ASCD Wants You!

From the ASCD website:

Educational Leadership is doing an upcoming issue on Promoting Respectful Schools (September 2011). We’re looking for stories about creating respect among teachers and students. Selected responses will appear in the September issue.

Contributions need to be under 200 words…not much for such a worthy subject.

Here’s what I wrote (198 words):

Displayed on my classroom wall and in the window of my classroom door was a sign that said, “Respect Zone/Zona de Respeto.” I talked about this when I briefly introduced myself to a class.

After telling students who I am (and why I was there in the case of post-retirement substitute teaching), I explained “The Respect Zone” like this: “Unlike a lot of teachers you know, I only have one rule in my classroom. I respect you. You respect me. All the rest of the rules are in your student handbook.” Lots of surprised and attentive faces greeted that announcement.

 I further explained that The Respect Zone extended beyond the classroom…in fact, everywhere.

If a student disrespected a peer, or challenged me, I gently reminded them of The Respect Zone. Often other students offered verbal support for the idea of mutual respect, something we all crave.

If a student needed to pay more attention to mutual respect, I invited them into the hall for a private conference and explained that teaching is a difficult job and I can’t do it alone. “I need your help too,” I told them.  I usually made an ally that day.

Paring the subject down to 200 or less words required some thought. But here on my blog, I’m free to include all my rough draft thoughts on student-teacher respect...the key to effective classroom management and augmented student achievement.

Respect in the Classroom (rough draft)

As a middle school social studies teacher, and after retirement as an occasional secondary substitute, I would introduce students to the concept of “The Respect Zone.”

Prominently displayed on my classroom wall and in the window of my classroom door was a bilingual sign that said, “Respect Zone/Zona de Respeto.” Both as a regular teacher and as a substitute I would talk about this when I briefly introduced myself to a class.

Keys to The Respect Zone: After telling students who I am (and why I was there in the case of substitute teacher), to give them a connection to a fellow human being, I would explain The Respect Zone like this: “Unlike a lot of teachers you know, I only have one rule in my classroom. I respect you. You respect me. All the rest of the rules are in your student handbook.” I would further explain that The Respect Zone extended beyond the classroom…in fact everywhere.

If a student disrespected a peer or challenged me, I would gently remind them of The Respect Zone. Often other students would offer verbal support for the idea of mutual respect, something we all crave.

If a particular student acted out and needed to pay more attention to mutual respect, I would invite them into the hall for a private conference and explain that teaching is a difficult job and I can’t do it alone.” I need your help too,” I would tell them.  “Come on, let’s go back inside and make it work for everybody.” Besides avoiding a public confrontation, I usually made an ally out of the previously recalcitrant student because they felt the respect I was giving to them.

This isn’t a foolproof “fix” or system. It sometimes fails and I have had to issue a behavior referral, but I never averaged more than five referrals in a school year (and that included mandatory referrals for the occasional hallway fight I had to break up).

The Respect Zone requires a large degree of humility on the part of the teacher, which means, not being perfect myself, that if I ever spoke sharply to a student, I would apologize to them in front of the entire class. But encouraging respect in this fashion pays off for me because it results in more instructional time and less time devoted to behavioral intervention. And, did I mention, way less stress.

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Grading for Learning: Dealing with the Student Who “Won’t Work” (Revisited)

Teacher grading policies need to be grounded in reality. That reality is this: most students will conform to the teacher’s expectations, especially if those expectations are reasonable. Teachers who set up punitive grading systems create self-fulfilling prophecies by gearing their policies to the exceptions, the what-ifs. Those teachers go looking for trouble and they find it. There will always be exceptional students on both ends of the normal population curve who will confound, amaze, and frustrate us, but creating a classroom management and/or grading policy that speaks to margins and drags the majority of students into an academic minefield is counter-productive.

So, what do we do with the student who “won’t work”?

Step One: Analyze the situation. What work is he or she refusing to do? Class work? Homework? Group work? Attending to the teacher? Taking notes on presentations? Is it “make or break” for succeeding in the course? Is the work necessary for learning or has the student already demonstrated understanding of the topic? Is the work a stated requirement of the class, grounded in district curriculum? Is the homework necessary, or does the student already have the subject under control?

We need to determine if the student is learning enough to satisfy the requirements of the course and not get hung up in procedural minutiae. “Fairness” is not treating all students alike. Fairness in education is meeting students at their own level of need. Our job is to evaluate learning, not “give credit” (the district gives “credits” for courses completed successfully).

I will do what I can to help and persuade a student to engage in learning, even to arranging mandatory after-school tutoring for the student with the permission of the parent. If it’s simply a matter of homework not completed by a student who can score high in the test on that subject matter, what’s the point of hassling the kid or reducing the grade? Power struggles backed up by punitive grading solve nothing and don’t facilitate accurate reports of academic achievement.

Step Two: Get help. Recalcitrant students often have multiple issues that accompany their refusal to engage in learning that have to be handled professionally by all school personnel involved. Involve the parent, counselor, and administration. Go over IEPs, 504s, and make sure that all the ducks are in a row: those that will help the student and those that satisfy state and federal bureaucracy. Keep the feedback going through that loop.

Step Three: Continue to grade for learning. If the student can’t or won’t meet the requirements of the course, summative assessments will tell the tale and that’s that. No need to engage in punitive grading for “school work” that is not completed. Keep the parent, principal, and counselor informed and meet with them all as needed.

Keep a record of summative assessment scores and formative assessment evaluations. Use INC (Incomplete) or NS (Not Submitted) rather than zeros when recording late or missing assessments or assignments. Use only summative assessment scores for report card grades, and use the formative set to back up your report card grades and your good (professional) judgment.

Google Book Project Almost There!

Today, we have an E-School News report that a settlement has been agreed upon, and now needs court approval.

Here’s some background…

Back in February of 2007, The New Yorker magazine ran a feature about Google’s intent to scan every book on the planet (the one’s in English to start with), and make a searchable database out of the verbal brew. The publishing industry had gotten up in arms about the perceived threat to its very existence and set out to block Google.

According to the E-School News report, the project is moving along.

The Google project would offer snippets of books to folks like us, researching from home or office, and full text to library patrons on site, free at the library. We at home or office, could, for a fee, read or buy the full text of in-print books, read out-of-print books, and  presumably, given state-of-the-art print-on-demand technology, buy out-of-print books that interest us. Imagine being able to search the entire printed universe…an infinitely beefed up version of Mortimer Adler’s Syntopicon that accompanied the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series.

If this sort of thing excites you, be sure to visit Project Gutenberg where you can download thousands of free books.

And while were at it, I used to lust after the entire Yale University Press publication of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. Only $50+ per volume for many, many volumes. Even as a devoted teacher of American History, I could never figure out how to get that past my wife, Linda, the chancellor of the exchequer. (She may be the reason I’m not currently living in a cardboard box on skid road.)

Now Yale’s The Papers of Benjamin Franklin are free here. Go figure. But I’m definitely not complaining! (Thank you, Yale University Press!)

The E-School News requires registration to read the full article, but don’t worry, it’s free. You can get their stuff in your Inbox on a daily basis.

This is virtual culture shock even for a digital immigrant. 😉

Veterans’ Day

Veterans’ Day isn’t until November 11, but let’s take a moment to give thanks to the extraordinary women and men who served us, under fire, so that we may live today in the land of the free, home of the brave, and vote on November 4th.

Regardless of our positions on current or past war politics, there’s one thing we can agree on…an attitude of humble thankfulness to the women and men who have served our country by placing themselves at risk to to do their duty as members of America’s armed forces. We have them to thank for the potential that our political and economic system offers to women and men pursuing their destinies limited only by their own talent and drive, operating within the law and guided by strong ethical codes of conduct.

My father , Hugh J. O’Donnell, served in WWII, entering the military with the rest of the Fordham University Class of 1943. He served a full year of combat in Germany with the 104th Division Timberwolves as a machine gun squad leader.


I was privileged to serve in my Dad’s unit, the 104th, twenty-some years after he was mustered out. That was the Viet Nam era and the Timberwolves were still a training division. They never called us up. I never faced  enemy fire, and to this day I am in total awe of the man or woman who wears the Combat Infantry Badge (CIB — Kentucky rifle on blue background, above) on their uniform. (Other branches of service have similar badges.)

God bless you, Dad. You put in the hard time so your kids could live free in peace.

Hugh J. O’Donnell, 1920-1987, was a Latin and Language Arts teacher in the Hillsboro High School District who served his students well. He taught “critical thinking” before it became a course name or a buzz word. If you want to know more about my Dad, the teacher, just ask one of his former students.

What Do We Do When We Want It So Badly For Them?

I think that The Science Goddess may really be a Muse. She’s inspired another couple of thoughts I want to get out here before they die of loneliness…

Late last night, Chris Lehmann posed the following idea on Twitter: Question on my mind: How can you demand that people to improve if you don’t improve the circumstances of their life / work / etc?

My response: Perhaps “demand” isn’t the right road? Perhaps we inspire or support or model?

CL: I agree completely. So why do we see so little of that in today’s educational landscape? Especially in urban settings?

SG: I think we do model another “reality,” but may be unwilling to accept that many are happy as they are.

If you’ve read her post, you may be feeling some frustration, a twinge of resentment, or even some outright hostility for the education system that seems not to be able to reach all students with the message that they can succeed in life (whatever the definition of success is) if they work hard and persist.

The fact is, most people, and that includes students, have their own agendas. Their desires and schedules for achievement of their personal goals may never be clear to us, but we can still do something important, and that is to, as The Science Goddess mentions above, inspire.

Before you comment about my apparent Pollyanna attitude, let me define “inspire.”

Science teachers know that grasshoppers have spiracles along their bodies. These openings play a big part in breathing for the grasshopper — like, that’s where the air gets into the organism.

The root of “spiracle” is the Latin spiro, a verb that means to breathe. (Can you see where I’m going with this?)

In Latin, the prefix “in” means “in” or “into.” Put the prefix “in” together with “spiro” and you get “inspiro,” to breathe into.

So if we cannot control, coerce, or command success for students, we can breathe into them our desire that they succeed by setting a truly professional example, by making available visions of possibilities, by teaching them well, assessing them accurately, and grading them fairly.

And most importantly, treating them as equals with the respect we’d give to our most revered elders. And that implies that we accept their decision about what to do with our inspiration. 😉

That’s what inspire means to me.

Stepping Back to Assess

What’s wrong with this picture?

Well, yeah, the dragon’s in a cage, but the dragon’s still breathing fire. Good for the dragon. I think I need to follow the dragon’s example.

Since I went live with my real identity, I feel like I’ve been caged and my fire has most certainly been reduced.

A number of bloggers I’ve read recently have talked about struggling with going “live” or remaining covert. Tough decision. I’ve seen how it affects my writing and I’m not real happy.

Anonymity is not a free pass to be rude or sloppy with the facts. But being out there as yourself can inhibit expression.

Lately I’ve been reviewing the internet literature on standard-based grading and marvelling about my loss of literary passion. I’ve never stooped to ad hominem attacks on adversaries, but I’ve never backed off from calling plays as I see them.

Lately, I’ve been somewhat mute. I’m not afraid of lawsuits, but don’t want to embarrass folks I associate with and care about. The fact is, though, if they’re worth caring about, they won’t be embarrassed by me. That goes for my fellow board members and my excellent superintendent.

So the first thing I’m going to tackle is the irresponsibility of print and internet publications that wear the mantle of “official and valid teacher information.” The Teacher Magazine blog board is one of those gratuitous fonts of drivel and cool stuff that enjoys the halo effect of education establishment legitimation. See if you can find some problems I have with this particular edition…

PS: Tomorrow I’m gonna wish myself Happy Independence Day for a number of different reasons. 😉

Meta Blogging


Why do you blog? Why do I blog?

If you haven’t seen Stephen Pastis’s comic strip Pearls Before Swine in today’s daily paper, check it out. Rat’s rant about why most folks blog makes me a little uncomfortable, and I should be if I’m to remain alert and question my values and behavior while blogging and in other virtual interactions with my fellow beings, not to mention taking stock of my social behavior in the “real” world.

When we blog, do we consider how our behavior affects readers?

The Ethical Blogger is a relatively new cooperative venture that focuses on appropriate and inappropriate on-line behavior. I’ve added it to the blog roll because I intend to visit there often.