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Nov 12

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Limited by Four Walls?

Over-crowded Black School by Lewis W. Hine, 1917 (LOC)

Over-crowded Black School by Lewis W. Hine, 1917 (LOC) Photo used with Creative Commons, Some rights reserved by pingnews.com

Sometimes I think I’d be a much better educator if it weren’t for being stuck inside the four walls of my classroom. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. There are things that I wish I had done better or differently that just wouldn’t be issues if we weren’t all trapped inside these same four walls. When there are 27 to 29 of us inside a 30ft X 26ft room, with up to six bodies at one table, three to a side, it can get overwhelming at times. I find myself responding to behaviors that in other circumstances would be no problem at all!

I expect all students within my classroom to help maintain a flow of learning. We should all be able to learn and take advantage of this wonderful gift we call a free, public education. I find myself asking students who aren’t helping maintain a flow of learning to help out by either cooperating or just plain complying to some standards of “acceptable” behavior. Yes, I often times do need compliance. I’ve read some blogs where the author has asked if we really want our students to be compliant. For example Joe Bower’s blog Bait and Switch. I thought to myself, no, not me, I don’t do that. Well, actually, yes, yes me, I do some of those things. I mean how can 29 individuals sit in the same 30ft X 26ft space if they aren’t all conforming or complying to some set of behaviors that are really in the best interest of all? We can call them class rules or norms or whatever we want. Sometimes we as teachers impose these “rules” on our students and sometimes we even bring our students in on deciding and choosing what rules we need. I see five classes of different students each day so I mostly ask my students to do things and behave in ways that are conducive to learning in a semi-crowded space. I visualize what I call a flow of learning and I ask students to contribute or be a part of that flow. Anything that stops or hinders that flow for anyone must be dealt with. That is my job. That is parents and my administration expect of me. That is what try to do my best to create. A learning environment where my students feel safe (emotionally, intellectually and physically).

Sometimes there are behaviors that are goofy but still require that I respond if the student isn’t self-managing or stopping. Little things like roughhousing can start in fun but can lead to pain or accidents. I tell kids that I truly believe they will be sorry if they break something or hurt each other, but it won’t be an “accident” if they were goofing around and their apology won’t replace a broken item or piece of equipment (see my broken iPad post). Sometimes the behavior is of the off-task variety. Students want to socialize or do anything but work. I’m not a tyrant when it comes the work I assign. If students come up with something they’d rather do I let them. What I’m talking about here is when students just plain don’t want to work; not work I assign or work of their choosing. Sorry, but that really bugs me. I feel better when everyone is working and learning Science. I am here to help them learn Science. I do have a curriculum but I am flexible and there is plenty of flexibility with my curricula. There are even times when the behavior is dangerous. That needs to be stopped. Safety is a major concern! (Emotional, intellectual, and physical.) I also feel bad when students want to get comfortable and I have to ask them to stop because it doesn’t work in our space. Sometimes kids just want to work under the table on the floor. If it works, I don’t mind one bit but if the students around them start kicking or getting so distracted by who’s under the table that they don’t get their work done then I have to put a stop to it. I’d rather not stop but kids will be kids and sometimes sitting on their chairs, facing the table works best.

So at times when those behaviors seem to be happening in every class (whether they really are happening in every class or not) I dream about how nice it would be if my students were each learning at his or her pace, learning what he or she is interested in learning, and reporting to me how he or she wanted and within a flexible time frame. Hmm. If we weren’t all in this little room none of those behaviors would be limiting anyone’s ability to learn. Socializing is huge for middle schoolers. They need to do that but not all of them have figured out the balance between getting work done and socializing in class.

I read a great blog by Mr. Keenan on the five top reasons why he loves being a teacher. I had to totally agree. I love my job. I love to create learning opportunities for my students. I love to integrate technology in ways that I think they would be using the tools in any job or career. I love the Science topics we are studying and I love to learn more than I already know (which isn’t all that much!). I can do all that and not need to be in my little room. I’m not saying total distance learning and never seeing my kids face to face. Nah, I like my students too much. I enjoy chatting with them as much as they enjoy chatting with each other. At least I feel that way. But it can be better. I’m not satisfied with the way things are. I want better, so I do ask kids to be compliant so that we can get along and learn together and from each other. I value hard work and strive to encourage my students to work beyond any idea of doneness. Two of my most hated words are “bored” and “done.”

Student 1, “I’m bored.”

Me: “Okay. Don’t be.” I don’t see that as my problem. What I do see is that being bored creates an opportunity to do something about it. Either get to work or come up with a way to get the job done that satisfies both you and the teacher (or boss!) without boredom being an issue. Doodling helps some when they need to listen, taking notes helps others. Finding a new, creative way to share what you are learning can help with boredom. Or finding different reading materials (ie. websites) to help you learn the topic of study better.

Student 2: “I’m done.”

Me: “Really? What else can you do?” This is a good reason why I abolished grades. So the A students wouldn’t need to be so done all the time. There’s so much to learn and so many ways to learn and so many things to create. Who can ever be done??

Sorry, I sometimes get off on tangents. I’m not sure distance learning is the answer but it sure would solve all those annoying, little behavior problems that can easily blow up into discipline issues. When students don’t comply with our requests we call that defiance. Continued, willful refusal to do what an adult asks is something we expect our students to avoid so our discipline plan has a series of “punishments” to deal with the behaviors if nothing else has worked. It stinks that we have to go to those punishments when nothing else works but at least it makes it possible for the rest of the students to learn. The flow of learning in my classroom must go on.

On a good note I must say that not grading my students, giving them choice and a voice, and having iPads, netbooks, desktop computers, lab supplies, Science probes and sensors does make my classroom a great place for me to be and I’ve been enjoying learning with my students and helping them learn a whole lot. Some days though those behaviors to get to me. I am working on not letting those days bring me down. And when a new class of bright, shiny faces enter my room I have to remember that they don’t know what happened before they came in and it’s also my job to make sure my mood from a previous class doesn’t affect how I treat the current class. What a tangled web we weave in this profession. A web that allows for a continuous flow of learning. Makes me think of tai chi. 🙂

What do you do with annoying behaviors? How do you deal with them and keep the flow of learning in your class? Does anyone else out there dream of losing their four walls?

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  1. Mrs Emery

    I know what you mean. A fellow teacher and I tried an experiment for a term in a very similar size set of classrooms and student numbers to yours. Instead of expecting ALL areas of the room to be for the days task, learning whatever…we allocated a set of desks as the ‘if your not planning to work today’ area. True. The kids couldn’t believe it. We would take a minute or two outside the room to explain the context of the days lesson and then ask them to think about how they felt about learning today. They know what mood the’re in. Anyone could choose to sit in the not working area if they wanted. The rules? Same as before; don’t distract those who are working, keep your noise to a minimum, no phones, ipods etc. Let the teacher deliver the set in silence. Day 1 we both had 3-7 students working. But the others heard the set and kept an eye on activites and those who were working and we as teachers got to do some great stuff with those who were interested. The numbers who sat in the no work space slowly dropped over a few weeks and when they did drop back in they had a surprising understanding of what they had ‘missed’ and were able to catch up. By the end of the term, no kid had ever sat there all week. The dynamic of the group changed constantly and the kids spent time with others whom they normally would not have. In the end they all got the work done and we where able to make good assessments for report time. And some days…we sat in the ‘i can’t be bothered’ group. :0 You can contact my team teacher @Lasic on Twitter. He may have more insights. Thanks for your post.

  2. Jerrid Kruse

    I hear ya. However, please don’t consider distance learning as an option. Part of school IS socialization. Part of school IS learning how to navigate social systems. There are lots of benefits to distance and individualized learning, but there are always things we give up. School needs to change, but we need to think carefully about what that change looks like.

  3. Alfonso Gonzalez

    Good point. Distance learning isn’t an option and I’m certainly not pursuing making it an option. Just thinking aloud and dreaming of a world where the little, annoying behaviors don’t take their toll on us.

  4. Alfonso Gonzalez

    That is a pretty cool idea, Mrs. Emery! There’s a part of me that would love to try that and then there’s the part of me that just isn’t ready for something like that. With five sets of kids coming in for 50 minutes or so each day and teaching by myself I can’t quite do it the way you and @Lasic did. And what did you do when the kids in the, “I’m not in the mood for working” section of the room bothered or distracted the rest of the students? Another concern I have is that I can’t make every single class period a totally fun one for everyone. There are times when the work we do might look and feel like work. I can see them wanting to join the working groups if the work was always fun. Still, your idea is so intriguing! Maybe something like it would work for others like me. I wonder…

    Thanks so much for sharing!

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