Blue Shirt Tuesday

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.

Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty has helped me understand my students better than anything else I’ve read. Her book is based on her observations as an educator in low-income, middle-class, and wealthy schools, and a good deal of research. The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, is the way in which Payne outlines specific differences between the rules that govern each class. What amazed me was how different they are.

Obviously, life is different depending on how much money you have. I’ve tended to think about these differences are largely monetary, though, and I’ve never fully accounted for the cultural differences that go along with poverty. One useful distinction that Payne makes is the difference between situational poverty and generational poverty. Anyone can be poor, but if you’re raised in a middle class culture and suddenly find yourself without money, you are in a much different position than if your ancestors have always been poor. One of the main differences is that people in generational poverty often do not know the hidden rules of the middle class (just as most people in the middle class do not know the hidden rules of poverty). Knowledge of these rules is usually essential to escaping poverty.

I’ve thought to myself before about what I’d do if I were poor. I’d study hard at whatever public school I’d go to. I’d get a scholarship to a public university. I’d study hard and get a good job. Bingo! Poor no more.

What I haven’t considered is how hard it would be to do just that if I didn’t have the values that I was raised with. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it sure would be a lot harder.

Payne’s book is full of stereotypes and generalizations, but they are useful generalizations, as long as you take account of the exceptions. Her descriptions of the hidden rules of the different classes really reflect a lot of what I’ve seen down here while teaching. For example: Money in poverty is to be spent, in the middle class it is to be managed, and in wealth it is to be invested. In poverty, people worry about the quantity of food, in the middle class they worry about the quality, in wealth they worry about the presentation. Poor families tend to be matriarchal while middle class families tend to be patriarchal. And that sort of thing.

Payne has some suggestions for how understanding the hidden rules among classes should affect ones interactions. Not so much that I should expect my students to have different values than I do, but rather that when they exhibit a behavior that I find conflicting, I can understand where it comes from and what it means.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The First Week of School; or, How Buddha's Gonna Save My Life

I hope that there are few experiences as hard as the first week of teaching.

I now have six days under my belt and I feel so much older and so much younger at the same time.

Last week was tough. I don't think that it was harder for me than it was for most first year teachers, but I had kinda thought it would be easier, or at least the reality of how hard it would be never registered until I was doing it myself. My classes aren't that bad- AP Calculus, Algebra 1, and Geometry. Calculus students are great. Algebra 1 students are kinda scared, kinda immature, but we'll learn to work together. Geometry will be the toughest because they're not new to the school, and they are not scared of me, and they don't like to work. But they can be great, when they want to be.

I think that the hardest parts about last week were the amount of new information I had to deal with- I was trying to act confident in a setting that I was entirely new to- and the responsibility I put on myself to make sure I don't start the year off on the wrong foot.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were the worst days. I really wanted to quit. While driving home, I thought about how easy it would be to just keep driving all the way north. At that point, only my guilty conscience kept me here- I didn't want to be here any more. I thought I was an idiot for signing up for this, that I was being punished for thinking I'm better than others and that I have some kind of obligation to help others. I didn't want to be a hero. I just wanted to curl up in my bed and go to sleep.

But things got better. My dad compared this experience to military boot camp, which breaks the soldiers worse than I'm going to be broken, forces them to be less productive than I'm going to be, and leaves them a lot better off in the end, for the most part. As a pacifist, I didn't care much for the metaphor, but it was nice to be reminded how much worse things could be. I could be in Iraq shooting people in the hot desert with no contact with my friends or family. That would suck.

My dad also encouraged me to start meditating, which is kinda weird because he doesn't really meditate or anything, but he pointed out that it's cheaper than psychotherapy and anti-depressants, so I figured it'd be worth trying. I don't know if it has actually helped, but I feel a lot less stressed out now than I did last week. The thing is- life isn't that bad. I have a high paying job, a comfortable house, tons to eat, loving friends and family, good health. Yet I getin these funks where I just feel sorry for myself because of this job, which, admittedly, is really hard to do well, but not that hard to do well enough to survive. So if I can get rid of hte worries, my life won't be that bad, and maybe I'll continue to be able to turn off the cruise control on my car when I hit the Leland exit, rather than keepin' on goin' all the way home.

Friday, July 21, 2006

End of Summer Reflections

Tomorrow I leave Oxford to go back to Cincinnati for a week. I will have spent 8 weeks in Mississippi, taught 30 lessons, and taken 3 classes. On July 31 I will report to Greenville-Weston High School for my first day of work. On August 7 the students will arrive and I will be a teacher.

The summer has gone well. The teaching experience was nowhere near as fun or feel-good or even as rewarding as Summerbridge was in the past, but it was a better preparation for the less fun, less feel-good and less rewarding teaching experience that I will be having this fall. A full class of students is hard, but I am feeling confident right now. I managed at summer school, and even through there were difficulties, I felt that I was effective. There are a thousand things I would change about how I taught and how I ran the classroom, but I have a year to make those changes. I don't have to be perfect on day one. Two big differences between summer school and the fall will work in my advantage. First, I will have my own classroom. I will be able to set it up and organize it and establish the rules that fit me best from day 1. This will help me establish consistency, and control the classroom. Second, I will have textbooks at my disposal. Even if I don't have teachers' editions or lesson plan manuals, having a classroom set of text books will let me save a ton of time that I spent typing up worksheets during summer school.

I want to be a good teacher eventually, but I have come to understand that I must first focus on being an effective teacher. Teach math. that is what I am responsible for, and that is what I must focus on at first. Once I can do that, I can move on to inspiring excitement in the material, encouraging exploration, building relationships, and other things that good teachers do. For now, I just need my students to know how to solve math problems.

The Civil Rights Movement of our Generation

Teach for America and Robert Moses tell us that eliminating the achievement gap and teaching low-income students math is the Civil Rights Movement of our generation. Just as voting restrictions and segregation kept minorities from enjoying full citizenship forty years ago, today's poor public schools are keeping minorities in a sub-citizen class.

I agree that teaching poor students is hella important, maybe even the most important cause to be a part of (I am here, after all). But I don't think that it's a civil rights movement. I'm no scholar of civil rights history or activism or anything like that, but it seems to me that good education is something that we are always going to have to provide, no matter what we accomplish today or the year or in the next decade. Education is an ongoing need. In contrast, I see civil rights movements as having a final goal: the completely equal treatment of everyone regardless of race, for instance. Activists will say stuff like "freedom isn't free" and "we can never stop fighting for our freedom" and "the struggle has just begun," and I agree with them entirely. The civil rights movement is not over, and education equality is part of the ongoing struggle. But education itself is not a movement- it's a necessity. In an ideal world no one needs civil right movements. Everyone can vote, everyone can marry, everyone can work wherever they're qualified. But even in an ideal world we'll still need good educators, and those educators will still need to work tirelessly.

I guess that my point is that I don't see myself as part of a movement that can succeed. Yes, I expect my students to do better on their standardized tests than previous students at the same school; I expect more of them to go on to college than previously at the school; an I expect them to know more math and care more about the world than previously. I will have succeeded if that is true, but the struggle will be nowhere closer to complete than when I began. Teachers are like doctors- there will always be more students to teach just as there will always be more patients to heal. The difference is that doctors can eradicate diseases, whereas teachers will always have students who need to learn math.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Video of my fake teaching

For our education class we are required to videotape one of our sample lessons and watch it ourselves. All of last week, we prepared lessons and taught them to mini-classes of our teacher-peers to practice teaching without the presence of rowdy students. We would spend the rest of the day observing each others' lessons

The biggest thing I learned from this experience is that teaching is really easy when you don't have students. All of my "students" understood everything I told them, did everything I told them to do, and never misbehaved. I could present my lessons at the exact pace I had planned and get through everything on my lesson plan.

When I start teaching in August, I'm going to have to have much more flexible lesson plans and be prepared for my lessons to take a lot longer. I can't teach the distance formula in the first week if students haven't even learned how to plot points yet. I really hope their Algebra teachers were good.

While I'm teaching, I say "okay" and "alright" too much as filler words that reveal my insecurity. I'm lucky that my voice sounds pretty confident, but I should learn to speak more deliberately and avoid those words of weakness.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On Pulling the Trigger and the Dilemma of Time-Inconsistent Maximization

Classroom management fails without a system of rules and consequences that are applied consistently. Students will learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others, see that their actions cause undesirable punishments, and will behave themselves. If the teacher bends the rules or fails to enforce the consequences, students will know that they can get away with misbehaving and will continually get worse until they do something so bad that the teacher has lost control of the classroom and the student ends up getting kicked out of school. Teachers failing to "pull the trigger" and enforce their consequences end up hurting themselve and their students.

Discipline will only work if students believe the rules will be enforced. This requires the rules to be enforced.

But what about the student who is caught playfully, but forcefully, shoving a friend in between classes? She just got her third detention the period before, and a fourth one will kick her out of the program. Failing the program will force her to repeat 8th grade. And there are only three days left of school.

There are three options, as I see it. The first is for the teacher to ignore it, act like he didn't see it, so that students don't think he's soft, just that he's blind. The second is to give her an automatic detention because a rule's a rule and too bad if she's the example that has to show everyone else the value of behaving. The third is to talk to her after class, give her one more chance, call her mom and expect her to be on her best behavior.

If, at the beginning of the school year, a social planner had to pick a decision for the teacher to make in every situation, it would be the second, because that would most effectively keep the classrooms as ordered as possible. The choice is a weak teacher, no discipline, and no students getting kicked out versus a strong teacher, good discipline, and only one student kicked out. But, if the decision occurs after the shoving occurs the maximization problem is different. The decision is either you kick out one student, force her to waste a year of her life, and have a slightly better class for two days, or you give her one more chance, let her go to high school, and perhaps have to interrupt your lesson a couple extra times to ask students to stop talking. Which is better? Certainly the second.

The problem arises when she tests the teacher and isn't on perfect behavior the next day. Now, there is only one day of school left and again, the utility maximizer would give her another chance. By this point, however, the threat of kicking a student out of school has been lost and that one fewer tools to use to control the classroom. I don't know how bad a problem that is when there are only two days left in the year and the level of misbehavior is talking and swearing, not fighting and defiance.

I don't know what the right thing to do is. All I know is that I would have an incredibly hard time sleeping at night if I knew that a girl was spending a whole year of her life in classes that aren't helpful just because I saw her push a friend.

Video Camera as the Eyes in the Back of my Head

One of our assignments for our education class is to video tape one of our lessons, watch it, and reflect on it here. I'll reflect on my teaching shortly, but I first want to talk about a potentially beneficial side-effect of the assignment: mandatory classroom surveillance. Today's class was relatively well behaved, although I did have to eject two students from class (the first for blatant disrespect: "Get over here, Mr. Wulsin." and the second for swearing in class). While I was talking to the second students, I told the class to work on an activity I had put up on the overhead. I stepped into the hall and when I came back the students were working fairly well. When I watched my video this afternoon, however, I saw that just after I stepped out of the room (I left the door open, but I was turned away) the first student who I had talked to in the hall jumped up from his desk and erased the checks I had put on the board next to the names of students who had misbehaved (for each check a student receives, he must write one page about why the rules are important).

I will certainly confront the student tomorrow, but my dilemma is whether I can use a videorecording I took without their consent or knowledge as evidence against my students. Is there a right to privacy that would prohibit my holding a student accountable for something I saw on a video taken secretly (I wasn't taping secretly, but I didn't draw any attention to the tripod in the back of the room). He's been disrespectful all along, and that he would do that after promising that he would behave when I talked to him in the hall makes me feel like I should just not even let him back in the class tomorrow.


Now for the less exciting part of my videotaping experience.

I'm a boring teacher. I'm boring because I am afraid that if I add excitement, discovery, and fun to the lessons I will immediately lose control of the class. I've found (see blogs on inductive learning) that making the lesson enjoyable can improve behavior because the students are more engaged. But it's a crap-shoot. My algebra lesson that involved gold coins and golf tees was a total bomb. I think that part of the problem is that because I am trying to be strict with discipline, my students hold it against me and take it out by refusing to get excited when I teach.


Today's lesson was on graphing points on the coordinate plane, and I wish I could have taken the whole class out to the football field and made a giant cartesian plane and had each student stand at various points. Unfortunately, I fear that if I tried doing that I'd end up with three bloody noses, two missing kids, and not much learning. Can I really expect students to be on their best behavior when I am asking them to run around outside?

I also noticed that my pants don't fit me very well.

I hear a lot more talking on the video than I notice while I'm teaching. I wasn't very strict during the period and that might be partly why things got out of hand a couple times. I want my studnets to take risks and be comfortable in class. I don't want them to be afraid to open their mouths. But I feel like the only way to keep the room quiet is by punishing every instance of speaking.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Inductive learning 2

Today I gave my students another mini-lab partner assignment, this time to find a formula for the area of a circle. The experience was almost identical to Tuesday's lesson- the students worked pretty well, especially as I walked around the room. There was constant talking, but nothing too outrageous. The students seemed engaged and even happy. Some seemed proud when they found a solution.

Two data points are too few for a pattern, but if group work continues in this way, I'll have to reevaluate my approach to discipline. I don't mind noise or distraction, as long as it occurs in the context of active learning and does not interrupt that learning. With everyone working independently, the noise does not affect their work, so a silent classroom is not needed. The fear is that students will come to think that minor noise is fine, even when I'm teaching. I'll have to make it very clear from the start that during individual work time and teaching time, the classroom is silent, but that during group work time it is okay to make noise in moderation. I just hope that this doesn't seem inconsistent to my students.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Inductive and Cooperative Learning

I'm a huge fan of inductive learning and group work. I was frustrated in High School when I was graded on how well I worked in a group, or when I was forced to cooperate even at the cost of efficiency. Group work can be great, though, insofar as it excites students to explore, gives them opportunities to teach their peers, and fosters social development. Inductive learning is also great, especially because is is the things learned inductively that are most often remembered. My astronomy teacher routinely made me mad by refusing to lecture and tell us how the stars and moon moved in the sky. He realized that if he told us, we'd just forget it, whereas if we figured it out on our own, we'd understand it and remember it. We learned a lot less in his class, but we probably retained more.

I'm not tempted to assign only group work or inductive lessons, but I do want to incorporate it as much as possible into my teaching. Yesterday, I was teaching the students how to find the area of trapezoids and triangles. We had learned how to find the area of rectangles by multiplying the length by the width, and we had learned that a parallellogram can be rearranged to make a rectangle, too. For the trapezoid and triangle, I gave them a mini-lab in which they drew each shape, labelled their edges, and then cut them out to make a parallelogram. The hardest part, which none of them got, was using their labes from their original drawings to make a formula for the area. I then showed the class where the new formulas come from and how these shapes are related to rectangles and parallelograms.

I would say that the activity was successful, although I was incredibly nervous about it. I have been spending a huge amount of energy being very strict with my class so that students know that no speaking is acceptable without permission. We only had enough scissors for half of the students, though, so I had to let them work with partners. I was afraid that the class would erupt in chaos. Luckily, we made it through with only a moderate amount of noise. They definitely enjoyed themselves and learned, but my fear is that letting them do such an activity undermines the atmosophere of quiet that I'm trying to impose.

Is this an inevitable trade-off? Fun, enthusiastic, creative learning versus ordered, disciplined, productive learning? I don't know. I do know that I'm going to be very hesitant to assign group work until I've established very clearly an orderly classroom. This'll be tough because all of the best lessons I've seen and thought of involve lots of active participation, cooperation, and exploration.