Monday, September 30, 2013

The 180-degree teacher's challenge (Part 2)

This session provided me with an opportunity to meet a challenge head-on, as well as  to practice acceptance, willingness, and being in the present moment. The results were mixed on a student-by-student basis: some passed, some failed, some moved to a more appropriate level; however, all taught me a little something about hot to tackle a challenge of this size in the language learning classroom. From this experience I took away five important actions to take when faced with a struggling class.

1. Assess
Though I am not typically a huge fan of traditional assessments, when faced with a class of consistently failing students I was forced to accept the need for some form of assessment in order to evaluate what the heck was going  on with this group of students. Assuring the students that this evaluation was only for my purposes (not for a grade), and that it was essential for me to know their true skills and abilities, ensured that I was provided with honest and thorough information about exactly what they knew, and much of what they did not know. It was a crucial first step to take before moving forward with this group.

2. Brainstorm
With a failing class (a class that has been failed?) it is important to try something new. Obviously what had been done in the past with this group did not work. I took this opportunity to brainstorm as many ideas as I could muster of topics/activities/plans of attack which I believed may inspire and engage these students, and which just might help them achieve and pass on to the next level. My ideas ranged from the practical to the crazy, and included writing personal statements  for university applications (working on tasks which they considered valuable and relevant), grading students based on spelling correctness (reframing my expectations and upping the stakes),  and bringing mad libs into the classroom (working with parts of speech while entertaining students). Some ideas I used, others I did not. Ultimately the brainstorm proved to be the most helpful, because it allowed me to open my mind and think outside of the box. In order to get different results we need to take different action, and this is what I hoped to accomplish by brainstorming.

3. Communicate
In the IEP world,  it is unfortunately not all that uncommon for students to fall into the “failing pipeline” and be lost. Be it attendance issues, study habits, or poor performance on heavily-weighted assessments, it happens. Sad but true. I think that so often we fall short as teachers by assuming that students know what we expect, know how to do the job, know what the consequences will be if they dont. And that is just not true. In my attempts to turn this class around, I made a commitment to take personal responsibility for communicating openly and honestly with these students about exactly what they needed to do and why.  I also made a request for students to communicate with me about what they were struggling with, what they needed more of, and what they were going to do in order to be successful. I believe that this was  one of, if not the most, effective approach with  these students. It was clear how much they appreciated being spoken to openly and honestly, because they reciprocated in the same manner. As a result, the classroom became a comfortable common space in which goals and objectives and actions were clear to all involved.

4. Be accountable
After communicating openly and honestly with students about needed to be done, I had to hold up my end of the bargain. If I was asking them to give 100%, I needed to match that (at least!). In this class, being accountable meant providing students with all of the help and support they needed to be successful. It meant providing them with all the information they needed to be effective, it meant being there when I said I would be available to them. I made a promise to students at the beginning of the session, telling them that we were on a team and that I would do whatever I could to help them be successful. Continuing to be accountable showed my students that I was going to follow through, and (hopefully) inspired them to do the same.

5. Meet the students where they are
A couple of days into the session, it became clear that many of the students had continued to fail because they were in the wrong class. They had continued to be passed from level to level, and yet their skills were not in line with the objectives for their current level.  While a part of me felt obligated to achieve the goals and objectives for the class, another part of me felt a great deal of compassion for the students, and wanted to reevaluate what I was teaching in order to align more closely with their true level. I felt torn. Ultimately I made the difficult decision to throw the objectives out the window and teach to the students, not to the book. Did this go against what I was assigned to do? Yes. Was I breaking protocol? Yes. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely. The students had no chance at succeeding as long as they were being taught material which they were not prepared to learn. So we went back to basics, working on building a strong foundation upon which greater knowledge could develop. But we needed to start somewhere, and meeting the students where they were in that moment (not where I wanted/expected them to be) made all the difference.

While I don’t believe that this is by any means a complete list, taking some simple actions really made a huge difference with this group. I still have mixed feelings about the class. Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Would a different teacher/approach/method/material/technique have been more effective? I may never know. But I can rest easy knowing that I did my best in the moment. I have another unique experience to tuck into my teacher’s tool belt, and at the end of the day, thats all I can ask for.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The 180-degree teacher’s challenge

My first week back at work I was presented with a series of significant challenges. We are in the midst of some big changes around the center, from new and interim staff members to  a long history of problematic patterns and issues which are finally being dealt with. I don’t feel the need to go into specifics, but suffice it to say that as a teacher and a member of the curriculum team I have been taking a central and difficult role in tackling these challenges head-on. I am overwhelmed, stressed, exhausted, and worried. However I am also being presented with countless opportunities to suit up and show up, give 100% of my time, effort and abilities and truly feel at the end of the day like I have made a significant contribution. It feels good, in a sick and twisted kind of way...

The most recent of the challenges which has been thrown my way is a class of failing (failed) students, all of whom are repeating a Level 5 Reading and Writing class for the first or second time. They have all had issues with attendance, poor performance on evaluations, and personal issues with previous teachers. For most of them, this is their last shot. If they fail, they are out.  This particular group started the session with another teacher, but due to personality differences (complaints) we were forced to make a change in order to keep the students at our school. So we decided to pull a switcheroo. In the middle of the first week of classes I was asked to take over this class from the other teacher, with the vote-of-confidence that they believed I would be better equipped to handle (wrangle) this class and hopefully achieve what has been impossible so far, seeing them pass onto the next level.

What an order! I was again nervous, overwhelmed, sad to be leaving my other class, and a little doubtful as to whether I was the right person to take on this challenge. But there was no one else, and so today I walked into the classroom and began. I appealed to the part of the students that I  knew wanted to improve. I spoke to them honestly and openly. And I tried to come to terms with the fact that I was being trusted with a group of students and the task of helping them turn it all around in just four weeks.

So here I sit, nervous and excited by the most intensive of all Intensive English Program tasks I have ever been tasked with. I want to truly embrace this challenge and see what I can make of it, inside and outside of the classroom. I will be using this as an opportunity to enhance my reflective practice with daily journaling, as well as pulling out every trick in my book to help  these students achieve the ideal in terms of academics, behavior, evaluations, etc.., and in the end, seeing if I can get these guys to pass.  I am going to be documenting as I go, affectionately naming this undertaking “The 180 degree teacher’s challenge,” because thats what it is.  I look forward to engaging myself and my students and measuring  to what extent I am able to effect real and meaningful change in the classroom.