Monday, December 3, 2012

Homework at My House (and Occasionally in My Classroom)...

Okay, without any nods to Macs or PCs, I just want to say that this video accurately records what often happens at my house during homework time (and occasionally in my classroom as well).

And whenever it happened in my classroom, I noticed two common issues that were always present in every case that I chose to reflect on:
  1. I had not included my students (and my children) in on goal-setting (hence, their goals were substantially different than mine).
  2. I had lost my sense of humor and ability to listen.
So I wanted to take a moment to share the importance of those two elements in teaching.

Not many teachers that I know include their students in goal-setting.  I have found this step, though, to be one of the single most crucial buy-ins for effort, behavior, and compliance, as well as an integral step in teaching students how to set their own paths for education.

Let me show you what I mean.

When we ran a study room, we had lessons that were an hour and twenty minutes long.  When I planned a lesson, I obviously included flex-time activities, but I tried to leave one quarter of the time open.  Then, after our small talk, I tried to tell the students, "Okay, we're going to be working on (top goal).  To achieve that goal, you need to know (list of skills required).  In this lesson, we will be covering (skills I intend to cover that day).  I'll be assessing your ability to accomplish those skills by (activity, worksheet, etc.). Is there anything else that you want to do today or that you think we should cover?"

Not every class would have something to add.  Many classes would ask for a game.  Some classes would ask for more practice on something or for work on another skill.  In every case, the students were urged to climb the ladder Bloom's Taxonomy:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.  Of course, they didn't ascend it linearly.

Let me explain:
  • Whatever I planned to teach on the most basic level is knowledge.  Students come in knowing that they are expected to attain knowledge, particularly my Asian students who are adept at memorization.
  • My assessment of them most often includes the combination of knowledge (identifying what I have taught them) and comprehension (explaining what it means).
  • By identifying the top goal I have for the day (almost always a larger, concrete goal, like "arguing with your mother in English and winning the argument," not "persuasive speech"), I have given them a first example of application.  I haven't told them the technical word for what we're doing (yet), but I have told them how it can be used.  As we move along, I will prompt them on more uses.
  • When I give them the list of skills, I am helping analyze the top goal.  I am inviting them to analyze with me when I ask them what else they want to cover. 
  • Often times, what we will be covering is a review or modification of something that we used to attain a different top goal.  In these cases, we are actually also synthesizing a new top goal from component parts used in an old one.  
  • Drawing attention to this fact not only shows the students an example of synthesis, it also shows the value of the previous skill (evaluation).
Taking the time to invite my students into my goals accomplishes two great changes in me.  First, it opens the door for my listening.

As I invite students to participate in the goal-setting process, I am tuning into a reverse process of this hierarchy myself, learning not about my subject matter but about how they interact with what I am teaching.  By listening to their evaluations, I am able to understand what types of synthesis might be more beneficial to them (insults and rap/slam poetry are incredibly relevant to your average upper elementary school student, even though these topics are seldom in the curriculum). After I have taken the time to analyze what they have to say and how they want to use what we are learning, I find far more applications of greater relevance to them (defending themselves, making jokes, playing games, manipulating the situation to achieve what they want).  As I watch them interact and listen to their recommendations, I gain a knowledge of the things that are important to them and a comprehension of why that is so.

The second great change it makes in me is an openness to the unplanned, and, by association, the ability to laugh.

Now, I'm a control freak, and I am certainly not advocating tossing the lesson plan in the dumpster.  But I leave an open section in my lesson plans on purpose, a section that I am willing to cede a little control over.
When I forget to do that, I turn off my ears.  Even if I ask the students what they think, I have no space to deal with their questions.  That situation is simply a planned pause, a conscious decision not to listen and respond.  By listening, I exhibit care.  By handing over a little control, I demonstrate trust, my confidence in my students.

And that trust and confidence mean a lot to them.  Students very seldom get the chance to really chart the course of the lesson.  It's like a first driving lesson.  There's a tiny moment of awe when they take the wheel.  And there's a tiny bit of pride and nostalgia as I watch them.  It frees me a moment.

And that freedom opens me to laughter.  To me, laughter is the delight of surprise, the tickle of the unplanned, and unless you make a space for that to happen, you cut the laughter off.  When you cut the laughter off, you take the joy out of learning, and you turn into Mac the egg.

A famous physician, Dr. Francis W. Peabody, once said of medicine, "For the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient" (as quoted in Jerry Weissman's Presentations in Action). The same is true of the student.

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