kitchen table math, the sequel: redkudu on grouping & behavior problems

Sunday, September 30, 2007

redkudu on grouping & behavior problems

Here is a brilliant, illuminating post by redkudu on the educational causes of sh**** students. (I'm sorry; it is bad form to call sh**** students sh****. Truth is no excuse).

Seeing as how redkudu's former web site chewed up and swallowed her equally brilliant, illuminating post on How to Break Up a Fight, I am re-posting this new one in its entirety, here, just to be on the safe side:

Mamacita raised a few eyebrows with this post a few weeks back, a rant about the poorly behaved students in schools. From The Trenches followed up with this mostly supportive post, which also examined some criticism from another blogger.

I'm not really going to discuss the posts (you should go read them), except to use the original as a springboard for something I keep saying over and over, and which I believe to be true: we could solve 60-80% of these disciplinary problems if we put students in classes where they were able to perform at their ability level, and excel from that level upward - something which might also help solve the engagement problem.

I recognize these students Mamacita is talking about - but for the most part I recognize them as the students in my class who are either above or below the "middle ground" I am expected to teach to. The ones below the middle ground become listless and frustrated with material that is over their heads, and a teacher who is too busy juggling ability levels to give them the concrete instruction they need. The students above the middle ground grow bored and resentful as they see themselves being held back by both the middle ground and those below it.

I went to a professional development meeting this morning in which we were given concrete strategies to use in what are now being called "stacked classes." Differentiated classrooms with ability levels so diverse they require teachers to teach two (or more) different curriculums in the same class period. The basic premise is that we begin with the same literature or subject matter, and with a unified activity (such as a journal). We then split the classroom up and teach one thing to one group, and another to another group, all the while finely splitting the hairs of a timer so that instruction for both is timed down to the minute. (And what if one group runs over? I hear you asking. Why, we do what we've always done...tell the other group to find something to do, or whip out some busy work for them. Alternatively, stop the slower group and have them complete the assignment for homework.)

The teacher then bounces back and forth between groups, but we have the same problem as ever - the implication is that we can trust ONE of those groups will be self-sustaining and self-motivated while the teacher works with the other group. So while we're making more work for the teachers, we've backslid into the exact same position as before - those kids who know how to learn on their own will, at least to the extent of the lowest-common-denominator of expectations the teacher is able to set, and the kids who can't learn on their own will be given activities which don't actually increase their ability level, but rather maintain them at their level while making it appear we're giving them more personalized time.

It just seems so odd to me that though we are now able to admit students have wildly varying needs in the classroom, we cannot bring ourselves to assign students to classes according to their ability, where a teacher would teach one specifically targeted lesson that might have the potential to bring students up to the level of their peers, instead of simply maintaining their status quo.

I guess that will have to wait for when I have my own school. :)

I'm pretty sure there is a parent version of this post to be written.

Stalker moms aside (and, speaking of stalker moms, is it getting to be time for parents to come up with a set of nasty labels for ineffective teachers?),* reasonable moms and dads can find it difficult to maintain a tone when we are always and forever on the receiving end of comments like, "If students need distributed practice, parents can find worksheets online," and, "I will not discuss curriculum and pedagogy with parents," and, "It will be possible to move your child down to Phase 3, but it will not be possible to promise to move him back up to Phase 4 in the fall," and so on and so on.

Even Ed, who has had years of experience maintaining a tone, suffered a lapse with the math chair during our last encounter, at one point telling her to "shush."

Afterwards, he was mortified.

In any case, it's clear to me from conversations with other parents that, yes, there are some nutty parents out there. I may know one myself. But, and here is the point, I would not call her funny names, and nor would anyone else I know.

I should add that "stalker mom" is funny; it's good writing.

But, speaking as a writer, I am here to tell you that in personal writing a lot of one's best phrases and images must be squelched. If a teacher wants to write a blog post about a "stalker mom," and I think teachers should write blog posts about stalker moms, a good editor would tell her simply to describe the parent's wingy behavior as it occurred.

That will do.

How to Handle Difficult Parents, TOC
Dealing with Parents 101

A Short and Subjective History of Parents

The Acorn May Not Fall Far from the Oak

Problem Parents:
  • Pinocchio's Mom
  • Caped Crusader
  • Ms. 'Quit Picking on My Child'
  • The Intimidator
  • The Stealth Zapper
  • The Uncivil Libertarian
  • No Show's Dad
  • Helicopter Mom
  • The Competitor
Who's the Fairest of Them All?

Tips for Effective Parent Conferences


! ! !

ok, here's a tip for effective parent conferences

don't call people names

also, while you're at it, don't write a whole book cooking up a big, long set of names for teachers to start calling parents behind their backs

we call this Dealing with Other Human Beings 101

* the answer is no


Karen A said...

Excellent points! My kids have had some excellent teachers through the years, and for that, I feel blessed. Some teachers, however, have been less than effective.

How about the teachers who are just holding out until retirement? How about the elementary school teachers who are nowhere close to "warm and fuzzy?" How about the newly-minted ed school grads who think they really do know it all, but don't even know what they don't know?

Years ago, when my kids were very small, I worked part-time and was fortunate to have a wonderful woman come to our house to babysit. I remember making some offhand comment to my mom about how having an in-home sitter wasn't necessarily low cost. My mom's response? "But they are your children. They're worth it, aren't they?"

Well, of course they were, and I knew at the time how lucky I was to be able to have the best of both worlds in that regard. But when my kids were small, I was very picky about choosing their babysitters, even if it was just for an evening out. It was important to me that the sitter was responsible, caring and kind. By the same token, I expected my kids to behave in a reasonable manner as well, and they knew it.

By the same token, why would I want or expect anything less in terms of my kids' teachers, or in terms of my kids' behavior at school? And yet, as parents we have little if no control over the teachers with whom our kids spend a significant and formative portion of their day.

One of my kids had an elementary school teacher who was not particularly emotionally mature and as a result, didn't always understand how her acts of favoritism towards some kids were affecting the other kids in the class.

I wrestled with this issue for quite awhile, because after all, parents can have quite a blind spot when it comes to their own kids and sometimes kids' perception of reality isn't always quite reality. But after several weeks of after-school crying by my kid, together with some very specific and concrete incidents, I realized that there really was a problem, and began to gently talk with the teacher about the harm she was causing. Later, I discovered that a number of other parents were having similar issues. Yet overall, she wasn't a bad teacher; she was just young and rather immature.

What's the answer for situations like that? I don't know, actually, but when I described one of this teacher's attempts at positive discipline (which had resulted in her providing rewards disproportionately to her pets) to some ed school friends of mine, they were appalled.

I didn't mean for this to end up in a long "ranting whine," but rather to illustrate that some of the problems with teachers go beyond pedagogical/content issues.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Pot meet kettle.

Redkudu said...

The problem with designating students as sh**** is that it categorizes them in a group which they did not choose, and had no power over being placed in.

As an adult, I can choose my religious and political affiliations, and once I make that choice I can defend it.

When it comes to education we're talking about people who are powerless in society (except, perhaps, as consumers [high school] or as influencers of consumerism [pressure on parents] - I talk about this often with my students...).

Not only are they powerless, but they are also subjected to the whims and ideology of those whose care they are placed into 8-10 hours of every day. Then they are subjected to shoddy practices which hold them back from their true potential, or required to be the performance indicators of experimental programs and their success (simply because they can make intuitive leaps). Put it all together in the form of a mega-school where class sizes are 30 or more, and you have behavior problems, mastery problems, and all sorts of problems which then, for teachers who find themselves gasping at the mountainous task of juggling to keep up, become the STUDENT'S problems.

Karen A said...

"Wow. Pot meet kettle."

I'm not sure whether you are referring to the original post, to the comment, or to both. Also, I can't tell if your is intended as sarcastic or otherwise.

I think that parents sometimes can be a huge problem; especially those who have a huge blind spot when it comes to the behavior of their own child. This isn't just confined to school, by the way. What comes to mind immediately and specifically is parents who have an "anything goes" approach to the behavior of their children. These attitudes can be especially harmful as the kids approach the teen years and are dealing with all kinds of temptations and issues.

What I was attempting to say in my earlier comment is that I would not knowingly place my child in the hands of someone who might do them harm in a way that I deemed inappropriate, whether that harm was physical or emotional. And yet in a school setting, particularly in elementary school where kids are still pretty vulnerable emotionally, as parents we don't effectively really have that choice.

SteveH said...

"I think that parents sometimes can be a huge problem;.."

I think that a FEW parents can be a huge problem. The key word is few, and there might be probable cause for some of them. However, I've talked in the past about preemptive teacher strikes. For me, it started in the first open house I went to when my son entered Kindergarten. The strikes were not very subtle, and they were directed at all parents. You better be careful or you will be labeled as one of "those" parents.

The "Parent Card" is played way too often, and it is used for too many things. Either schools want parents to be involved or they do not. Generalities are the playground of the shallow mind.

By the way, during our open house this year, we parents got to sign up for our 15 minute parent-teacher time slot ... at the END OF NOVEMBER!

Karen A said...

I have been focusing on behavior issues in my previous comments, but I might also weigh in with respect to matters of pedagogy, content, and following directions.

I'll give you an example. If my child has a rubric, and the rubric provides for certain questions to be answered, and for a certain format to be followed, then it's expected that they will follow the rubric. (That assumes, of course, that the directions were clear.) If my child fails to follow the rubric because of a failure to proofread or pay attention to detail, thereby losing points, then so be it.

Keep in mind that I have spent years trying to teach my kids how to read and follow directions; and emphasizing the importance of doing so.

I am also a stickler when it comes to studying and learning the material. For example, last year, when M was in Algebra, she would readily do her homework and put in the time required to do so. But she didn't always want to put in the practice required to be able to work test problems quickly and efficiently. As a result, on several occasions, she didn't do as well as she could have. This had nothing to do with the teacher or the content; it had to do with her own study habits. She would know the material "pretty well" but wouldn't know it "really well." As a result, under the pressure of the time constraints of a test, she didn't always have enough time to complete the problems in an efficient and accurate manner.

However, we continued to work with her to help her develop the study habits needed, and she begrudgingly began to put in the work. The beauty was in seeing the payoff in the form of an improved grade.

For the most part, though, my kids are bright and highly motivated to learn. Fortunately, they catch on pretty quick with good instruction and sufficient effort of their won as need be. Thus, when they are struggling to understand something, that's a sign to me. It may be a sign that they are giving up too easily, or it may be a sign that there's a problem with the teaching.

If it's the latter, and my kids are struggling, then it's a good bet that other kids are as well. That's when it has the potential to become an issue of ineffective teaching.

What's my point? I suppose it's that feedback is essential in most human endeavors, and the education establishment shouldn't be immmune from that.

Catherine Johnson said...

The problem with designating students as sh**** is that it categorizes them in a group which they did not choose, and had no power over being placed in.

Thank you.

It's wrong to say this about kids. They're still minors.

Parents are fair game. We're grown-ups, and at least some of us can give as good as we get.

But a teacher shouldn't be talking about sh**** kids on a blog, in a meeting, or anywhere, for that matter.

I'm trying to think whether I've ever used a bad word to describe a kid.

I don't think I have.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think that a FEW parents can be a huge problem.

This is absolutely true -- and I now know this through conversations I would NEVER repeat.

I first came face to face with the reality of "crazy" parents last summer, talking to an acquaintance I see only once in a while.

That conversation was an eye-opener.

I just had no idea. (This particular parent was a problem not just for the school, but for other parents & kids, which may not be uncommon; I don't know.)

Listening to the story, I realized: I'm the least of their problems

Catherine Johnson said...

15 minute parent-teacher time slot

We have no parent-teacher conferences after K-5.


After back-to-school night, you're done.

Anonymous said...

While it's true that some parents are too defensive, teachers would do well across the board to convey high regard for parents' wisdom and insight.

Doing so will go a long way toward keeping the defensive parents off the ledge.

Catherine Johnson said...

While it's true that some parents are too defensive, teachers would do well across the board to convey high regard for parents' wisdom and insight.

Doing so will go a long way toward keeping the defensive parents off the ledge.

This is just common sense, and it is BIZARRE to me that a teacher -- now a SUPERINTENDENT (according to a bio I found) -- would spend hours of her life writing a book laying out a set of stereotypes with short, catchy names for teachers to use in thinking about parents.

Talk about no common sense-y

Catherine Johnson said...

There is a serious absence of critical thinking, often, in K-12

I sat in on the site committee meeting last week (a radical act, that one). The principal presented a long list of possible agenda items for the committee to work on this year.

One of them was "homework."

"Some parents want more homework, some parents want less homework."

And that was it.

That is not an analysis.

That is an opportunity for an analysis.

Why do some parents want more homework while some parents want less?

Who are these parents?

Is it possible they are the same parents (I'm in both camps).

Is it possible these parents are referring to certain genres of homework? (For instance, might parents want fewer projects and more "deliberate practice"?)

The principal is not going to ask this question, ever.

Parents are contradictory and confusing, so the administration will do what it wants to do.

One administrator said as much to Ed.

"You parents, you all want different things."

The implication was: "You all want different things, it's impossible to sort out, so we'll do what we want to do."

Independent George said...

"You parents, you all want different things."

The implication was: "You all want different things, it's impossible to sort out, so we'll do what we want to do."

That's pretty much the basis for my supporting school choice. Parents all want different things; so, let them all have different things.

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh, believe me, we push choice ALL THE TIME

It's deadly; there's really nothing they can say in return.

Now, that wasn't the case two years ago.

The idea of offering choice within a school district is radical (though not so at the high school level, so much).

However, I've spent two years talking about choice, and have now done it so much that I've probably been able to establish a bit of a "meme" or "counter-narrative" or something pretentious like that.

I think I've been able to naturalize "choice" enough that the administration is in the position of having to reject choice openly, while having "differentiation" on the strategic plan.

If differentiation is on the strategic plan, there is a direct, logical case to be made for choice.


Catherine Johnson said...

I've just re-read my earlier comment about the "crazy" parent --- and I realize that it sounds as if I spoke with the "crazy" parent (I feel bad calling this person crazy; that's why the scare quotes) and concluded that he/she was nuts.

What actually happened was that I talked to a parent who has been -- and I think this is the correct word -- a victim of the difficult parent.

The difficult parent in question is a problem for the administration and a problem for (some) other parents.

I don't know who the difficult parent is.

Catherine Johnson said...

Point is: this story was very upsetting, and is very far afield from parents rioting over fuzzy math.

Parents rioting over fuzzy math are a PITA.

My friend was telling me about a situation in which threats may or may not have been made, etc.