Sunday, May 22, 2016

Failures 2015-16: Classroom culture & management

Hands down my biggest problem is classroom management, and inextricably tied to that, class culture. Roman culture in class is also a big failure of mine, but that's another post. From the random list I made on my "The highlight reel is a lie" post, here are the bullets I think I'll address this time:
  • Building positive class culture
  • Consistency, fairness, and firmness in classroom management
  • Building routines
I'm so, so bad at this, guys. If I want to board the excuses train I could tell you that our population isn't super academically motivated, and most of them haven't learned manners at home, and kids these days are just too into their phones blah blah blah

But those things are true for all of us at times. And this is a blooper reel, not a highlight reel, so here's how I've failed. (under the cut)
  • It's obvious who my favorites are (so I'm told).
  • I'm inconsistent.
  • I'm conflict-averse.
  • If I get 50% of the class on board I don't want to lose them by stopping to try and pull back the other 50%.
  • I'm not a good planner so there's a lot of downtime.
  • I haven't set clear expectations for behavior.
  • I haven't set, explained, and rehearsed routines.
  • I also tend to be sarcastic, which doesn't help. 
So those failures have led to a classroom environment where students feel I play favorites-- and thus play "least favorites" too. That's true. I wish I could qualify it. I can't. I need to fix that. If you know a way to do that overnight, let me know.

It's also an environment where they talk over me or have side conversations while I'm trying to storyask or whatever, and where kids snipe at one another, and where I let kids bully me into playing games instead of doing something more useful for input. I haven't done a storyask in most of my classes for over a month because getting participation from more than 2 or 3 kids is like pulling teeth. It's emotionally exhausting, and so we're doing a lot of vocab lists and then games using that vocab. That's not good CI.

I've tried a bunch of different "management systems." I tried the "communication" standard on my original SBG syllabus- see the last post. That whole thing imploded, so no good there.

I tried DEA, but it's hard to keep track of infractions and however I did it, it came off as punitive. Partly also I didn't emphasize it enough day in, day out. The kids had no real sense of how behavior affected their grades, so when progress reports rolled around, they were angry. Some of my students also felt it was unfair for their grades to be affected by their behavior: if they get the material and do the work, why should they be punished? I tried explaining that it's about how their behavior affects others, too, but that was evidently not convincing.

I tried doing another thing with a behavior rubric which clearly stated what behaviors were required for full credit, and having them rate themselves on it as well as my own rating. Again, they felt it was unfair for their behavior to bring grades down so long as their own work was correct. 

And unfortunately, I kind of agree with them. Grades are set up to be individual. They are meant to be something a specific student can pick up and take with them and plug in at different schools or for college admissions. They're supposed to evaluate individual student work, not student personality. Grades are for robots. Behavior is a different thing. Grading behavior only makes any sense because most of our students are only extrinsically motivated, if they're motivated at all, so we have to work through punishment or reward to get them to budge one way or another. I find reward systems largely counterproductive (been there, done that) and distracting, so why does using punishments make any more sense? It doesn't, not really.

So what will I do instead? I don't know really. I think what I want to do is build a class culture where engagement is desirable in itself, but that's a tall order. For now, I do know three things I definitely want to do and which I know I CAN do.
  • Get 'reps' on the rules: every time, every time, a rule is broken, repeat the rule. Do this either by pointing to a class rules list and smiling, or by repeating the rule verbally and smiling. As for what rules? I think I might try Lance's three: Look, Listen, Ask, plus one more once I think of a single-word phrase for "Keep it positive." I can't let things go, Elsa's advice aside. I have to rep the rules every time I see a phone, or hear a side convo, etc. even though it's exhausting.
  • Practice Love & Logic: I really, really like how these guys think. It is definitely designed for younger kids, but the general principles are gold. I really recommend reading at least this summary, if not the actual Teaching with Love & Logic book (which I also recommend). It really works- repeating yourself, enforceable statements, choices, etc. It feels very weird to use it and see the kids responding, but by god it works.
  • Maintain eye contact with the student when addressing the problem. It makes a really big difference. We are after all social animals, and eye contact is powerful.  
I'd also really like regular routines, including bellwork, but I'm not sure I'm personally capable of maintaining routines. I just want there to always be a clear expectation of what kids should be doing at any given time: Finished your comprehension check early? Work on X. Done drawing a comic retell? Work on X. That type of thing. Any thoughts?

I could use any advice y'all have on any or all of the above. Thanks :)


  1. It's brave of you to write these posts--I appreciate them! I hope you know you are struggling with all the things new teachers struggle with--with things I still struggle with at times, so you know you're not alone. I have classes that don't buy in, and, based on my experience, the plans you have for next year sound like effective ideas. It'll take a lot of energy; it's much easier to let a kid "secretly" play on his phone in the back corner if it keeps him quiet while you ask a story. But it will get easier. I usually do the "broken record" approach, which is just to stand at a student's desk, repeating myself until I get compliance. I don't show frustration or anger, I just say "put your phone away please," until the excuses or arguments stop. Usually no more than three times. But it stops working when when I let someone slip (which I know from experience--I've made that mistake many times). Do know, however, that the favoritism perception is there whether or not you are perfectly fair. If a group gets called out a lot, they think it's because I don't like them, not because they are acting out a lot. So that perception might not be fair to you.

    1. Thank you! I don't think it's all that brave, or perhaps I'm just foolish ;) Your own posts have been inspiring to me for doing these. Your "A Hard Lesson Learned the Hard Way" is what showed me how important it is to share the bad as well as the good.

  2. Oh god this is the hardest teaching thing of all the things. I *FEEL* you so much. Things I have found that help (in order of helpfulness). 1. KNOWING the kids. Like really really knowing them, what they like, and who they are. It makes a huge difference. I especially try to know the ones who I don't like too much. Meet them at the door and ask about the day. 2. NO DOWN TIME. From the moment (or even before) they walk in, they are working. Greet them at the door with a question in Latin, post a do-now on the board that they have to do right worst teacher fail (my first year) was when a kid asked "Are we doing anything today?" D'oh. Down time is the enemy. 3a and 3b. The tone of my voice when I introduce the day's lesson makes a HUGE difference in how the class goes, as well as my level of organization. If I am calm but serious, it sets the tone, and the students match it. I've found that if I start the lesson all disorganized and discombobulated they respond as if what I'm saying doesn't matter, because I've indicated as such. I think one of the PROBLEMS with CI is the lack of structure; I can't handle so much "we're just gonna talk." I need multiple activities per class period, done in a certain way, and done the same way every time we do them. 4. Have a backup plan. I will often scrap my plans if the kids aren't cooperating. They don't GET to do a "silly story" (what I call a TPRS story-ask) if they can't follow the rules of story-asking the way I've set them up. The alternative is not a punishment, really, but it's not as fun.

    What I don't do: have detention (not giving up my time for that); call parents (conflict averse here too); have long conversations with kids about how they should be acting etc (I don't think it works super well with middle schoolers - they don't know themselves well enough); humiliate, yell at, or embarrass kids (mean, not my style).

    I haven't got it figured out, after 9 years of teaching, and part of me wonders if I ever will. But those things have worked for me on a small level, and might help???


    1. Yes that is exactly what I need, especially 2. What are some meaningful "do now" activities you've used? I have trouble coming up with something worthwhile for every single day.

      The tip about tone of voice is very cogent.

      Re: backup plan & presenting plan at the beginning of class- this is what I suck at the most. I'm just not good at planning in advance. I need those multiple activities per period planned out, but I almost never have it done before the day of class, and even then it's more of a menu than an agenda. That CAN be good, but I think I need more structure. Would you be willing to share some examples of lesson plans with what activities etc. you do?

    2. I don't necessarily think it has to be meaningful everyday; sometimes the do now is just like "pick up this sheet and fill it out" if I have something I want to introduce, or "number your paper 1-10." The instructions are in Latin (translated for 5th and 6th grade, not for 7th and 8th), so I actually view that as comprehensible input. The point of having one every day, to me, is to say "We are working in here all the time."

      Other times the do now IS meaningful: a picture or something, and I'll write "turn and talk to your neighbor - quid in pictura vides?" and then they'll same some words. Maybe it's a structure I'm working on, or a setup of the next story. Other times I'll ask "turn and talk to your neighbor - Qualis cibus tibi placet" or some other kind of opinion question, which I'll then use to have a conversation.

      I understand about planning in advance...I don't really mean that I have a fully realized set of lesson plans and objectives. I just mean, know what you're gonna do during that time period. If ever SAY or ACT to the kids like, gee I don't know what we're doing today, I've already lost them. So for each day, I have a spot on the board where I write three or four things that we're doing each day, super general. It might say "1. fabula ridicula 2. Quis pecuniam habet? [a game like your find the animal game] 3. simonus dicit" and that's more or less what I do. I have 55 minutes, middle school, so 3-4 different activities per class is really important. I think almost EVERY TIME I ask a story I lay out the rules: no calling out, stay only in Latin, do your job, anything is possible. If we really get going with a great story it might last longer than my original plan. But if they are REALLY having a hard time calling out, talking in English, hijacking the story, being mean, I'll threaten to stop the story. And if I have to do it again, I WILL stop the story. I *HATE* doing this, but I want them to know I mean what I say. I'll bust out the boringest worksheet I have; or, if I really don't have anything, they have to write how their disruption ruined our story, or whatever. That may not be what you meant about lesson plans, but also remember I'm still using Cambridge, so I'm already dealing with more structure.

      You have good ideas, and it sounds like your activities are fun, engaging, comprehensible and compelling, so I don't think you need to scrap anything like that - I think you just have to be willing to say (to them and yourself): I take your learning seriously, and I will do what I need to do to ensure that the environment is conducive to that. I do not have any idea how (if) this translates to 11th and 12th graders. Let us know!

  3. Thank you for sharing. A lot of this rings true with me and my classroom.

    In terms of a "work on X", I made a sheet in September for them to work on whenever they finish early that's generic enough to be good for all year (I modeled it on Lance P's homeword grid).

    It's not perfect, either as a system or as a sheet. The main problems I had:

    1. I didn't enforce students REALLY ALWAYS GETTING IT OUT - No, you can't do math HW. No, please do NOT just read your book. And so a lot of kids don't do it. And some kids haven't finished early in a long time, so they forget it exists.

    2. Some of the activities are blatantly more valuable or interesting than others. And kids are VERY GOOD at picking out the most useless activity on the list. I think next year I'm going to reform the list into "activities to review" and "activities to stretch" to make it clearer to students based on their comfort level which activities are going to be more helpful.

    What worked REALLY well was getting emoji stickers from Amazon and giving them an emoji sticker to stick on their board for each completed activity. There's no reward for the stickers; they just like the emoji stickers. Be warned - there are some school inappropriate ones, so you wanna look through them BEFORE you give them to students.

    1. That sheet looks like a good idea. I don't think it would be much use without it being tied to a grade, however. I'd consider stickers but I think the novelty would wear off pretty quickly with my 11th & 12th graders at least.

      I hope you'll share your revised activity sheet too! I definitely need something like this in place.

  4. "...Again, they felt it was unfair for their behavior to bring grades down so long as their own work was correct..."

    That is certainly true if they are being graded on correctness at all. If you eliminate high grades for knowing "about" Latin, or communicating correctly, the grades for behavior suddenly become quite important. Besides, proficiency-wise there is no reason to expect correctness for at least a few years.

    I suppose the advice is to deemphasize correctness, emphasize those routine/expectations, and then you'll see better results.

    1. Well, when I say "their own work was correct" that's not quite their protestation. They said "I KNOW Latin! I can understand everything!" which is actually true- the kids in question are high achievers who are bored (okay, and a few who think they're high achievers and are bored, but actually can't understand as much as they say...). Routine & expectations & behavior modeling are really what I need.

    2. Ah, I see. Definitely hop on routines/expectations, but have you thought about how "i+1" (i=understanding, +1=ready to understand) plays a role? It could be that even with clear expectations, those students aren't feeling that "+1," so they get bored even though they know all the routines and what you expect.

      If you see that starting to happen next year, you could increase your questioning level (e.g. fill-in-the-blank, open-ended, why?) for those individuals, and maybe give them classroom jobs their interested in that would suit the "know-it-all-but-actually-don'ts."