Thursday, January 14, 2010

Don't antagonize me!

I admit it. I like to post the success stories, the strategies that work, the hey-try-this ideas. That doesn't mean I don't have many ugly days. I do. I just ... prefer not to remember them.

I had one such day yesterday. That I need to remember.

I will not go into all the drama - if I did, I'd need to write about fresh, fragrant vomit. Who wants to read about that?

Let's fast-forward to the bitter end. There is a lesson. There is also one bright shining shimmering moment.

My drummers and dreamers class. Last period of the day. I'd abandoned all hope of the lesson I'd planned. Instead, the bell-work assignment stretched endlessly. I watched the clock more closely than the most desperate student (maybe because, unlike the kids, I know how to tell time). The caucophany was deafening. I was miserable, in every sense.

I don't often give up like this. This is where the lesson comes in.

We'd had visitors in the building all day observing how we manage behavior at our school. I'd contributed at a presentation in the morning, and the entourage had paraded through my class of resource level students after lunch. Thinking (a) they might still be in the building, and (b) they would not be back to *my* room, I opted to keep the crazies locked in with me.


Chaos snowballs. Don't, under any circumstances, let it. There's the lesson.

Here is the one delicious little story.

Of all things, the boys began arguing about the definition of the word "antagonize." Paraphrasing ...

"Don't antagonize me!"

"Oh, Dale is using big words now! You don't even know what that means!"

"You got that from Jersey Shore!"

"It means don't make me mad! So stop antagonizing me!"

"Antagonize? It means make things worse. Doesn't it, Miss?"

This spun around between a number of my roughest boys. That alone was a delight for an ELA teacher. On the other hand, only one thought to consult me as a credible authority on the issue, and even he did not stop talking long enough to hear my response.

And then ...

... a moment of heart-stopping, breath-taking, toe-tingling joy.

Al jumped into the fray and said with conviction, "Antagonize? It's like antagonist, the one who makes problems for the main character. So it means to try to make problems for someone."

Come on, now, ELA nation. That's nice. Admit it. Sweeeeeeeeeeeet.

The moment passed.

Today, order was restored. After his open response was completed flawlessly, I approached Al. Told him about how that one little line made my day yesterday. Told him that if we didn't have a touch-free zone rule, he'd be in trouble. That he'd made my toes tingle. Got a big goofy grin in return.

I love teaching.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

If you can't beat 'em ...

My friskiest class. Many drummers, dreamers, gigglers. I work hard staring them down into silent reading in the beginning of class each day. There are few I cannot reach.

Al is one of them.

Al was diagnosed borderline ADD/ADHD. Borderline my foot. He is a bright, genial, popular kid who rarely finishes an assignment in one shot. I adore him, but he is a lot of work.

Al is not a reader. He once tore through the improbable Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Nothing since. He kindly flips through the first pages of any book I hand him, but nothing has caught his attention.

Until today.

Today, about twenty minutes after reading time had ended, I see he has a book open, and is holding it for Bob to see. Bob is a quiet, well-behaved kid. A follower. The two read together.

I want to present material, but stop and wait for the two to give me their attention. They do not. The class tells them, "Teacher is waiting for you!" - to no avail. Someone nudges Bob ... and he gives me the "wait-one-minute" finger! I do not usually laugh -- but this was too much! The kids go wild. "Oh, no you di-int! You did NOT tell Miss to wait!" And still ... the boys do not break concentration.

I'd planned to have the class read a little passage and practice Costa's Level One and Level Two questions. Instead ...

I sat down beside the boys. Invited them to take over. Al looked at me -- "You serious? Want me to read this to everyone?" Without further adieu, Al and Bob took turns reading the first three or four paragraphs.

  • The kids were enthralled - you could hear a pin drop.

  • All cheerfully wrote their questions about the passage the boys had read.

  • We had a nice class discussion on the issues raised.

  • I have a little follow-up research for my homework.
And Al can't wait to get his hands on that book again tomorrow.

By the way -- the book that so engrossed Al is pictured here. It is a collection of motivational stories from Townsend Press. The cover is uninspiring, and it has been languishing in my book basket most of the year. I am glad Al discovered that you cannot judge a book by its cover!

By the way, if you teach middle school ELA, you should know Townsend Press. The publish the addicting and affordable Bluford series. Have reluctant readers? Try Bluford.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's resolutions

Well, I disappeared for a while. I resolve to REMIND myself of my summer good intentions, my best success stories, and RECOMMIT to breaking bad habits and reinforcing new habits of mind.

* ABI - committed as ever.

* WBT - I am not there. Yet recently I shared how much more successful an activity is when students are first directed to teach one another the directions. I know it, I know it ... but old habits are hard to break!

* RR - Like with WBT, I fall back on old habits. I send disruptive students out instead of having them send themselves out, if that makes sense. What does work miracles is the focus on building relationships. Yes, I do tire at times and "fall off the wagon." Not good. As soon as I snap out of it and resume follow-up talks after problem behavior, I do find improvement.

* Something new? I recently read about Team Based Learning in the January/February 2010 edition of neatoday. I cannot afford the fancy paper -- we've just been told we are out of both copy and lined paper, for goodness sake -- but I am going to try to incorporate more team-effort on high-stakes practice tests. Grading will not be an incentive, but bragging rights and/or little prizes might work. I'll let you know. I plan on giving this a try when we resume next week.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

We're on the same side, you know ...

Timmy owed two assignments. One had not been attempted, the other begun, but abandoned.

You haven't finished these yet?


Will you come after school today?

"No." Digs in heels. "I have to go to the Social Studies teacher."

Well, why not start one now, while we are together? Could you try?

Shakes head no. Eyes averted. Knee bouncing. Agitated. Getting upset, clearly.

We are on the same side, you know. I am on your side. I am here to help.

I take a remedial version of the blank assignment and begin doing it myself on his desk, thinking aloud as I do. He watches silently. After modeling the first lines, I stop and walk away, saying, I'll give you some space and some time to think about trying the rest.

By the time I checked back in, he had picked up his pencil, completed that paper (perfectly), and was examining the second. He was calm. I praised his effort *and* his result. He was now able to ask me about what confused him on the second paper. He finished this as well. We were best buddies again before the weekend.

Kids who are late with work are *not* the enemy. They are our responsibility. They are the ones who need us the most, even if they can't say so.

Is there any possible chance that a zero in the grade book and/or a detention would have taught Timmy more?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ask, don't tell

My habit has been to tell, to label, -- let's be honest: to nag.

"Edwina, you keep shouting out your thoughts. The rule is to raise your hand when you want to speak. I am tired of reminding you of this. You are on warning."

The result was always the same: dirty looks to match my dirty looks. Edwina might or might not answer back, but she would always complain about what a b**** I am.

WHEN I now remember instead to ASK, "Edwina, what are you doing? And what is our rule?" ... nine times out of ten, Edwina apologizes and self-corrects. ASTONISHING!!!

Or how about this, "Armando, I see you are choosing not to work today. That is not acceptable. Students who choose not to work may end up with Academic Detentions. Don't make me do that. Get to work."

Armando would typically respond by digging in his heels, daring me to follow through with my threat.

WHEN I now remember instead to ask, "Armando, what are you doing?" ... nine times out of ten, Armando slowly begins to work! AMAZING!!!

If after a few minutes Armando does not begin (or Edwina keeps shouting), I might need to add, "If you cannot work (cooperate) today, you can go next door. The choice is yours."

The really dazzling thing about the detour to another class is that the kids HATE to be detoured even though there are no additional punitive strings attached. No detentions, no referrals. Leaving their class and facing the rolled eyes of peers in the detour class is punishment enough.

This simple Raise Responsibility technique is transforming. It is still hard for me to remember, to change my nagging ways, but the jaw-dropping results are worth the effort.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Idea for ELA/Reading teachers

Reading comprehension test today. Reading passage, multiple choice questions, open response (essay) answer.

I asked the kids to read, answer m/c, and ORGANIZE IDEAS ONLY for the open response.

By now, 3/4 of my kids have the hang of writing a solid response from an organizer. The real test is, the real work is, can they read carefully and pull out the best answers and examples before they begin writing?

Alas, many could not. But ... we've only just begun.

Tomorrow they will be told how many multiple choice are wrong, but not which. They need to become responsible for checking their own work.

They hate this. They think I want an answer circled on a page, when what I want is a thought process that arrives at the answer! The pair/group work does help, as does a little competition (which group will get the answers first? team Fabulous? team Amazing? team Ralph?).

And, of course, they will eventually write those open responses. But -- not before they determine, in pairs or small groups (depending on the class), that their ideas are solid.

Back on track!

Whole Brain Teaching

Introduced gestures to help the students remember the column titles of the organizer we use to prepare to write open responses. Remembered to have my odd students teach the evens, then switch. Remembered to let the kids know whether they were "keeping their dear teacher happy."

A hit! A hit! Increased participation, retention, and FUN!

I MUST remember this.

Raise Responsibility

Remembered to ask kids to "be a C student" today. Remembered to ask, "What are you doing?" in the face of misbehavior.

Tried a baby-step toward class meetings. Posted quote, "Success is determined by what you do when you don't know the answer," and began tossing a teddy bear around the room for student comment. High engagement, and some of the first "big" thinking I've seen from some of my cherubs.

Back on track!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, October 12, 2009

LOTS of room to improve - how am I doing with WBT and RR so far?

Long weekend. Time to reflect. Time to assess my performance.

It's not good.

My goals:

ABI (continue)
* I get an A here.

Of course, I have been doing this for a while now. Still love it. No trouble.

Whole Brain Teaching
* Trouble An F. Maybe a D-. [Using my ABI grading scale: I!]

I began strong, and the kids do know they need to keep me happy by making smart choices. I also adopted an idea from a WBT post about beginning the class with high energy each day by having pairs work with review cards. Fine.

I am not so fine with remembering to use all the gestures I brainstormed while relaxing on my deck last summer. I am not so fine with remembering to stop and have partners teach-okay bits of instruction. As soon as I began teaching familiar lessons, I fell back into old habits. This I can remedy, beginning tomorrow.

Raising Responsibility
* Shaky at best. D+/C- [Using my ABI grading scale: I!]

On the plus side, I have eliminated behavioral detentions - with one exception, I'll get to that! - and increased student conferences. The kids I speak with do try to improve behavior, even without detentions. I am building relationships earlier in the year than in the past. All good.

On the minus side: I forget, forget, forget to ask questions that elicit self-reflection when I am in the moment in class. I am still essentially issuing reminders and then removing kds (detouring to another classroom) when they do not turn it around. This is not how it is supposed to be.

Also in the minus column: I did not know how to marry the RR idea with the Academic Detentions I have traditionally issued to those who do not complete work before Friday. Grades do not motivate my kids, and I don't give bad grades anyway. The only consequence for falling behind is that detention. I decided I must continue with Academic Detentions, even though I feel it is counter to the tenets of RR.

Finally: Confession time.

We have one class this year that is, shall we say, uncooperative. There are a handful of hyperactive students who demand constant attention. Others in class behave poorly as well, feeling that as long as they are not as "bad" as the multiple heavy-hitters, they won't be chastised. It is bad.

I shut down last week. Stopped teaching. Had kids work silently and independently for the period. Commented sadly that this is NOT how I like to teach, but if the class chooses Anarchy and Bullying, then I am capable of moving into Bossy teacher mode. I pointed out that I had not been giving behavior detentions -- but will begin if this is what this class, by their behavior, needs. Before the end of class, I gave a half-dozen behavior detentions, many to those who are *not* heavy-hitters.

The interesting thing is, because of the conferences with most disruptive kids, these did the best at buckling down when I got tough. They tried harder to meet my expectations - at that moment, if not before! - than the rest of the class.

So, even though I still have a LOT to improve upon, I feel the benefit I just from the conferencing is enough to give me a (barely) passing grade.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

October is Selective Mutism Awareness month

Have a silent - not merely quiet, but *silent* - student in your class this year? One who cannot look you in the eye, or speak above a whisper (if at all)?

Your student may suffer from a social anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism (SM).

Please take a moment to read about my experience teaching a middle school student with undiagnosed SM.

For more complete information about SM, visit the websit of the Selective Mutism Group at

ABI: blank to B

Time for a little ABI success story.

Freddy demands to know why he is FLUTTERing (behind). "Is it because of this?" he asks, holding up a completely blank open response (essay) stamped Revise/Return. "I don't do these," says he, "I don't know how, and I don't do them."

Now, he has two examples - one a model, one from peerwork - in his notes. Sigh. Nevertheless ...

Freddy agrees to come after school for help. I have prepared a sheet with organized notes at the top and the first three sentences written. I show him how we use the notes to make the sentences. I show him the pattern we use. I help him get started on the next sentences. He writes the final sentences on his own. When he is done, he proudly hands me the paper. I study it carefully, declare it 4-point (perfect) work. I chide him, "Don't you tell me you don't know how to write these papers; you've just done it!" He beams.

Compare that to a zero in the gradebook.

Of course, not every child needs one-on-one help. In another class, more than half left that open response blank, and none of the written papers were solid. This was not an opportunity to pass out zeros. It was an opportunity to teach.

Yes, I had modeled similar questions and answers, and kids had worked out responses in pairs in the prior weeks -- but a couple of examples are not enough for many students. So, as a class, we discussed the prompt, found relevant examples, and organized notes to use in our answer. I posted the sentence starters and wrote the first sentences from our notes. By the end of class, most had picked up the rhythm and completed their second try (well, first attempt for many!) for homework. This exercise alone was enough to help many more succeed. There were still some who checked out, or who copied words but not ideas. They, like Freddy, eventually will work with me alone or in small groups -- sometimes instead of Enrichment, sometimes after school, sometimes in Academic Detention. The point is, each will have experienced writing a perfect answer before the next test. Over time, they will need less support. I take the training wheels off in January, I tell them. But for now, I offer as much structure, support, scaffolding, hand-holding ... you name it ... as I can, so that each knows s/he, like Freddy, has already written a perfect answer.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

SuperSpeed teaches ... kindness

I set aside a little time at the end of class to play the SuperSpeed 1000 fluency game from Power/Whole Brain Teaching. My students work in pairs daily and know to turn to a neighbor.

Of course, someone is always absent, and I need to make adjustments. On this day, I scanned the empty seats, then asked Sammy and Johnny to work together. Sammy rebeled, shouting loudly, "Who? Johnny?! No way! I hate that kid; I'm not working with him!" By now I am down to my last five minutes of class. If the rest were to play, we needed to keep moving. No time for even a quick conference asking on what level this behavior was, etc.

Soooo -- I told Sammy he could go next door while we played. I swapped Johnny to another student, and I played with the odd man out.

Sammy sputtered. "No! Wait! Let me play with Tommy! No? Okay, okay; I'll play with Johnny. I want to play!"

It was beautiful.

Now, Sammy is one of the most charismatic kids on team. He is a bonafide leader. When he speaks, kids listen. Except for today. Everyone moved ahead and had a blast with the game, while he protested and fussed.

I met with Sammy later that day, one-on-one, after he'd cooled off. His temper flared when he remembered; "I really wanted to play!" I explained that my feelings are hurt easily, and if he had refused to play with me, I'd have gone home crying. I won't let kids say mean things to or about him, and I won't let him say mean things to or about anyone else. Now, no one would ever take on this kid. He is the definition of popularity. Would he be able to understand how his words hurt Johnny? I am happy to report ... yes, he could. He literally hung his head. We spoke a bit more. I agreed to try to avoid pairing him with Johnny, if he would agree not to complain about any partner in the future. We have a deal.

In the past, I might have issued a detention, then maybe a referral for his arguing and refusing to leave. This would never have helped him reflect on, own, and potentially change his behavior.

Thank you Chris Biffle for the game. Thank you Fay & Funk for logical consequences. Thank you Marvin Marshall for Raising Responsibility.

Next week -- I really, really, really intend to discuss KINDNESS in class meetings!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

From "I hate this class" to "I was Level C today, Miss!" in 60 minutes flat

Sammy, a third-year student (in our two-year school) had a rough day. He was doing virtually no work, and, instead, was holding court among his many admirers. (Sammy happens to be a particulary charismatic middle school specimen.) Ultimately, he had to go next door. He did not go quietly. This is a departure from the book, where miscreants own their level B behavior and willingly slink away. Clearly, I am doing something wrong.

Next day, my proud young man boldy marched into class professing his loathing for school in general and my class in particular. I don't know what Marshall would have me say. I do know what I did say. "I love you too, Sammy; nice to have you here today. Thanks for coming. Have a seat, hon."

Well, if nothing else, his entrance reminded me to refer often to what level C/D behavior would look like as we moved through various activities. I remembered to ask students to reflect on their choices, and thanked those who chose the higher ground.

And Sammy? Sammy had a great day. He worked hard, and begged me to acknowledge that I'd observed level C (or D! I can't tell, can I?) behavior from him. Clearly, I am doing something right.

Thanks, Marshall!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The sweetest visit - muffins and SM

I could not teach without the possibility that the students I fall in love with will reappear now and then.

Today was especially sweet.

Two former students stopped by. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that one of the boys struggles with Selective Mutism. I worked very closely with him all last year, but this very fact makes it all but impossible for him to talk to me. Further, the awkward act of reentering an old school building is daunting for someone with social anxiety.

But ... he came.

At first, my quiet boy sat on the steps, facing away, as if to wait outside. I opened the door. "Muffins. I have muffins. And look, I promise not to touch ..." The two had seen me bear-hug plenty of visitors in the past; I knew that this concern must have been foremost in his mind.

The quiet one rose and walked straight to my old room. I was beside myself.

I kept my promises -- muffins, no hugs -- and they impressed me with their new inches, haircuts, and freshman year stories. Well, one had stories. But both were there. And if I did not get an armful or an earful, well, an eyeful was enough for me.


Marvin Marshall's Raise Responsibility framework rejects both punishing and rewarding students. Instead, we encourage students to develop personal responsibility. Ultimately, we want citizens to do the right thing always - not just to avoid punishment, not just to receive rewards.

Chris Biffle's Whole Brain Teaching emphasizes making teaching as engaging as possible, which both increases understanding and retention *and* reduces misbehavior. However, class rules and rewards are an integral part of his vision. Can I be a WBT without using his rules? without the scoreboard?

I rolled out the scoreboard this week -- I've used it successfully in the past -- and realized that if the kids work toward earning points and, therefore, a reward, I am in direct conflict with my Marshall Raise Responsibility values.

What to do?

On top of it all, I continue to struggle with ... all of it!

I think I need to choose.

The goals of RR are more important to me at this point. Perhaps I will adopt the WBT engagement approaches -- teach-okay, mirroring, etc. -- and leave the rules and scoreboard behind.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Week Two: Too Much New!

Half-way through week two, and I am on a roller-coaster.

Academically -- we are on point. We are further ahead than usual, largely because I cut back on many introductory mini-lessons. I am spending lots of time with new teachers, which helps me make sure I am planning further ahead and keeping lessons strong.

Procedurally -- Oh, I wish I could skip ahead two weeks! We are still learning the new habit of passing and collecting classwork folders. I still have students who have not yet selected an independent reading novel ... and I have students who are on their second! We have not begun using reading logs yet. I have to remember that I swapped reading time from the start to the end of class -- and leave room for it! As a team, we have not yet distributed the out-of-room request passes. I love order ... and hate this messiness.

Power Teaching (CBiffle) -- Class rules with hand-motions are almost cemented in. Some kids still too cool, but I am not sweating them, as long as they cooperate. Teach-Okay working well with most classes now, although some kids give me an "okay" with great gusto ... and return to talking! Time to introduce the Keep The Scorekeeper Happy game.

Raise Responsibility (MMarshall) -- We've had lessons, discussions, posters ... by now, the kids know the deal. The thing is - I don't! I find that I am not towing the line. I need to practice, practice, practice ASKing about behavior. I'll get there. Lots of new ideas this year ... I can make it work!

And I still need to begin CLASS MEETINGS. Next week. I am very afraid. Still, I am convinced the effort will pay off.

Too much new!!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Whole Brain / Power Teaching, week one ... and ... my baby, she wrote me a letter

I teach in a school with a reputation for having a fairly jaded population. Maybe I should not have asked for hand-motions day one, when the kids were still trying to impress one another, size one another up, show off their back-to-school duds. There was no outright mutiny, but there were a lot holding back. No matter. The kids who loved it, loved it. The rest will come along.

I loved the idea of WBT, but really got the courage to give it a try when I watched the video clips on the site. I confess -- I'd love to show the *kids* the clips so they can see how crisp Teach-Okay is supposed to work!

Moving on ...

My tradition has been to write a letter to all the kids about me, asking for a letter about them in return. The kids did a great job pair-reading my letter and questioning-around. Tomorrow, I will collect their letters -- they rarely let me down -- and then read them on the beach over Labor Day weekend! The killer is, I write personal letters back to each child. This is just about all I do over Labor Day, but the pay-off is huge. Can't wait to start!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When one door closes ...

... another door opens.

Many thanks to Gazette for picking up my article on teaching silent children for their October 2009 issue.

October is Selective Mutism Awareness month! Have a student who can't answer you, cannot even look you in the eye? He or she may suffer from an anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism. Read my experience teaching a selectively mute child in the October issue of Gazette. For gobs of great information, visit

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Selective Mutism, Silent and Misunderstood

A teaching publication rejected an article about how to identify, understand, and work with students with Selective Mutism ... on the grounds that they only publish articles about teachers. Insert huffy breath here. Aren't students of interest to teachers? Aren't strategies to reach and teach students of interest to teachers? I am a little miffed.

Perhaps I should be grateful he didn't say, "No thanks; your writing rots." Perhaps I should be glad about that.

I'm not. Now *I* am "Silent and Misunderstood."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Thank you Ann Marie, Julia, and Eagle Hill Institute!

What a wonderful time at Eagle Hill last week.

In truth, I was almost paralyzed with fear at the thought of speaking before 70 teachers on EH's spectacular new stage. I not-so-silently cursed the girls for pulling me into this. However, once I began delivering profound musings on pencil and paper management, I realize how critical a service we were providing (I'd insert a winky face here, but I am too old to know how).

The teachers in training were terrific (alliteration!), and it was so good to catch up the Eric, Michael, and Becky.

Thanks, all!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Rules, expectations, strong suggestions

Much of what I've read this summer eschews classroom rules. My favorite is from Fay & Funk, who offer: You can do anything you like, providing it doesn't bother anyone else in the class. (Teach with Love & Logic, p 108).

I've always had too many classroom rules. Wong told me no more than 3-5, but I went up to 9!

Kids tend to take each rule as a challenge. They test your limits. They look for the loopholes. They try your patience.

After much thought, I have decided to adopt a modified version of the Whole Brain Teaching (formerly Power Teaching) rules. I intend to tell the class there is only one rule -- keep me happy. I offer the rest as suggestions for those who might be stumped as to how to keep me happy.

Other than this adjustment, I tweaked the wording a bit. "Raise your hand when you'd like to speak" implies (I hope!) that the student must wait for permission. The original "~ before you speak" leads, I know, to simultaneous raised hands and voices. I also changed "when you want to leave your seat" to "walk" just for simplicity. We'll see.

Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) is another new - and better, I hope -- idea I plan to adopt this year. More later. The graphics on the poster (again, my version of WBT concepts) are meant to be both visuals and reminders on associated hand-motions.

Searching for a better class management model

I am fairly skilled in managing my classes. My classes are quiet when I need them quiet, working when I need them working, and there are no major disruptions that I can't handle.

Still ... things could be better.

Students are out of control in hallways. Students do not recognize teacher authority in the lunchroom. And some few students take advantage of my reminder-warning-detention policy by making sure they earn their reminder and warning each and every day. I am getting worn out.

My policies worked inside the classroom, but ended there. I am not satisfied. This summer, I read several books, seeking a better idea.

I found excellent ideas in many books, but the one I intend to follow is from Marvin Marshall. In a nutshell, he posits that people act on one of four levels, only two of which are acceptable in the classroom. My very succinct poster sums these up. In his system, students are taught the levels and acknowledge that only levels C and D are desirable.

Here is the beauty of the plan. Should a student act up, the teacher simply asks, "On what level is your behavior right now?" The student is thus made aware, owns the problem, and is encouraged to make better choices. The teacher does not label, does not impose consequences. The point is to help the student recognize inappropriate behavior and self-correct. The focus is not on whether or not to give Johnny his umpteenth detention, but on how to help Johnny own and improve his behavior.

There is so much more -- interested? Read the book, hit the website, ... or check back in a month or two, when I weigh in on how well this is working in my classroom!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Beautiful Idea: from blank to brilliant (okay, well, acceptable) papers

By this time of year, most of my students are doing very, very well. The raggedy papers I collected in the beginning of the year bear little resemblance to the beautiful work I routinely pick up now.

I should say a word about these papers. My primary responsibility with regard to writing is to teach students to write responses to prompts about a reading selection. Papers are evaluated for organization, inclusion of relevant supporting evidence from the text, and clear discussion/explanation of the issue raised by the prompt. I use the rubric from our state’s high-stakes test to assess student work.

For the most part, these are the papers that must be completed well.

In the beginning, I collect an alarming number of unacceptable papers. Students scratch a few lines and consider their work done. Students offer an opinion on the title, without reading the text. Students copy large (often irrelevant) passages, without discussion or comment. Students read and summarize the text, without regard to the prompt. Students leave the paper blank.

I offer lots of support. I will post “sentence starters” on the board for students to refer to in creating their own work. I will lead the class in writing an exemplar response and leave it in the room for struggling students to use as a model. In AR or AD, I will read the selection aloud with the student, pausing to highlight and make margin notes for use in writing the paper. I offer my most intimidated students scaffolded response papers, where the first lines are completed, the central point is partially done, and the final point is left for the student to complete on his/her own. You get the idea.

Is this too much? I don’t think so. Even if I am sharing the burden of reading, s/he is reading. Even though I am holding the student’s hand as s/he writes, s/he is writing. Even if I am doing half the work, s/he is doing half the work as well.

One benefit is simply the building of motor skill stamina – they become accustomed to writing papers of respectable length. Another benefit comes from the repetition. After writing a number of these papers, even the most reluctant student has begun to internalize the organization of the responses and the rhythm of the writing. The most important benefit is self-confidence. After a dozen or more such experiences I can remind a student s/he has written many successful papers during the year, and therefore can do it again. There is no argument; s/he believes me … and in her/himself.

What of all the support? I reduce what I offer as the year progresses. I tell them, “The training wheels are off now, kiddos; you can do it!” And they can.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Bad Idea? ABI = TIME

I've been asked, "Does ABI save time?" No way. At best, it is a trade-off. Grading papers and entering grades is painless. There is no haggling over points on grades. Soooo -- that saves time and trouble.

However --

It absolutely takes more time to chase kids into staying with me after school. It absolutely takes more time to review work multiple times. Entering failing marks would be a lot easier than keeping track of who needs remedial homework and who needs a to submit a rewrite. The paperwork is a pain, no doubt about it. Not hard, but endless.

For me, the question is – do the students learn more with ABI grading, or with failing grades? That’s a no-brainer. The ABI paper-chase is worth the effort for me.

What about multiple choice?

Ordinarily, I pass back papers with the number wrong -- just a small “3x” in the corner, for example. I do not indicate which are wrong. I leave it to the students to check all their answers, find the one(s) they know they guessed on or were not sure about, and puzzle it out.

I must confess that results on the multiple choice section of the last test were abysmal. These were various questions about a non-fiction article. This time, there was such carnage – only five perfect papers out of 75 – that I knew my usual approach would be fruitless.

Instead, I passed back the reading only, plus new blank question sheets. I did *not* return their original work. I then put the kids in groups of three or four and offered a “Chocolate Challenge.” Each group that answered all correctly won chocolate (a Hershey’s kiss) – extra for the first done.

In circulating, I could both listen in on their reasoning and identify the real stumpers.

I’d planned to divulge the correct answers same day, but the kids were engaged to the last, and I found I really needed time for meaningful discussions. So, next day, I passed back their original individual efforts, then discussed the problem spots.


  • One question asked, “According to the article, what was the most important contribution …” The kids did not take time to find the contribution the author cited as most important, instead choosing their top pick from a list of valid choices.
  • Another asked why someone was “profoundly tolerant.” Students most often answered with achievements, because they did not understand the phrase “profoundly tolerant.” This question was aligned with our state’s Style and Language strand, but for my students, it truly was a test of their vocabulary. As soon as I made clear the meaning of “tolerant,” all identified the correct answer. I took advantage of this opportunity to highlight the importance of our vocabulary work.
  • One question asked about mood. Yes, the kids needed a refresher on the ELA meaning of mood. Beyond that, many were reluctant to choose the correct answer (“lighthearted”), as they were not familiar with the word. Another vocabulary issue. However, most realized the other choices did not fit well. They need the courage to choose the word they don’t know when other options cannot be right.
  • A final question asked about how certain punctuation was used in this piece. This was disappointing, as many answered without checking instances in the text. Most disturbing was that some misidentified the punctuation, checking usage of another punctuation mark altogether!

The extra time spent evaluating the questions and the text in small groups lead to much improved understanding of accessible questions. Further, the challenge invested kids in the outcome; they were attentive and engaged in the subsequent class discussing pitfalls and techniques.

All in all, this painful test did result in excellent learning opportunities. I plan to offer similar types of questions on the next assessment, to determine the level of skill retention.

Academic Recovery, Academic Detention

So, what happens when the work is not done well?

After returning papers with Rs (Revise and Return), I will typically dedicate a portion of class to discussing most common mistakes. We might write a sample open response together, or perhaps I'll have students analyze exemplar work done by their peers. The goal is to help students who fell short understand how to rework or rewrite their papers. I expect the R papers to be handed in within a day or two. Essentially, R papers become an extra homework assignments.

If this - or any - work is not passed in within a reasonable amount of time, students must attend an Academic Recovery (AR) session. This is extra-help time after school. This year, I established Thursdays as mandatory AR days. Some students just need to sit and work, some need help one-on-one or in small groups. As soon as they are caught up, they may leave.

Those who are behind and choose not to attend AR on Thursday are automatically assigned Academic Detention (AD) on Friday. They must both complete their work and stay a minimum of half an hour. The time requirement and the Friday designation itself are designed to be deterrants.

Those who choose not to attend AD on Friday are written up as having cut detention, and as referred to our saintly assistant principal. She will typically assign Office Detention, which is an hour in duration. I have the option of pulling students from Office Detention to work with me after school.

In extreme cases, I have pulled students from an Enrichment class, or worked with them as they serve In-house Suspension.

Yes, the chasing is a bother. And, yes, I believe it is worth it.