Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Failure and whether or not it can be helpful/useful.  I feel like we are all wearing “kids gloves” when we interact with our students because everything about the school culture is to prevent failure.  I feel like there will be a big shock when they go to college and lose the safety net that they currently have.  In some cases, especially with the 9th graders, I feel like they have never seen any lasting consequences because they are always saved.  I wonder if this really is helpful or if they would benefit from failing and redoing their entire grade.

I know some people who did not do well in high school and then continued to not do well in college.  They failed classes at community colleges and have taken much longer to get through the college system than is expected.  During this time they have seen other people who used their time more wisely succeed and get jobs and become independent.  Now, they have the desire to do well, have learned more about what they want to do, and are successful in their classes. 

I’ve been wondering lately if this may be a better route for some.  Some students don’t care about school and don’t want to put in work.  I wonder if forcing them to work is really the best route, or if it would be better to let them fail, let them see how life is harder and less enjoyable so that they then come back and put in the work to do better.  I know that part of the teacher’s job is to work to foster their internal motivation, but I think it needs to be matched in some way by the student.  If it is not, maybe the student isn’t ready for school at that level yet.

Overall, I feel like we can’t be standards driven and have a culture of high standards if we also have a culture of zero failure.  The two just don’t work together unless the students are motivated on their own.  When the students don’t meet a standard they either fail or we lower the standard.  We can put as much support in place as we can, but if we force the student and carry them the whole time, they aren’t really meeting our standards.  I worry that lowering standards is worse than allowing failure and may do more harm in the long run.  I think this is a big reason why the students are so far below grade level when we get them and we aren’t fixing anything.

Observations at Different Schools

Currently I am enjoying my 9 day break for Thanksgiving, but I can’t seem to stop thinking about my school and my students.  Yesterday I went to two different schools with very different school cultures and resources from my school.  Both were private schools with a rigorous selection process that served students in the Bay Area.

In the first school I observed two physics classes where the students were working on a project to redo a lab they had previous done (their choice of which lab to redo) and push for more accurate results and eventually submit a formal lab report.  This process was self-directed and the teacher was about to mostly hang back and answer questions and occasionally make rounds around the room to check on progress.

The first thing I noticed was how different the classroom environment was.  The classes are capped at 16 students, making 4 lab stations of 4 students.  Each lab station had two computers to supplement the 1-1 iPad program, giving 6 technological devices (not counting phones) to ever 4 students.  They also had what appeared to be limitless supplies from Pasco and Vernier to allow them to take high quality data that is automatically graphed.  With iPads for every student, students are allowed to use Wolfram Alpha for tests and classwork, which opens more depth in the types of problems they can solve without getting frustrated in the mathematics.  It also serves as an equation sheet that they can call up by typing in the name of a physical quantity (eg “Work” produces F*d).  If students wanted to try something new they could bounce ideas off the teacher and find some materials to help them test a problem.

Once I got over the vast amount of resources in the classroom, I noticed how different the class culture is as well.  The overall school culture is very casual, with students moving from class to class without bells.  Depending on the individual’s schedule, there may be breaks between one class and another, allowing students to check in with other teachers, finish something in their previous class, or get ahead in their next class.  Since I was used to students racing out the door as soon as a period ends, it was amazing to see students choose to do work during a 15-20 minute break when they did not need to.  Even more amazing was that the teacher was able to leave the students in the room working on their labs during this time to get coffee and spend a few minutes out of the room.

After talking with the teacher, I learned that they students come with a lot of natural “buy in” and he was told that he worried to much about how to hook the students into a lesson.  The students were already ready to go, because it was a part of the school culture (influenced heavily by the admissions process) and needed little reinforcement from the teachers.

Another thing I really liked was their schedule.  It was very complex and would take a while to adapt to, but allowed teachers to choose whether or not to have blocked classes or regular classes.  If a teacher taught 2nd period there was a place on the schedule for 2L right after the normal period 2 or 2* on a different day.  The teachers chose which one they wanted to take and the students had a break during the other period.  The physics teacher always chose the block style (2L) so that longer labs could be done, but other teachers might prefer the shorter periods with the ability to see students more times per week.  AP students have both periods, increasing their instructional minutes per week (but loosing a break in their day).

There was also a “Meetings” period that was just an office hours time for teachers.  Students chose where they wanted to be and had time to do work silently or get help from a teacher.  This was a time to make up work or retake assignments.  This seemed to function in a similar way to our AI period (study hall) but allowed students to choose where they wanted to be and get the help that they needed.  The schedule seemed to allow a lot of flexibility to both students and staff, emulating college practices to prepare the students for their next step in education.

In the second school I went to (my high school), I helped proctor a chemistry class with my mom.  This school also had 1-1 iPads and I saw how great a focusing tool that can be.  In the class students worked on a chemistry project where they were looking up information on different common chemical compounds (eg, NaCl, or table salt) and following a series of prompts.  The class was quiet, with occasional questions from one student to another as students worked on their iPads.  During this time no effort was required on the part of the teacher.  The students just worked for the full 85 minutes.

This school also recently switched their schedule around and have a similar “office hours” type period.  All students have a free period where they can just hang out (quietly) or go to 1 of 3 “resource rooms” that are set up by subject (math/science/tech, language/religion, english/social studies).  Teachers also have a resource period where the go to their resource room and field any questions from students.  The rooms are great; they have a few tables with chairs, bookshelves with textbooks for those subjects, and computers.  Unfortunately, the period that students can go to these rooms may differ from when some of their teachers go to these rooms, so not every student/teacher pair can meet up.  Still, it seems to work for the people that can (and a math student could always get help for a math teacher that isn’t their teacher), and other students just have a quiet time to work, either in the library or other open areas.

Both of these schools had a culture that was way different from my own.  Students, in general, had a lot more buy in to their education and worked in a much more independent manner.  Their schedules were structured to facilitate that independence and give students a lot of choice in how they used their time at school.  Because of the high buy in and pro-school attitude, they used their time more productively and student seemed to have more initiative and personal responsibility.  I wonder how this culture can be created and adapted to schools like my own, where student attitudes start out in a very different place.

What Currently Works

Over the past week I have had a few experiences in the classroom where things just worked.  In an effort to not always be  negative and build on what seems to be successful, I am going to try to spend more time focusing on these elements that work to help find successful patterns.  A lot of what I have seen in this past week relates to my post about things that focus students.

In one of my classes I have a group of students that normally do not pay attention or engage in the material/discussion.  They don’t make much of an effort to learn and they don’t spend much time on their work.  Last week I allowed students to participate in many different activities and this group participated in a skit to show the forces that affect an object for a particular scenario.  They were working hard and had a lot of fun with it.  Their combined their creativity with their current knowledge, and I worked with them in a Socratic Dialog to help guide their skit and make it more correct from a physics perspective.  They had fun and developed their own thinking.

Today students were mostly focused in my class and some classes were better behaved than they had ever been.  They took a test and had a review before the test that ran very smoothly.  I started with a difficult problem that some students could get, but most did not know where to start.  I gave them a chance to work on their own, and then I solved it on the board with their guidance.  Following this, I put up two more problems on the board and asked them to solve it on their own.  I told them this was the last chance to practice and receive help before the test, and we worked through these problems.  The students all focused and tried the new problems.  Even students who didn’t attempt the first problems now worked and started asking me questions.  I think the focusing element here is showing them that they don’t know how to do something, then explaining it, then asking them to try it again.  If they don’t know that they need the help, they won’t listen when you try to explain it to them.

I also had some success with quieting students down initially by writing down their names to take points of their test in one class and keep them after school in another.  I let them know when their name was written down and most students were quiet immediately following that warning.  Other students responded well to positive narration about their good behavior.  This seemed to work well in conjunction with the large scale after school detention that one class had following a bad behavior day.  I think continuing these detentions will get the class on track and allow that period to get back on track and learn what they need to learn.

Focusing and Unfocusing

Friday was an interesting day in my physics classes.  The work we did really helped shed some light on activities that work to focus students and engage them all in work, and activities that immediately lose half the class.  Management and engagement has been a focus and big area for improvement for me, and Friday had times with students behaving at their best and worst.

At the beginning of the period, I gave each group a short problem where they had to draw Free Body Diagrams for different situations.  Each group was given a whiteboard and a marker.  Without doing anything extra (other than giving a time limit) students engaged in this activity and got to work.  Each table had students leaning in over their whiteboard as they drew the picture of what was happening and added force vectors to show each force.  It was the most focused I’d ever seen them (even more focused than when they take a test).

After this, my plan was for students to present their whiteboards and explain their solutions while I asked them questions.  This lost everyone, and half the class was talking or not paying attention to the group presenting.  This process went on for way too long and little good work came out of it.  I really want students to be able to present and listen to a presentation, but there were not accountability measures put in place.  I think if students had to answer the problems that they other groups did from the presentations that might help focus some of the students, but it was still just very disorganized.

In my last class, there were two additional activities that shed some light on what can focus students and what loses focus.  I originally planned to do a mini lecture on Newton’s 2nd Law while students took Cornell notes.  Once again, many students would talk or not pay attention and it just didn’t work.  I stopped that notes and just gave them the worksheet that they were going to practice after the short lecture.  The worksheet focused them a bit, and then telling them they won’t be dismissed until it is complete focused them a lot more.  In the end I brought the students who wanted to work on the worksheet with me to one table and as students talked or misbehaved I sent them to a different table to work on their own.  I ended up with most of the class around me as I solved problems.  In my solutions, I had students guide me by telling me what to write and offering some assistance.  The students definitely caught on and learned quite a bit at the end of this and it was a very successful last activity.  During this time, there were a few students who did not work and participate and did almost nothing in the class.  I decided that it was ok to let them be and give the students who wanted to learn a chance to work with me since I usually focus more on the problem students.

After this day, I worked on creating a student self pacing self selection list of activities for next week.  The idea here being that there is plenty of work that students who want to do their work and learn can do without needing my attention the whole time so that I can better focus on the students who need more monitoring.  I’m also rethinking my mini-lectures to give students good notes by making it more like a “worksheet” that needs to get done and they can do it through the book or listening to me.  I’m thinking about working with the Cornell Notes format and just giving a list of questions at the beginning that I can either walk the students through or they can use the book or a lab or something else.  They will end up getting the same end result as the Cornell Notes, but instead of me trying to get them to listen to me, they need to get me to help them answer their questions.  I hope this slight format change will result in more engagement and some better differentiation.