Building Competence in the Unfocused Student: It’s all in how we say it

classIn the past two years, I have been using an inquiry-based resource for a dozen different reasons, some of which include:  furthering retention in content, developing problem-solving skills that transfer beyond the classroom, developing social-emotional skills in a traumatized culture, teaching them to “reach” for information instead of waiting for me to force-feed them, and preparing an academic ladder from regular track algebra I classes into honors classes where the career options are greatly expanded.  As I analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each lesson, I have noticed that it isn’t always the “method” that has the biggest impact.  Rather, it’s how I talk to my students.  Further, I have noticed that what needs to be said changes from year to year; and in some cases, class to class.  Of course it is all about relationships, so one-to-one conversations are hugely important.  But what am I saying to the class as a whole?

I tell my students about the science behind how to learn and walk them through most of what I know in terms of methodology.  But motivating them to embrace the need for high school algebra takes something more.  It’s like selling a product that, to many, may seem almost repulsive on sight.  I use the standard motivational strategies:  building relevance with their current extra-curricular pursuits, making connections with similar thought processes in the workplace, building one-on-one relationships; but there is more to be done on my part, from the front of the room.

  • You are loved.  I say that to my students as a class and demonstrate it by treating them kindly and mercifully…most especially intentionally with the most challenging students.  When someone does something like make a huge mess, I say, “But, yes! You are still loved.”  Students sometimes laugh, but they also know they are emotionally safe.   I’ve made good progress with this as evidenced by regular love notes from the students to me on the whiteboards (a good reason to leave markers around besides for them to demonstrate their thoughts).
  • Get it right, every night, fight, fight, fight. If I teach my students nothing else all year, I work to teach them how to “reach” for understanding.  When I see they don’t understand something on their homework or test, I assign Khan Academy to give them another opportunity to learn it (that’s “mercy,” not punishment).  However, they soon discover that rather than wait around for someone to force feed them another explanation, it really is less work for them to get it right the first time or ask on their own initiative.
  • You are your team-mate’s keeperWhen your team mate doesn’t understand, then explaining is the right thing to do.  It’s not about giving them the answer as brain science says they are much more likely to forget again.  It’s about helping your team-mate think through the connections.  If your team mate forgot because they didn’t do their homework, then remember the time you did that and don’t be judgmental.  On the other hand, if you team mate doesn’t remember because they often don’t bother to do their homework, that’s an equity issue for the whole team.  Enabling someone one to blow off their responsibilities is not helping them become responsible.  That is a human resource issue and I’m the head of HR.
  • We all make mistakes and are better together.  It is hugely important to develop a learning climate that is humble and supportive. We learn when we make mistakes. If we are not making any mistakes, we probably aren’t learning much.  But when same mistakes are repeated on a regular basis by the same students, there comes a point when I say, “You must be intentional about knowing whether slope is delta y over delta x or delta x over delta y.  If you don’t decide to make the difference clear to yourself, that could end up costing half a letter grade or worse.  How will you remember?  Let’s talk about options, and then you can decide.”   This is something I have not done yet.  All year long, I kept circling the slope error and writing little notes; but I do that for all mistakes.  When it is a recurrent issue like slope was last year, more needs to be said… next year.

Just saying things without reinforcing with action, of course, is not effective.  So it’s inaccurate for me to say, “It’s ALL in how we say it.”  But thinking about what we have said in the past and how we will change those words going forward is a great place to start.  Blogging here helps hold me accountable to follow through with my commitments.

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