They Need Us to Understand Them

A coworker of mine summed up perfectly the issue of classroom management in middle school: “If you treat them like babies, they will act like babies.”  I believe the logic then dictates that if you treat them like adults, then they will become one of your greatest professional assets.

After performing a Google search for, “what makes a great teacher?” an exhausting list of articles from teachers, specialists, and academics pops up.  Interspersed among them is the occasional article where a student survey was performed and analyzed.  The differences between the two types of article are obvious right away.  Almost every teacher or education specialist will point to “high expectations” as the number one important characteristic of great teachers, and I wholeheartedly agree (depending on what is being expected).  When you hold all students to the same high standards to perform, they know where you want them to be and that you expect them to get there without accepting anything less.  However, the number one aspect of a great teacher according to students is the ability to get to know them and make them feel important as individuals.

This isn’t just the students talking.  There is growing evidence that suggests that when students feel that their teachers know them personally (and aren’t afraid to share a little bit of personal information themselves), those students do perform higher in class and on tests.  Dr. Robert Marzano, of the Marzano Research Laboratory, is one of those researchers and an advocate of building relationships with students.  We don’t have to be their friends, but we do need to be the stable people that they trust and value in their lives, and they need to understand that we feel the same about them.

Get to know your students—individually.  Know what they love, what they fear, what they’re interested in, and what bores them.  Get to know their social circles and their styles of interaction.  Get to know their families and how they spend time at home.  This sounds like a lot of work—and it is, initially—but it’s worth it when you realize the benefits that come from it for the rest of the year.  When students feel that they have a positive relationship with their teacher, they will do almost anything for that teacher, including hard work.

These important relationships have taken a slide in priority with the growing focus on standardized testing achievement.  There are more and more teachers who feel that building relationships with their students is a fringe duty that doesn’t compete with building skills.  Not only do these teachers end up seeing the blowback of this assumption with undesirable behavior and even negative impact on achievement, but most teacher evaluations look for the ability of teachers to create environments that are respectful of student differences and abilities.  Taking the time to foster those relationships will cover all of those bases, and it will make you feel great about the things you’re doing for your kids.

Check outthe Maximizing the Middle Sample and Leave Feedback!  You will be helping a fellow educator and keeping an ego in check…both very valuable!


Book Excerpt: Competition vs. Collaboration

By and large, middle schools are currently choked with the expectations of meeting AYP, showing high growth, and reaching arbitrary objectives as prescribed by state boards of education.  Teachers complain about the loss of creativity and fun, principals are closing arts and physical education in order to make room for interventions ordered by corrective action, and students are exhausted and bored.  Our current traditional middle school experience doesn’t lead to achievement; it leads to high-school dropouts and stressed-out adolescents.  That’s right: competition drives ultimate failure for too many of our kids.  It has to.  That’s how the system is defined—a few winners outrunning a majority of losers.  This has nothing to do with “kids these days,” since it’s always been this way, but with lower stakes.  This is a dangerous way to lead America into the global economy, and the powers that be don’t understand why that is or how to change it.

Instead of the “every man for himself” variety of competition, our goal will be leading students to thrive in the “every person for the team” competitive/collaborative model.  We have to start changing our middle schools to prepare students to become the adults they want and need to be.  That looks much different than what many people might think—it certainly looks different than what we’re seeing in classrooms now.

Teaching middle school is a research-based, yet heart-driven practice and it’s getting more complex.   Middle school educators and administrators are stuck in the power play happening between publishing and assessment companies and the politicians who feed them.  These people aren’t specialists and they aren’t (usually) educators.  They are businesspeople who are concerned with making a profit by raising test scores using their products.  This will not prepare students for the future—it will most likely have the opposite effect.

There is, thankfully, a large team of specialists who have the energy, the drive, the ambition, and the experience to reform our schools the way they need to be reformed.  That team should be moving us forward with the know-how that our students need and deserve.  That team is made up of the millions of students and teachers in this country.  It’s time to revisit—and restructure—our middle schools to prepare our students for high school, for college, for work, and for life.  Since we’ve seen that the “top-down” model hasn’t worked and will not work, let’s start from the bottom up. Let’s use our real, collective expertise to make a real difference in the lives of our students.  We got into teaching for this reason; it’s time to stand up, take it all back, and make it count.

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Stereotypes of Education

I recently read several articles from scientists and science educators relating the stereotypical images of mad scientists to the aversion of some students to study and enter STEM fields–especially girls.  Here’s something a little bit related.

I was perusing a stock photo site through its education category and noticed something equally as weird, at least, if not disturbing.  Out of 119 images, I counted five that contained any image of technology beyond a calculator, and those five images simply had pictures of desktop computers.  You know which staple of education gets the most press in these images?  Go on, guess!

It’s the CHALKBOARD!  I didn’t count, but I’ll estimate that 90% of the images I saw contained a chalkboard of some kind.  Also highly prevalent were images of people smiling next to stacks of huge textbooks, rows of desks, and somebody lecturing to other people.  

Obviously, stock photography can’t be treated as an accurate reading on the pulse of education.  But isn’t it still somewhat, I don’t know, depressing that this is how the world generally views it?

Let’s (Re)Start at the Beginning

The first days of a school year have always been a little nerve-racking for me.  Not because I’m scared of young adolescents, but because I’m a little nervous about my ability to do all the things I want to do and set up all the expectations and impressions I want.  Most (if not all) teachers agree that the first days of school are the one chance you get to set the tone for the entire school year ahead.  There’s a just a bit of pressure there.  Because of that, there have been countless articles, books, lectures, workshops, and trainings created just for the purpose of helping teachers–old and new–succeed on their first days of school.  I’ve been to these trainings, I’ve read Dr. Wong’s book, and I follow this blog with care and attention. And then I spend weeks preparing.  It’s never been the same thing two years in a row, and it will be different this year as well.

I’ve already mentioned that I want to use Common Sense Media’s Digital Citizenship Package because it includes community building activities and lessons in addition to the digital theme.  It’s not enough, however, so I want to list some things I’ve never tried before or things I have tried before but have added or deleted something.  Feedback is very, very welcome here, since I’d love to hear experiences with the items in the list or new ideas that may work even better.  There are several ways to give me that feedback underneath this article!

Formal Introductions First 

In the past, the first time I was introduced to my students was during the initial roll call.  I tried to pronounce a name and looked for the hand in the air.  Then, I wrote what the student preferred to be called next to the official roster name before quickly moving on to the next name.  And that’s what my students were at that point: names.

What if I were able to look at all of my students as I talked to them for the first time?  I’m thinking of having them wait outside my room against the wall so that I can shake each hand, introduce myself, and hear them introduces themselves.  That way, I know the name, the face, and the nickname up front.  I might even have a couple of people next to each other introduce themselves to each other.  This idea could also be done in the classroom, as I move table to table, so I will need more time to consider each scenario.  Please leave a comment with your ideas!

Either way, I believe this will achieve an important effect: every student coming into my class will know that (1) I know who they are from that point on and (2) every one of them is important to me.

The Old “Answers On an Index Card” Trick…Digitally

Is there a teacher who hasn’t used a variation of the get-to-know-you method of having students fill in answers to trivial questions on an index card and turning them in?  What if it were digital?  I’m currently creating a Google Docs Student Survey that my students next year will complete on their digital devices during the first few minutes of class.  Then, I would like to create a digital survey where students can select responses to question that are related to community building.  This will open up early discussion and, hopefully, the creation of a learning community.

I think I will leave off the favorite food and color questions.  We’ve got to keep something open to talk about!  Actually, one of my brighter students last year asked why I needed to know what they all like to eat.  I finally faced the truth that I didn’t need to know that and that I was simply filling a response space.  That’s a bad habit.

Get Them to Collaborate…Like, NOW!

I will find a way to get groups of students working together on the first day.  I hated listening to my teachers drone on for most of the block on the first day about procedures, rules, schedules, grading policies and scales, discipline, their kids and pets, and how they can be bribed by chocolate/coffee/cold, hard cash.  I also don’t really like being the teacher who drones on about those things (and I totally don’t take bribes).

So, this year, I will ask my students to find the items in that list as a collaborative team and prepare a short discussion to share with the class.  This will get my students started right away using the technology and each other as important tools.  I would like to see it also open several discussions so that we may further get to know each other.

Assign Homework

I know what you’re thinking: “Real original there, Nielsen,” and “That’s a great way to get them to like you.”  I love irony, too, so thank you for sharing!  Anyway, I want them to get geared up for the global learning experience I have been building, so I want them to work as a global student.  I will start simple by having them comment on a blog post, an online discussion, or other collaborative effort.  I want these students to be comfortable sharing their ideas and creativity with other people, and not just the people in the classroom with them.  Pretty soon, they will be creating their own blog posts and online documents.  Get ’em started early!!

What Else?

Give me some more ideas that have worked for you.  Let’s share!

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