Thursday, June 18, 2015

Concrete Steps to Success

One Saturday morning my wife and I went to the community center to watch 2 teams of 8 year old boys play basketball. Watching 8 year old boys do almost anything is fun. For me, listening to what their fathers say during the game is at least as interesting. A father sitting behind us would say the same thing each time his son's team made a mistake. He would plead with them "Come on you guys, play smarter!!!!!!" I wondered if any boy on that team knew what he meant by that. I'm confident they heard him but I am equally confident that the words carried no meaning to them. To say 'play smarter' sounds good but it is too vague to most people, especially little boys. That type of counsel is incapable of moving people forward and helping the process of learning.
In the book Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov tells of a time he was playing soccer and while on defense the coach would continually yell, "Defense, you guys, defense." Then he says, "We were pretty aware that we were on defense, though, and also pretty aware we weren't playing it especially well." Then he got another coach who broke down the art of defense into six understandable, sequential steps. During practice the coach would work the boys through the steps. Then, in a game the coach would remind them of the steps with just a few words and the boys knew what those words meant and would adjust accordingly.

Teaching students how to be members of a class and how things are done in the classroom takes time, but far less time if we are able to put things in a series of steps, or practices that will quickly enhance the learning experience. Here is one example for the way we could begin class: when I teach a class I want students to come into the classroom and before they sit down I want them to have three things. I want them to have their books, a notebook to write in and something to write with. The first week of school I will remind them constantly not to sit down until they have their things. Some years I would create a little acronym for them to remember, something like "BBP" (book, binder, pencil) or "BNP" (book, notebook, pen). It didn't matter what it was as long as it urged them, and reminded them, to be ready as they sat down. It was a concrete step for them to follow.

Students get annoyed when I say, "Why aren't you ready for class?" It isn't enough to say, "Get ready." In order to be effective and to give them some way to measure their readiness, I have to give them solid, meaningful steps.

Concrete steps work in a lot of different situations in class. If I am going to put the students in small groups I can't just say, "Get together and talk about this." That is a recipe for disaster. I have to give them something to think about, give them time to think about it and formulate a response, then put them in groups and appoint a leader, and tell them what I want them to do with the thoughts they have just had and how to work together on it. Finally I have to tell them what type of outcome I am looking for from the group and how much time they have to accomplish the objective. In the beginning of doing small groups I would even write the steps down and give them to each student. They could then see step one, step two, and so on and follow along. After not much time they would know how to do things and could follow the steps and have a much better experience.

Setting it up like is initially time consuming, but the result is so much better. Students do better with structure. Classes run smoother with structure. The teacher needs to lead the way to create that structure in the classroom.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Everyone Should Speak

There is an almost perfect formula for classroom dynamics found in Doctrine and Covenants 88:122. If you have ever wondered about how much you speak as a teacher and how much time should be allotted to students to speak, this passage should be of great help to you.

The passage begins by saying that a teacher needs to be appointed. The appointment can come from different places depending on the teaching venue. It could be the school board for public school teachers and it could be a local priesthood leader for a church teaching assignment. Someone makes a decision that this person will teach the class and do all that is inherent in that assignment. One of the duties not necessary to the assignment (and indeed hazardous to the assignment) is that the teacher do all of the talking

Everyone in the class has the assignment to speak and all have the assignment to listen. That sounds so simple but think about it for a minute. If you are a teacher, picture the students in your class and ask yourself if you trust them to say something useful in the class, something that will add to the flow of what happens during the class period. Do you? Do you trust them enough to allow them to speak and stumble through to a useful idea? I was teaching a class recently and a young man raised his hand with something to say. I acknowledged him and he paused for a second and then said, "I have something in my mind to share but the thoughts are still jumbled and unclear. Maybe you should come back to me." I told him that he could think out loud with us and we would all see if something did come clear. He started to talk and was able to formulate his thought and it added to the discussion. Would you have trusted him that he would come up with something useful?

If you are like so many teachers I have observed, the answer to that question is "no." It is a very difficult thing for a teacher to remain silent. We worry. We are concerned that nothing is happening. It took me a long time to learn to stop talking and listen, but once I learned to be quiet in a classroom, my experience became a very different one. I came to understand that students were thinking and formulating a response and if I kept talking they would never be allowed to express themselves. I came to know that they would respond in a rough, fragmentary way because of inexperience and a lack of confidence. Even outwardly confident students would hesitate to speak their thoughts. They rarely came out in fully constructed sentences. They were a jumble and often incoherent. But it was a starting place.

The commandment says "let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings." We expect that when the teacher speaks all will listen. We should also hold the same expectation that when a student is allowed to speak (which should be often) we will all listen, including the teacher. And the teacher should listen intently, without thinking of his next thing to say, but rather listening with the idea of actually hearing what the student has to say. The promise is that all will be edified of all.

What I say as a teacher may be more refined, more directly to the point and easier to understand but it is not more important than what a student says. If we want our students to learn how to speak better they need to have an arena in which to practice. Our classroom can be the place. Even rough and unpolished statements from students can be of immense value to all of us.