A lovely place to be

The quiet “academic” room is a lovely place to be (sorry Silvia–who has the noiser but not loud non-academic room).  The students who come there have a clear task, and they pretty much get to their work.  While they are not always 100% on task, they actually don’t bother anyone else who is.  There are students reading, writing, on the computer, writing an assessment, etc.  They quietly ask for help when needed, and they have the peace and quiet needed to focus on their learning.  Those who would ordinarily be interrupting and disrupting, are in the other room playing chess, doing other critical thinking “games,”  listening to a read aloud, or something else they have chosen and pretty much actually do.  If no one needs my help, I can get my own work and planning done.  We are all working side by side effectively and comfortably.  Now that is the way school should feel!

Worst times are transitions, as groups come and go.  But even that is getting better.

Evidence of our failure as teachers

Our school gets very high test scores, especially in reading.  We’d like to think that we are successfully growing readers.  However, today I saw the difference between growing readers and forcing kids to learn to read.

Every student in our school knows the meaning of SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) and a school requirement is that every student have 30 minutes every day to read self-chosen books.  Often the teachers also read during this time to present a powerful model of what engaged reading should look like.  We are pretty good at shooting the off-task student a look that silently says, start looking like you are reading.

At UDS, students may choose SSR if they want to, but no one will force them to do so.  Quite a few actually do choose this option.  However only a handful seem to do so because they really want to read.  Instead the SSR corner seems to be the preferred hangout.  It has been funny to watch the various permutations of what the kids do to “look like” they are reading.  Today one student cleverly propped up her book to cover her face and fell sound asleep.  Others wedge themselves into a tiny corner between two bookcases, just to be out of sight of the teacher.  The gang of three like to take the daily newspaper back there–more surface area behind which to chat.  This is all funny, because they could just write sleep, chat, gossip, or whatever they really want to do on their learning log.  One student was talking to the other teacher.  When I asked what she had written in her log, she said SSR.  When I pointed out that she was not reading, she proclaimed, “but I’m talking to the teacher.”  When I pointed out that she had not chosen that, she was quite indignant that she was reading.  Meanwhile, throughout the entire conversation, her book lay closed on the table.

My question to these students was “is that a book that you just love to read? One you just can’t put down?  If you want to do SSR, find that kind of book.”

There are a few who love to cozy up with a book and spend several learning blocks reading–but not enough.  We have become very good at enforcing reading behavior, but we surely have not grown lifelong readers.

Back to Square One !

Ever have one of those days?  Yesterday, we did.  The day did not begin well as the school was preparing for a site visit.    Cathy the fearless leader of our community would be busy with the visit so she would not be able to lead the meetings.  We discussed the night before how we would manage.  I could have taken over and things would probably turn out OK.  But no!  That would have been too easy.  So, we thought, why don’t we let the students run the meeting.  And to make it even more interesting, I thought instead of telling them Cathy won’t be there, I would  just sit and wait  to see what happens.

After the two classes merged for the morning meeting, they were waiting quietly for it to start.  Cathy’s chair was empty.  No one said anything.  We waited and waited and waited.  Finally,  someone raised their hand and asked,  “What are we doing?”    I replied,  “We are waiting for someone to lead the meeting.”   She said, “I’ll do it.”  That was the beginning of the fall of the republic.

The meeting resorted into a cacophony of screams, shouts,  disrespectful language, and even a quasi-coup as someone else took over leadership!  Wow!   I stood in the middle of  the mayhem and madness and thought I was in the midst of a revolution.  To further exascerbate the situation I kept being buzzed on my walkie-talkie and kids kept coming and going as part of the site visit.  YIKES!!!  Somebody save me, get me off this sinking ship.

However, what I did not do, was ursurp control.  I did not resort to my former dictator self and quiet everyone down.  That would have been easy.  I was a very good dictator in my time.   Instead, I did what everyone should have done the moment the meeting lost control.   I began to write problems on the board.  Problem after problem after problem.  By the time I was finished writing, there were five problems on the board.  All of a sudden, a hush fell across the room.  Then quiet murmurings of,   “this is bogus”,  “she’s trippin'”,  “why’d she write all those problems?”

The leader of the meeting just found a new surge of strength; he rang the bell and said, “We have a problem.”  For the next hour and half we discussed the problems that needed to be solved.  (I think you can guess what some of them were).   During the beginning of the meeting one of the students suggested we go back to our regular classrooms, keep our democracy but separate the classes.  Oh, I have to shamefully admit, I wanted to jump up at that suggestion and say yes, yes, yes!  I didn’t though and towed the party line.    By the time we had to do our site visit duties, we solved all but one of the problems, which the other class said they would handle.

Whew!  Exhausting!  Frustrating!  One step forward and two steps back!

When I told Cathy about it, she said that it tells her that we do need the students to take over.  I wholeheartedly agreed.  We have been wanting to have students take over for awhile; and, the site visit obligations of Cathy were a perfect segue. The situation today reminded of what the instructor says during my gym  workouts when we do a particular exercise – if it hurts, that means we should do it again soon!

Update: Another student  led the meeting today, and it all worked out pretty well.  Baby steps!

Problem Solved!

When we solve problems,  students  immediately think of the solution in punitive terms.  “Suspend for a day!”  “Give a reset!”  Problem solved!

Learning the hard way,  students are beginning to realize that these punitive measures don’t actually solve the problems.  Giving a student a reset does not magically cause the papers on the floor to be picked up.  Giving a student a reset cannot take back a hurtful comment.  Giving a student a reset does not prevent the “we’re just playin’ ”  jostling that is taken too far.

Case in point – we had a rule (with a reset consequence) that the classroom should not be left in a messy state after each learning block.  However, the classroom was still left messy.  Game pieces were out of the box, legos were strewn on the floor, papers littered  the floor, chairs were  all over the classroom.  Even though we had a “rule” that covers messiness ,  there were too many students to give resets to and when asked who made the mess, we heard a chorus of,  “Wasn’t me! ”

I wrote  a problem that the room was left messy and no one cleaned it up, and then  described the mess.  Reflecting  with Cathy later that evening, we spoke about the importance of encouraging the students to solve the problem rather than “punish” the problem.  We emphasized that it would be important to mention that a rule was already established so we don’t need another rule to solve it.  Then, Cathy made a brilliant suggestion:  phrase the problem to encourage the students to create a solution rather than a punishment.  So, I rephrased my original problem to, how can we encourage members of our community to clean up after themselves,  and in the morning we would wait and see what happened.

The next morning, admid loud groans (students are not loving this community meeting of solving problmes) we proceeded with our meeting.

At first,  students suggested the exact same rule we already had, even though Cathy read them the rule that already existed!   Then they blamed the teachers because “we” were not giving enough resets.  We told them it was impossible because people were leaving the area.  Then they decided that teachers should just check everyone’s folders.   We reflected that right back at them – do you really want to take that much time to check everyone’s folders?   It took much discussion and “guiding”  to come up with  a solution that might  solve the messy classroom situation.

Students decided that they will line up in each room and wait until the classroom is clean. No one can start the next learning block until all the areas are clean.  No resets, no punitive consequences.  We just wait until the rooms are cleaned before the next learning block can occur.  Problem (hopefully) solved.  I must say I voted against the motion because being in charge of the game room with about a billion little pieces, I have seen what “putting away” materials looks like.  So I am a little nervous that the shoving away materials will still occur.  I will save that for a another day.

I feel that we made baby steps in rethinking how a community can work together in positive way for the enjoyment of everyone rather than for the punishment of everyone.  Democracy is doing good for the society just because it is the right thing to do.  That’s the difference between democracy and coercion.

The next big step on the horizon, letting students run the community meeting.  I can’t wait!

I like it!

Yesterday at dismissal a student and I were sharing seating space on a rock waiting for her parents to pick her up. A teacher came by and asked me how are things going in the “unschool.” Before I could say anything, the student piped up, “I like it!”  Wow, I thought.   You do?  Why?   She said that she gets to choose what she wants to work on and then she can give herself little breaks throughout the day.  Her passion is writing,  so she chooses quite a few writing blocks throughout the day.  This student is not a problem student. She is well behaved and works well under any circumstances.  What urban democratic school  did for her was allow her the time to pursue her passion. As a result, instead of the  traditional  hour per day of writing workshop, she can have multiple times per day to visit and revisit her writing – just like a real writer would do.

Saved by the Bell…Not

We’re near the end of our read aloud book and the story is riveting and I am conscious of the time hoping that the bell will sound in a suspenseful moment. A student walks in and I ask did the bell go off. He said no one started the timer. YIKES! I stopped reading anyway and got the pleasure of hearing the groans.

Losing Control

The hardest thing for a teacher is to let go of his or her class.  To trust the students to make the right choices for themselves.  To guide them, not enable them.  To let the students make and learn from their mistakes.  To set the expectations high for all  students.

It was hard for me.  In my eight year evolution from a newbie teacher to a veteran,  I have changed.   I began as a bright-eyed rookie teacher thinking that I – armed with my new degree and creativity oozing from my pores- could change the life of every child for the better.  Ha!  I felt flat on my face.  The kids ate me alive.  I had no control and  spent countless minutes in the hallway crying and asking myself, ” I became a teacher…Why?”   Who could have prepared me for a 450 square foot classroom with no walls (when visitors would come to see our little school they asked the kids what they would like to see in their school and they asked for a wall and a door!)  and no furniture (thank God for IKEA!).  Who could have prepared me for the overwhelming social and emotional needs of some of these children whose lives were so chaotic they didn’t understand how to act in a respectful way around others.

I floundered the first few years and then I went to a summer workshop about classroom management and decided to take control.  I got very organized.  I formulated clearly in my mind what I wanted my classroom to look like, sound like.  I taught the students procedures so that the classroom looked and sounded exactly the way  I wanted.  I developed a behavior system, which seemed harsh but worked like a charm with a balance of rewards and punishments.  (All of which I realize now controls behavior but does not change it).   My little six, seven and eight year olds were able to file, keep the colored pencils color coded and everything in the classroom  organized.  Queen Lily was born, complete with fairy wings and gold shoes.  A benevolent queen, but a ruler nonetheless.

Fast forward several years.  This is my second year of teaching the older students (11-15 year olds), a few of whom I already taught  when they were wee ones.  Although I rarely don my queenly costume anymore (but I occasionally do just to see the eyes of my older students roll)  I still rule the class.  Our classroom economy is based on me being the ruler.  The students have jobs and I am the one who hires and fires.  It’s still all about me.  My control.  My peace of mind.

I let go of that.  I let go of that eight days ago when our democracy was formed.  I think I could let go because I realized that I needed to let go and to trust in democracy to solve our problems.  I don’t know if I could have appreciated what this democracy all means  unless I fully realized how much I did run the show.  I think a lot of us teachers think we are democratic but we are not.  A lot of teachers are like the helicopter parents, hovering over their children, micromanaging their every move, not letting them fail and learn and have the satisfaction of picking themsleves up and trying again, feeling sorry for our students rather than giving them them the gift of independence and making choices (good and bad) so that they become responsible citizens.  I am glad that I knew.  I was concious of the fact that I ruled the roost.  It helped me  let go.  I realized that I had to let go.  I am not perfect by any means.  I think I participate too much in classroom meetings.  I sometimes don’t follow the rules explicity.  I hear my “teacher” voice creeping through more often than it should.  I am struggling and learning to let go of control as much as the students are struggling and learning to gain control of their learning and their lives.