Thursday, March 6, 2014

Taxation without Representation

Here we are at the last of the top five concerns of the typical middle schooler. My opening analogy comes from colonial American history *insert fife and drum fanfare.*

Taxation without representation was one of the ways the colonists were most annoyed with the mother country; that is, they had to pay for a government that they were not a part of. They had to give part of their wages for a system that did not have the slightest concern for their opinion. Enough of that and there's a rebellion. Same with our dear middle schoolers.

Hannah believes that there needs a time where student concerns are addressed if teachers expect absolute obedience. A certain amount of respect is required from students for them to do what you ask, and that respect must be earned.

“I feel like they don’t want to listen to me. All they care about is being bossy. I think they're teachers because they like bossing people around. I feel like they don't care."

I assume that most people who have chosen middle school education as a profession do indeed care about his or her students, but they do need to be careful to not imply they don’t care in more subtle ways.

For example, the way the school day is structured in and of itself usually allows no time or place for students to express their concerns. They don't factor in student input when they're planning their time, but there could be a simple modification by holding short community meetings, a time to share concerns about the learning environment. More and more schools have started using a portion of their homeroom time as an open forum. Of course, sometimes students may turn an inch of freedom into a foot and abuse this free speech time to make destructive comments. But there are too many students with valuable input of how to improve the learning community to avoid meetings in fear of those select few abusing their privileges.
While a counselor is profitable for a student’s personal issues, a teacher can help make the classroom a better community by listening to its members’ suggestions of improvement.

“How much choice and voice do you have, Hannah?”

"I have the choice of what color ink I can use: blue or black."

So, I would say the typical middle school student feels powerless. Not a good thing at this age level when they need to be discovering their voice.

By practicing a little more democracy in the classroom, students will most likely 1) respect you more for respecting their opinion, and 2) find new leadership skills they never thought they had when given an opportunity to suggest improvements. And again, I am back to the theme that pervaded my Teaching in the Middle class and consequently, all of these blog entries: creating a community of learners. Everyone is valuable. Everyone is respected. Everyone is an integral piece of the puzzle! Thanks for reading, and best regards to both current and aspiring middle school educators.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A longing for belonging.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs famously claims that safety is the second out of the top five human needs. Interestingly enough, Hannah brought up the exact words that she does not feel safe in her classroom. “Because of the students or the teachers?” “Both,” Hannah replied. “The students exclude you, and the teachers get on you for dumb stuff but not the important stuff, like when people are being mean.”

As many roles as teachers have to play, a referee is usually not one of the most preferential ones. Not only is it unpleasant, most teachers don’t have time for it. When the students are having social time, the teachers take it as a few precious moments to catch up on their work. However, I would argue that the teachers should listen in, monitor, and model positive conversation for their students. If we want to build a community in our classroom, it has to be consistent. During social times such as lunch, during class, during breaks, respectfulness must be enforced at all times. Much of the bullying could be stopped with a little more prevention. Kids will be kids, but they are less likely to engage in belittling conversations when a positive role model is listening in.

The school environment could also feel unsafe because of the amount of risk involved academically. “One of my teachers threatens to give you a detention when you don't put parentheses around your final math answer. If you breathe wrong, they'll kill you, basically," Hannah added with a roll of her eyes.

I know the importance of classroom management, but strongly oppose flat-out tyranny. Punishment for a wrong answer or a momentary forgetfulness about classroom procedure (I know if I had to work a math problem on the board, I would be so paranoid about getting the right answer that I would barely be able to get an answer to begin with, much less remember to put parentheses around it!) A tyrannical classroom shuts students’ brain power right away. There might as well be a “no learning allowed” sign posted in the classroom, because learning is taking risks. In this type of classroom, students don’t want to share ideas. They cringe when they are called on to work a problem on the board. They are afraid to ask questions. “I’m afraid they'll put me down and make me feel stupid. My teacher makes me so nervous. I'm afraid when she calls on me because I'll probably say the right answer since I'm nervous. When I ask questions, sometimes she acts like it's a dumb question, and sometimes she doesn't, which confuses me." Basically, the classroom is volatile and unpredictable. The last thing a tumultuous middle schooler needs.

We all have bad days. We all have moments when the alarm clock goes off and we want to toss it out the window because we were up all night grading papers. But, the mood of the teacher sets the mood of the entire classroom. Ever heard the expression, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” Same principle.

Although the teacher is highly responsible for setting the tone of his or her classroom, there is an underlying fear among middle schoolers simply because of their developmental level. That fear is looking stupid. "I feel like I can't say anything in class. They'll think it doesn’t make sense.” Beneath all of this is an intense need to be accepted. This problem will always be there in the back of middle schoolers’ minds, but again, enforcing a community environment will help. They need to be able to take academic risks without being threatened. Be able to throw out ideas without the fear of being shut down. That’s how they will eventually become comfortable with themselves, and that underlying fear of looking stupid to their peers will slowly diminish.

“How could teachers improve this safety issue?” I asked Hannah in conclusion. “Be not scary," she replied in a sagacious tone.

“How could students improve this?” "Accept you."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Leaving the drama to Shakespeare: how to nip exclusion in the bud!

Drama is so much more than a Shakespearean genre of fine art. Sometimes it can be a flat-out terror, as anyone who has gotten through middle school alive knows. When Hannah listed drama as one of the top concerns she has about middle school, I asked her to define the term to make sure we were on the same page. She pulled up her wifi-powered iPod and entered the term on Google. "Webster says, 'a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces,' but I say it's 'people acting like big babies.'" "Howso?" I replied with a snicker. "Like, overreacting. Acting like they're 25 years old when they're really 12. Oooooh, boys! Oooooh, clothes! Oooooh, fashion! Blah blah blah. And I say 'who cares?' It's all the stereotypical girl stuff."

And for a tomboy like Hannah, these are quite boring subjects. She feels like she has no place in her classmates' conversations. I told her that maybe it was nothing personal; maybe they don't know how to relate to Hannah since they have different interests. "I'm way different than all of them," she adds. "They don't watch anime and weird stuff like me. So even when they include me, it's like they don't get me. I still don't fit in. I only talk about fandom references." I looked down at her Invader Zim shirt and saw why this might be the case.

I told her it was wonderful that she had such unique interests, but she must keep in mind that everyone else does as well. Part of trying to make new friendships work is meeting in the middle and trying to understand each other's point of view. "I try to engage in their conversations," she says, "but I just don't get them." She tries to talk about what they're interested in, but also tries to change the subject occasionally, which she is entitled to do. "That's when it all goes ehhhh... think the problem is they always want to talk about themselves."

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. As I have said, this is the time that adolescents are experimenting with who they are. They try out their interests by talking about them. But what can we as teachers do to make sure this self-exploration does not come at the cost of exclusion of others?

I firmly believe that much of this problem can be addressed by the tone we set in our classroom. By equally valuing everyone's opinion, and being scrupulously fair, your students will appreciate that effort and most likely model that behavior toward their classmates. Making your classroom a community, an open forum where everyone feels welcome to share their thoughts, also gives them practice not only expressing their own ideas, but also to actively listen to others' ideas.

Hannah agrees with this community model. "Every once in a while the teacher should say, 'Ok, I want to make sure you're being nice and talking to everyone.' They usually encourage us to be nice to and talk to the new people, but I wish they would encourage my classmates to do that for everyone, not just the new kids!"

Friendliness is contagious. If you include everyone and foster interaction within your classroom, your students will become more tight-knit, and much of the drama problem will take care of itself as students learn to appreciate each others' ideas.

"Any more perspectives on drama?" I asked Hannah at the end of our interview. She simply replied with a raspberry noise.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Relativity of Creativity: Being Flexible with Students' Varying Abilities

Here it is--number two on the top five list of principles Hannah would like to change about middle school--the lack of opportunity to showcase creativity.

That same teacher we talked about last week that rules her classroom with a ruler usually rules it with a pencil as well. This week's post has a similar tone to last week's: few opportunities to talk, and specifically, few opportunities to use individual talents. Do students need to learn how to take tests? How to write research papers? Absolutely. But, I think this picture sheds some light on why those should not be the only assessment methods.

The monkey looks delighted, at least. But how is this method fair to all students? I recognize it is impossible to be completely fair at all times, but I believe teachers should try to accommodate all types of talents. Think about it: when students enter the workforce, they will be required to do tasks that involve synthesis of ideas. Invention of objects. Teachers should prepare them for this vast variety through different types of assessments that involve synthesis to stretch and prepare the students for whatever may come their way. If possible, students should even have frequent opportunities to choose their own assessment method. A little choice goes a long way; not only does the student feel respected by the teacher's consideration for their varying talents, but he/she also will feel more confident about the assessment and have less testing anxiety. As long as the student is using upper level taxonomy thought processes, the method should not matter. In fact, since many school's tests (including Hannah's) consist of simple memorization, using the student's choice of assessment, whether an art project, a music video, a newspaper article, etc. based on the unit of learning would actually involve MORE critical thinking and synthesis than a paper and pencil test!

So that's one important way creativity should be integrated into the classroom that I learned in my Teaching in the Middle class with Dr. Roukema. But I also have some commentary from the peanut gallery, Miss Hannah.

(By the way, here's me and THE Hannah herself! I talk about her so much, I figured you would want to meet her! And yes, we ARE this crazy.)

And here's more of a "normal" picture with our good friend Pluto, our favorite character to meet at Disney World.

Hannah's concerns about the killing of creativity are more in the fine arts department than in the core subject classrooms. This kid can flat-out draw, and sadly, there are no opportunities to use her best talent either for assessment or for art's sake itself! The one time Hannah chose art as her elective, she told me there was simply too much structure. Her strengths are cartoon drawings, but she was mostly told to draw landscapes every class period. Here we have a young mind bursting with ideas, longing to express them, yet she is told exactly what to draw rather than being encouraged to explore. There is a new emphasis within the art classroom on exploring themes rather than specific scenes. Drawing something having to do with your idea of family. Or what your life would look like if a genie gave you three wishes. That leads to a much wider range of exploration and creativity than giving such specific directions in every class. "Art isn't all about skill: it's about creativity," Hannah emphasizes. And she needs more room to explore it. Hannah wants the arts to be more like...well...the ARTS. Free range creativity!

Another creative talent Hannah has is her comedic skills. I remember Hannah saying at age 4 that she wanted to be a comedian, and I fully believe she could be. She smiles a lot and finds humor in everything, and more often than not, that gets her into trouble. Teachers think she is in on an inside joke and trying to spread it around the classroom, but she's just happy!

Another important lesson I learned in Dr. Roukema's classroom is to pick your battles as a teacher. Not only do you not have time to stop the class every five seconds to get on a student for not behaving ideally, you also do not want your students to feel stifled: like every move they make is wrong. There should only be one circumstance that warrants a reprimand from the teacher: if the behavior inhibits the student's or fellow students' learning processes. Yes, sometimes there can be a wildfire of laughter if a joke goes out of control, but a little laughter won't harm anyone. Again, we go back to the idea of creating a community. If a teacher laughs at a student's creativity in their wit (as long as it doesn't go TOO far), he/she is sending an important message: I care what you have to say. Let's not forget that these are kids. They like fun. They like laughter. And if you acknowledge that, you'll get a lot more respect as a teacher. I'm 20 years old and even I like a college classroom where there are frequent smiles!

The bottom line is, if students' creativity is stifled, whether through the lack of variety of assessments or the lack of a creative classroom environment, they will have no opportunities to express their individuality. At this stage of development, that skill is absolutely vital. These kids must learn who they are through experimentation, exploration, and expression-the only way to truly discover identity is to put yourself out there! Try out your ideas. See how they sound. If you don't like them, revise them. And eventually, through trial and error, a middle schooler will come closer to finding himself/herself.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Mental Ruler-Slapping in Classrooms of Silent Students

We've all had nightmares about it: the strict teacher with a German accent and pigtail buns waiting to slap her ruler on the next student that moves a muscle. Thank goodness that this (mostly) doesn't happen anymore, at least physically, but are modern teachers verbally slapping kids with a ruler when they move mentally?

The number one factor that my sister wishes were different in her middle school is more chances to speak. The last thing middle schoolers, or any student, needs is to be talked at all day, for a variety of reasons. The students are damaged both academically and personally. Sadly, the teaching styles in many middle school classrooms do not lend themselves to directly involving students, except maybe asking them a review question here and there. "I want more talking time," my 7th-grade sister Hannah said with a dramatic pound of her fist on the kitchen table. "You can't express yourself. You are just given facts. BORING." Basically, the schoolday is a mass feeding of trivia that may be useful on Jeopardy someday, but for real world critical thinking skills. Of course, teaching facts is inevitable. But if the teacher never encourages students to tap into the hows and whys of the facts, the students are merely parrots, regurgitating what they have heard. Memorization is on the lowest rung of the taxonomy ladder, after all. "Put us in groups," Hannah suggests. "Give us interesting stuff to discuss! Oh, and reward us. Candy is good." Take notes, future teachers. Go for more than memorization. Probe students for discussion. Have a jar of candy in your classroom. And not the cheap off-brand kind, either. "Preferably Reeses!" Hannah adds.

Not only do few talking opportunities damage students academically, it also damages them developmentally and personally. Remember back when you were in middle school? You had no clue who you were. There were a million different thoughts going through your head. You didn't know who you wanted to be. You were beginning to form your own ideas, but still heavily relied on your peers for guidance. You wanted to be an individual, but you were afraid to deviate too far from the norm.
Middle school is the prime time middle schoolers need to find their voice. Those thoughts floating around need an outlet. I went to a middle school and a high school that stifled and I didn't have to think for myself until college when I absolutely HAD to. I was used to having information fed to me and having to regurgitate it on test day. I never had to synthesize any of my own ideas. Middle school is the prime time for students' abstract thought processes to develop. These years when students are forming the person they will be for the rest of their life need to be full of talking, because talking equals thought processing. If a teacher makes his/her classroom an environment where free thought is encouraged, the student will learn to think independently. If every student is expected to express their opinion, the student will experiment with his/her own ideas and eventually learn what he/she believes and who he/she is. There will be an open forum. A community, if you will. Now that's a nice word! Community.

The classroom that throws information at students without any input from them is more of a tyranny than a community. I explained to Hannah that the modern middle school is a proponent of classrooms that are a community. "What does a community mean to you," I asked her, "and what would it mean for your classroom?" "Community means interacting with people other than 10 minutes at lunch. I'm not kidding, it's like ten minutes." She basically has to eat or talk. Not both. "I would rather go to jail than go to school!" I laughed and asked what would make a jail better. "Well....they don't control you...and you can wear whatever you want..." I looked at her skeptically and we both burst out laughing. "Well maybe not," she continued, "but at least you get free food and tv, and they let you go to the bathroom whenever you want. School expects you to hold it for 8 hours. Really?" By this point I was nearly crying with laughter. But, this is truly a quite serious matter. Hannah's budding mind has no opportunities to express ideas,  and as we all know, a mind is a terrible thing to waste! Memorization without synthesizing ideas is not only monotonous; it stunts the student's academic and personal development. Hannah continues, "I hate school. I dislike most of my teachers. School is horrible and I want it to go away." "What would make you say the opposite: that you love school, you love most of your teachers, school is awesome and you want it to stay forever?" I asked. "If the teachers didn't yell at you for stupid stuff and actually cared about you and let you wear what you want and listen to the type of music you want. I know they can't make everything fun, but they can make it better by giving it some variety." And that variety is talk time. The teacher is sending a message by not allowing his/her students to talk, and it is: "I don't care about your ideas." Whether that is the teacher's intention or not, that is how the students will feel. Just like the nightmare teacher ruler-slaps students who physically, some teachers ruler-slap students when they mentally move, or think, in other words. The students are being suppressed. This restrictive classroom environment is not conducive to learning.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Hello, my name is Ms.Skittles.

Allow me to introduce myself! The name on my birth certificate is Erin, but I prefer my long-time nickname of Skittles. Plus, that word allowed the title of this blog to rhyme, and I'm all about some poetry! In fact, I love anything involving reading SO much that I am planning to be an ELA teacher, preferably in 7th grade. I want to be right in the middle of the middle! It wasn't always that way, though: not until I decided to add a middle school extension to my English with high school teacher licensure degree, just to make myself more marketable. It turned out to be more of a passion than I imagined, thanks to the contagious enthusiasm of my Teaching in the Middle professor, Dr. Roukema, and a special inspiration very close to home: a 7th grader sibling named Hannah that I absolutely adore.

I told my sister I needed her help with a project of global importance. It's time to stop the reaction of groaning from anyone who hears the word "middle school!" It's time to debunk the stereotypes of a classroom full of kids doing the hokey pokey uncontrollably or shooting rubber bands at the teacher for the entire seven-hour duration of the school day. With a little attention to the developmental needs of middle schoolers, teaching them will be a rewarding experience for both the teacher and the students. And what are those needs, you may ask? Many of them are addressed in the Association for Middle Level Education's booklet This We Believe, which was an extremely informative source we studied in my Teaching in the Middle class. But I wanted to dig a little deeper, so I interviewed Hannah  to get an idea of the top 5 improvements she would like to see in her school. Yes, you read that right: you are about to discover the top 5 needs of a middle schooler, from an actual student in the middle of the middle in her natural habitat! What better source could there be?! I found that all of these issues could be remedied with a little bit of developmental responsiveness. Watch for my upcoming blogs about these top 5 issues:

1) More time to talk
2) Opportunities to showcase creativity
3) Less drama
4) A safe classroom environment
5) A set time to address student concerns

  Until next time,