Monday, July 12, 2010

Teaching like a Champion

**Sorry this is such a long post. I am really processing this topic.**

Every day we have a 60-90 minute session called "Teacher Moves." In these sessions, we learn some techniques that are practiced by excellent teachers. So far, we have been focusing on classroom management.

Most of our teacher moves come from Doug Lemov, who did a lot of work with Uncommon Schools, a network of charter schools in New York and New Jersey that works with low-income students and has achieved impressive gains in test scores. Lemov has just published a book of these strategies, titled "Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that Put Students on the Path to College."

Some of these methods have really resonated with me, and others have given me pause. For example, one of the biggest components of the culture in Uncommon Schools is something called SLANT, which was first implemented in KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program, another national network of charter schools). Slant is designed to "maximize students' ability to pay attention." It stands for:

Sit up.
Ask and answer questions.
Nod your head.
Track the speaker. [This means follow the person speaking with your eyes.]

Sounds good, right? In the videos that accompany the book, we see teachers constantly reminding kids to "show me SLANT" or to "track." And here's where I get uncomfortable. Because in some of these videos, the classrooms start to look like a barracks. The desks are in perfect rows, the students sit perfectly straight on command, they all turn (in unison!) and look at the student who is speaking on command. This bothers me. I am a complete believer in establishing classroom routines. But I'm not so sure that they need to be classroom regimens.

I was talking to one of my friends before I began this year about my desire to be a teacher. He told me that he was really interested in it, but that he didn't want to be part of the system that keeps the working and lower classes in place. This is something that I take very seriously. In one of our classes recently, we staged a debate. One side argued: "American schools have improved social equity." The other side argued: "American schools have served to reproduce inequality." It was a tie--the history supports both sides.

When we think that we are teaching low-income students "how to do school," then, I think we need to be very careful about how we acculturate them to school. Yes, we want to be efficient; yes, we want to maximize instructional time so that we can "close the achievement gap." But when we implement these strict regimens, are we perpetuating differences between these students and middle class students who are not taught the same way? I'm really not sure.

We've read a couple of perspectives on disciplining children here that are instructive. Annette Lareau writes in "Unequal Childhoods" (2003) that children from low-income families tend to be disciplined with commands and occasionally also corporal punishment. Children from middle-class families, on the other hand, tend to be raised with "scientific motherhood" styles in which children are often allowed (too much) to negotiate punishments, and obedience is deemphasized. At the same time, children from working and lower-class backgrounds tend to have more unstructured time and therefore develop their creative faculties better than students from middle-class backgrounds, whose lives are so structured that they often feel at a loss when they are asked to be spontaneous. At the same time, however, Lareau's research suggests that the discipline structures of lower-class families can cause children to lag in their language development, which translates into deficiencies in cognitive development. For this reason organizations like the Harlem Children's Zone hold a class called "Baby College" in which they try to teach expectant mothers to use "scientific motherhood" techniques.

Given these backgrounds, Lisa Delpit's book "Other People's Children" (1996) makes the case that children from working and lower-class backgrounds understand power in terms of direct commands rather than circuitous requests that are secretly also commands--"Please sit down," and not "Would you mind sitting down?" According to Delpit, lower-class children might not understand the latter as a command (even though it is one); when the student views sitting down as a choice and chooses not to sit down, he is labeled a behavior problem. Delpit argues that (white) middle-class teachers need to understand that, like it or not, they are the authority figures in the room, and they need to be explicit and consistent when exercising that authority. In other words, you think you're being the nice white lady, but you're actually just betraying your students' trust by being inconsistent.

Both Lareau and Delpit's arguments suggest that the students at "reform"-minded schools--and, indeed, probably all students--do benefit from clear directions and expectations that are consistently enforced. But nowhere does it say that these expectations need to be militaristic. And when I'm trying to teach my students to be critical thinkers and good democratic citizens, the top-down thing starts to freak me out. And I'd like to think that I'm not being naive here--idealistic, yes, but not naive. I believe that you can "create the perception of order at all times" without turning your students into good little robots.

So here's where Lemov can be slightly more comforting. He places a lot of emphasis on positive framing--giving students positive instruction and interacting more with students who are on task and behaving according to expectations rather than the ones who are not. He also has a section called "Warm/Strict" in which he makes a compelling case that these two features of good teachers are not contradictory: "When you are clear, consistent, firm, and unrelenting and at the same time positive, enthusiastic, caring, and thoughtful, you start to send the message to students that having high expectations is part of caring for and respecting someone" (213). This is something I can get behind. One other idea that someone told me is to have students contribute when creating classroom expectations.

In "The Trouble with Black Boys" (2008) Pedro Noguera asked students to list "characteristics of a school where you would be excited to learn." Noguera provides a more compelling rationale for many of the teacher moves than maximizing time on task. The students from his survey said that "teachers should be firm and not allow students to get away with preventing other students from learning" (p. 65). When put this way, I can see the behavior management policies as demonstrating care for all students. Caring for all students and ensuring that they learn is certainly a higher priority for me than inculcating "good" behavior--or obedience--for its own sake. It is reassuring to know that students want to see the teacher be in control of the classroom.

Even though I recognize that students don’t always know what is best for them, I think we as teachers are much more vulnerable to erring on the side of caution, of believing that we have to make our students take their medicine. If our strategies and actions as teachers are motivated by what the students tell us will help them learn, then those strategies feel more authentically motivated than if they are in response to abstract ideas of "respect" or "time on task."

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