” but I apparently don’t listen, and I choose inflammatory words.  I try to choose words that mean exactly what I want them to mean.  I abhor euphemism, so I presume this means I’m indelicate to people.  I try to counter that by smiling as I speak.  On my worst days, my students take this as “sarcasm” (actually, they usually mean “irony”) and one student in particular saw my smiling as a sort of smirk which preceded my sending him out of the room for misbehavior.  (He was a good communicator – before our school revoked his district transfer for his behavior and sent him back to his local high school: I knew exactly what he meant when he called me “faggot” five times out loud in class.)

Irony is difficult in a group setting for the same reason it’s difficult in email: you don’t get the facial expressions and other subtle signs that mean “I’m kidding.”  So, I’ve worked to minimize irony and eliminate sarcasm.  But good teachers do it, don’t they?  Juan shouts out my name (without raising his hand) for the fifth time in one period, and so he needs a message such as, “Juan, how did they teach you to get your teacher’s attention in first grade?”  Doesn’t he?  Is that irony?  No, I’m being direct.  Is it humiliating?  I’ll ask him.  And I’ll make a better effort next year to recognize the impulsive and needy students and get on this behavior immediately.

As far as irony goes, if everybody’s in on the joke, it makes the class enjoyable, doesn’t it?  “Mr. F, what’s the assembly for?” “Good question, Chelsea.  We’re shortening all our class periods by ten minutes today so we can have a pep rally to celebrate academic achievement.”  Aside from the questionable purpose of mocking the administration, isn’t this a shared example of life’s ironies that helps students think, leverages a teachable moment, and gives everybody a pleasant chuckle?

April 15, 2008

Assault Al has begun taunting me.  Today, when he was chatting with a neighbor during instruction, I quietly walked to the neighbor and asked him to change seats.  He new seat was across the room from the student in question.  The kid who shoved me said, as the neighbor was silently getting up to move, “It doesn’t matter.  I’ll still talk to him.”  He did as he promised, speaking to him across the room.  I documented it for the AP, who suspended him one day.  We have a meeting with the student, the mom and the teachers Wednesday.

April 17, 2008

Al is back from suspension.  Not doing any work, but also not taunting me.  I am not interested in reaching out to him.  (He will only be at the school another 40 days or so, and will be failing this class and several others.  I believe he will have his intra-district transfer revoked and so will be going to his home school, not ours, in September.)  I appreciate the claim that it is impossible not to communicate; however, I am avoiding all explicit communication with him.  I thought I saw him texting under his desk today, watched him for a few minutes, and then quietly asked him if he had a cell phone – as I would for anyone.  (Actually, if it were someone with whom I was on good terms, I would probably quietly just say, “Put the phone away.”  No implied confrontation, given the context.)  He said, “It’s put away.”  Two weeks ago, this would have lead to a challenge, escalation, etc.  I suppose what I’m communicating is, I’m keeping my eye on you.  I don’t know if this is counterproductive (since it might be interpreted as antagonistic) or productive (since he may be taunting me because he wants attention, and any attention he can get from a teacher is a good thing).  From conversations with his other teachers, it appears he is generally ignored in his other classes.

April 19, 2008

[The professor] mentioned that he practiced “non-aversive” discipline.  I’m interested in this.  On the spectrum of attitude toward disciples during discipline, with 1 being arbitrary, purposeless and vindictive and 10 being predictable, meaningful, and compassionate, I’ve been trying to move from 1 to 10 since I started teaching.  Or at least, since my own kids started raising serious concerns about my choices and motives as we discussed my teaching day.

I have two models I try to keep in mind as I make decisions about discipline on a daily basis.  The first model is the lesson I learned about serenity under fire while working at Disneyland during college.  In my job, I stood behind a counter and sold hot dogs and Coke to hot, frustrated, angry tourists who had spent hundreds of dollars to get to California from all over the globe, waited in lines all day, and had now made it to the front of the longest line of all, with kids screaming at each other, husband or wife screaming at the kids, money and tickets falling out of their pockets, and NO PEPSI!  I learned to work as fast as I could without attempting to work any faster and to nurture a sense of inner calm.  (What I realize is a little different in the classroom is that there actually are deadlines.  These include the bell and announced deadlines during the lesson, along with the constant deadline of the moment when a critical mass of students shuts down from confusion or boredom.)  I make a point of never yelling at kids, and I remind them that I don’t and haven’t yelled at them.  I also occasionally tell them that they cannot make me flustered.  (True or not, it’s a worthy goal, and by publishing the goal, I fell compelled to strive to reach it.)

The second model I keep in mind about discipline is Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha: non-violent resistance.  Much was accomplished by Gandhi, King, and others through the specific methods of satyagraha.  The rules are generally applicable in a classroom setting: harbor no anger, suffer the anger [of the student], do not curse or swear, never retaliate to assaults, do not insult [the student].  I picture myself as a benevolent boulder.  Fine; however, in the context of EDUC603, how do I communicate this picture accurately?  I’ve mentioned one of the drawbacks of smiling, but I haven’t found a facial configuration that works better.

I believe a calm tone is crucial.  I yelled “HEY!” at one class a couple weeks ago.  The phone rang, and during the one-minute conversation, the class began chatting, and the chatting escalated in seconds into many loud voices that made it impossible to hear the speaker on the phone.  My one-word outburst (followed by the calm words, “I’m on the phone”) worked, but how could I have handled it better?  In the future, early in the school year, I will directly address classroom volume, and they will know what my silent sign is that things have gotten out of hand. (I have one sign that works great: I write the dismissal time in huge letters on the board, and then raise my Expo marker near the last digit, indicating that it is about to be incremented.)  In addition to procedural adjustments, I’ll also invest in a portable handset so I can talk on the phone and stand at the front of the class where everyone will see me.

April 21, 2008

My philosophy this week is “learned behavior is the fault of the teacher and can be unlearned.”  I’m more calmly than ever explaining what I expect, how what I’ve observed doesn’t match my expectations, etc.  Today my “let’s go outside and discuss this” pet peeve was the near-constant request to go to the bathroom.  Okay, so I whined to a couple guys, but the actual solution is to address the problem with clear statements of policy, motivation, consequence.  I believe I’ll give out restroom tickets next year, two per semester, to be used, traded on the black market, or redeemed at the end of the semester for EC points.  I will also use the tickets as first reminders about the value of punctuality: on the first or second day of the year, everyone who is seated before the bell will receive an additional restroom ticket.

April 22, 2008

Breakthrough?  “Al” (who pushed me) was a model student today.  He took notes, he worked with his neighbors (questions and comparing work), and he asked me questions and volunteered to do work on the board, and proudly showed me his correct answers!  Huh?  I have no idea where that came from.  I praised him – honestly, 5% of me was keeping my distance due to gun-shyness – and pointed out his correct board work for the room.  From caution and habit and human fallibility, I was not able to grab his hand, shake it with glee, and cry tears of joy; I doubt that would have done anything other than to scare him anyway.

April 23, 2008

“Al” was still working today, although some bad habits came back: sunglasses and chatting.  He also used his personal whiteboard for doodling after repeated reminders to get to work.  We’ll have to see how things work out at our next class.

April 25, 2008

More chatter and general off-task behavior.  Al was one of four kids today who spent the period waiting for me to look/walk away so they could play.  I gathered them after the bell and calmly and firmly told them that I was very disappointed and that I expected them to try harder next week.

May 2, 2008

My first impressions of non-aversive discipline tell me that I need to identify the motivation of the acting-out student and then pander to it.  No, that’s not exactly true.  The experiment described by [the professor] wasn’t meant to represent an actual classroom scenario: student shrieks in class, so student is trained to raise his hand, and as a result student raises his hand repeatedly and is waited on instantly.  Surely, in a working classroom with only one teacher, the needy hand-raiser won’t get immediate attention every time.  Some other behavior ultimately has to take the place of constant hand-raising.

But it’s a fascinating approach which I’m sad to say I’ve never tried.  So, I played with this this week.  In the same class with Al, I have four more chronic off-task students: one is benign, mostly concentrating on his sleight-of-hand hobby, and the other three are active chatterers and goof-offs.  ([The professor] estimated “two or three” kids who don’t respond to the classroom-management signals that the rest of the class responds to.  Apparently, this group exceeds my quota for two classes.)  I’ve trained myself not to let them get to me, but they continue to drain momentum and other resources from class.

This week, I found myself addressing one of these students repeatedly.  Quickly concluding that he was looking for attention, I asked him to lead the class through the ten problems displayed on the board.  (The timing was right, since I had already presented the skill we were reviewing and gone through a bit of group practice.)  He jumped up and instantly took on the role of [me], calling on people whose hands were up, writing their responses on the board, and even making up new problems.  It was a big hit.  I wouldn’t mind having him do this every day, except for two complications: (1) it isn’t always the right time for him to lead the class, and (2) there were two other people practically pushing him off the stage so they could play Teacher.  I realize that when I say, “It isn’t always the right time,” I’m probably being unimaginative; that is, there are probably a lot of moments during the period when this student could be running the class.  I’ve decided in the last few weeks that next year, everyone will have a job.  If I can handle the management of this (another job for a student: HR Director!), this will take care of tons of problems in the class: boredom, me-as-bottleneck, engagement, ownership.

As to the second difficulty, the other attention-starved students can be given their own roles and can serve as understudies for the primary classroom leader.  All of these roles should be assigned under the condition that the student is otherwise behaving.  I have watched one of these students train himself to (first) raise his hand and (second) not shout my name out as he raises his hand, so I know they can learn to control themselves.

May 6, 2008

Interesting discussion tonight about learned helplessness.  Many (most?) of my students have some degree of this.  In some cases, it’s shyness, or distraction, but I think a lot of them take the low grade they’re earning and just accept it.  Sometimes the parents step in and tell the kid, “Go to your teacher, and ask what you can do about your grade.”  When they don’t, it’s our job to teach the class grade advocacy: how to be a grade grubber.  This is important because if we overlook that duty, then we’re constantly called on to remind individuals of their low grades.  Working with adults, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but at the high-school level, we have to make the kids take on responsibility for their grades.

May 7, 2008

I proctored the AP Calculus Exam today.  Numerous humorous examples of the adolescent brain at work:

  • In spite of clear instructions on all materials, students arrived with cell phones, without extra batteries for their calculators, without pens, without erasers.
  • Although this is one of the most important tests they’ve ever taken, and they’ve spent a year preparing for it, several students forgot instructions not to talk about the test during the break.  Students also spoke while waiting for instructions and in some cases during the test itself.
  • When we checked in contraband cell phones, we had the students label them with their names.  Some students just put their first names, although there were approximately 70 test takers.  Their world is still so small!

The news is not all bad: these students said please and thank you for the smallest thing.  They also did not whine during the test or ask for instructions about the math, which is one of the things that still mystifies me in my own class.

May 12, 2008

Students in my P2 class are reacting to me lately with what seems to be familiarity? Fondness?  Reduced contempt?  They are my most difficult class, and I complain about them to my family and occasionally to the next period class.  (Bad form, I know, but I don’t really complain.  I say, “I’m so happy to have you all here!”  And then know I mean I had a rough time with the previous group.)  Extremely immature 9th graders with a lot of bad habits, academic as well as social.  But I’ve made an effort to be consistent, outwardly respectful, and fair.  Is it possible that that’s half the battle?

May 20, 2008

Al, the kid who pushed me, seems to be making overtures.  I used the sink outside my classroom today, just before class, and he walked by and greeted me.  There were lots of other people around, and I was looking away from where he was, so it was absolutely unnecessary.  This confused me, and made me uncomfortable.  Life is so much simpler with grudges and feuds that are unsupported by facts!

May 21, 2008

Many of my kids are asking about what I’m doing next year.  They want to get me as their teacher again.  I tell them (truthfully) that I have no idea what my assignment will be.  (I’ll have to remember to thank them and tell them I’m honored.)  This is my third full year teaching, and I’ve never had anywhere near this level of apparent loyalty.

May 23, 2008

One thing that’s been happening all year: a few kids in each class stare off into space, and I pause or walk into their view and make eye contact, or I just remind the class as a group, “I’ll know you’re ready to continue when you’re looking up here.”  This is one of many areas where I make a conscious effort to be patient.  I smile and breathe slowly and deeply, and I raise my eyebrows.  I’m pretty sure I don’t look angry or exasperated.

I’m wondering if staring off into space might be a legitimate way to take in information for auditory learners.  I’m sure for most of the kids who do this it doesn’t represent engagement, but maybe there are those who do this to absorb.  How can I identify them?

The district superintendent showed up at my class today.  I got five minutes warning, by phone from the front office.  Definitely not enough time to hide some messy-looking stacks or scribble the standards on the board.  She stayed for about two minutes and asked me about our small learning communities.  I tried to be honest, helpful, and detailed.

May 27, 2008

Another surprise from Al today.  A student next to him mentioned that he only had three weeks to pull up his F.  This student has had problems focusing all year.  With my encouragement, he has learned to wait to begin talking until I recognize his raised hand.  (This must be really hard for him if he’s still learning it in 9th grad.)  He made a half-hearted effort to come for tutoring and never could stay focused longer than about 20 minutes.  (I try to “chunk” my presentations, vary the technique, include small-group work as much as possible, and stay “on-stage” as little as I can, but there are days where I have spent most of the period presenting new material.  He learns very little on these days.)

The surprise, Al said, “Me too” to this other kid.  He turns in about 10% of the assignments and often misses tests and quizzes, so he’s somewhere around a 15% in the class.  This tells me that the numerical score needs to be 100% transparent, visible to students constantly, and the changes that occur need to be noticeable.  Ideally, a student’s score would move day-to-day and even minute-by-minute, with some kind of graphic indicator, so they could follow it like a video game.  I’ve worked on ideas like this all year long.  I’m planning to clone one of my co-workers’ classroom economy systems next year, with little dollar bills that students collect and redeem.  This will definitely be a step in the right direction.  (The research results are not all in: some researchers say extrinsic rewards cause reduced intrinsic motivation, and others disagree completely.  Since I will be rewarding for classroom behavior (that is, the reward itself is a guide to my expectations) and the effect of the system will be limited to 10% of the grade, I don’t think I have to worry.


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