Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The True Cost of the Classroom

I think everyone would agree that people across this country and most all countries of the world, enjoyed above all else being able to exercise their creativity and passion through projects of ranging size and ambition. Whether someone decides to train for a marothon, start a garden, or start a business, this drive for individuality and empowerment to push for some new connection with our deepest philosophies is incredibly healthy and powerful. Our philosophies must be allowed to be put into practice or we will feel the resulting oppression in a sincere and depressing way. Now, if you agree with this fundamental premise about human potential and spirit, then you must explain to yourself and those loved ones around you why the educational practices used day in and day out do not facilitate students' development of those same projects that invigorate and challenge our intellects. We must revise our schools to put into practice project based learning in some way in order to challenge our students to think critically about their world and what they hope to see. Such a project could with the right supervision turn into an intensive curriculum capable of teaching basic reading and math skills without the boring memorization strategies so commonplace today.

Inspiration, creativity, and empowerment must hit these young people before they will approach the classroom as though it were a tool rather than an obstacle. Through my teaching style I must be outlining and demonstrating the critical thinking skills students can build for themselves if they participate. Through a solution-creation process played out using short-session projects I can and already have fostered classrooms with respect, critical thinking, and creativity. My objective is and must continue to be to interest students in participating in critical thinking as creatively as they possibly can. Now piquing the interest of students is done through the interactive activities often infused with role playing and cooperative working groups, the participation comes from inviting students to present their work to peers, and the critical thinking arises through the evaluation and reflection on the data collected through activities they help to create.

Opposite this solution-creation process is an alternative tactic used by teachers to force information to students through memorization and work not requiring independent thought based on their own understandings of the subject matter. This tactic (known by many as the banking method of education) is an oppressive philosophy of standardization. Easy to prepare and distribute to students, this philosophy of education comes in the form of non-stop memorization, reading from alien texts created miles and miles from their homes and realities, and other lower level learning skills. The result of such a program is boredom, disengagement, and fewer positive skills acquired.

Student integration into classroom work through group dynamics conversations held with the class (to ensure optimal group work--translates to compassion, listening skills, etc.) and the prompting of student work plans would challenge them to see the classroom as a laboratory of critical thought. Showcasing problems in their communities and allowing them to design programs to solve said problem pushes students to work with real data and learn by creating.

Once suggested at a Slow Food conference in San Francisco a couple years ago, health activists should pressure school administrators to better the school lunches by forcing those same administrators to eat the food the students eat for a full year and see if they still believe school food to be permissible. Something very similar should be done with adults like what is done to students in many public school classrooms across the country. That kind of order and discipline should be enforced on adults just like the young students... oh wait we have something like that already. Prisons.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Revisions on Cooperative Learning

My educational style has evolved over the last three months of teaching nutrition in the Philadelphia school district. I have seen teachers who command the respect and attention of their students and I have seen teachers who's sole strategy for reigning in misbehaving students is to yell at the top of their lungs. As wide as the spectrum of teacher response is, its width is matched only by the limits of the singular failed curriculum. I truly believe the majority of the behavior problems teachers see in the classroom are a direct consequence of student boredom. Additional project based learning with real life application would work to reinforce the importance and relevance of class work, and give the students an aim to work toward. For instance, if a group of children wanted to work on refining their neighborhoods healthy food options, then a whole curriculum of interesting application comes into play. Such curriculum serves to engage students and once students are engaged they want to remain engaged. Now, it would be too simplified and ineffective to implement a discipline strategy that relies totally on an engaging curriculum. Instead, educators looking to solve behavior problems must also be aware of other needs not being met for misbehaving students. But, if nothing else, an engaging curriculum works to unmask the true motivator of student misbehavior. With a clear look at a child's motives, an educator can move to address the issue with resolve.

A great classroom management technique is using cooperative learning groups. By using student-led groups you enhance student control, initiative, and responsibility, thus, abdicating the burden of controlling the entire classroom for which an educator typically receives a great deal of resistance from students. What I have developed thusfar amounts to: grouping students together along with quick questions about compromise and team work at the onset of the activity, using time limits, and promises of prizes for groups that finish and present their work to the rest of the class, that's the extent of my cooperative learning group strategies.

What follows are suggestions for improved cooperative learning work:

Enforcing Equal Participation: So, often times a group will achieve a task without the participation of all the members of the group. While this might achieve the goal of learning more about a nutrition topic, without equal participation they might relate nutrition to the process of domination rather than democracy and equality. Working on the activity through equal participation ensures the kind of engagement that raises the probability of retention and interest in material. Domination within small groups by some group member raises the probability of resistance to the subject by the mere fact that they aren't enjoying the work.

Suggesting specific jobs for group members: This tactic eases the enforcement of equal participation. By suggesting jobs for specific group members you can raise the probability that each member will have some task to complete. More you increase the level of individual accountability because no one can resist work if they have a job to do and might face public attention. On the other hand, this kind of step can decrease the level of communication and team work as they split up the work and cease to work together.
Obviously this tactic requires special attention to implement effectively and sensitively. Perhaps suggesting jobs for individuals within the group and then a group job of putting everything together might accomplish the desired task of encouraging team work around nutrition.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Classroom Management Manifesto: The Potential of the Classroom

My intention for classroom management is to create a place where students have an interest in maintaining a positive classroom environment because it is theirs to use for their own benefit. In order to create that place an educator must convince the students of the potential of the classroom. Incorporate movement, interaction, acting, creativity, art, music, small group conversations, critical thinking and honesty and get the students to see and buy into this motivating classroom place, and you will find the students managing the classroom with you.

"A meeting, workshop, or classroom where everyone has the opportunity to move, laugh, speak, and share their ideas is going to be much more interesting and productive than a traditional lecture/question-and-answer format where very few people speak and even fewer people really listen. The skillful use of interactive methods creates a context in which group members get to know each other and have opportunities to participate actively in the group's work." (Moving Beyond Icebreakers, 11)

Reading this passage and similar ones from Moving Beyond Icebreakers I am reminded of work I did with one seventh grade teacher and his class. The connections between that class and this statement lie in the pursuit of fun and productivity and how to achieve both. How can I encourage students to share their ideas in a productive manner and keep the activities fun and interactive? The answers lie in relinquishing some of my control over the classroom and giving it back to the overwhelming majority in the room: the students. Guiding their conversations to a place where they can safely discuss with one another eases the burden of entertaining the group for the entirety and refocuses me on the task of facilitating a conversation about nutrition and food that is relevant to the people who matter: the students.

The activity I arranged was an indirect approach to understanding what students' motivations were. I was continually made the point that health is a means to achieve whatever ends you seek. I believed that if we could get young people talking about their ambitions and then somehow relate health/nutrition to their dreams, I would have an inspired group of students discussing and reinforcing the idea that health really does matter.

Not too long into the activity I found that at least 4 students weren't taking the activity terribly serious. Some of the resistance arose from the newness of the activity and some from students who had never really thought about their ambitions. Thus, with a good bit of noise unrelated to the class work, the teacher and I decided to articulate the problem in the room as we saw it. From the teacher the students heard: "when you reach the time when you think you need to be thinking about your ambitions and goals, it is already too late. Take this opportunity to really plan a future." And from me they heard something like: "This is your opportunity to really think deeply about your passion and your dreams. What do you love to do when you aren't at school? That's your passion... That's your ambition."

Now these comments were not at all destructive and they did do something to reign in the noise, but unfortunately the students were being told they weren't doing enough to accomplish the task of my exercise. Ideally, it would be me or the teacher articulating the group dynamic in the room, but instead, the group dictating itself. "A more effective approach is to come at the problem indirectly, giving the group the tools to help them recognize problems for themselves and articulate what they see," (Moving Beyond Icebreakers, 14). Realistically, I don't have time to give skill trainings on group dynamics diagnoses, but what I can do is create a quick and easy mini-activity to urge the students to think in the moment: what is happening in the room? And then reflect quickly and move on and continue the activity. The easiest technique to process what is happening in the room and encourage students to reign their own behavior in is to lay out the expectations in the very beginning of the activity, and then if/when the room is getting out of hand stop all conversation and ask the students if they are cooperating as they had talked about in the very beginning. In this way I would have relinquished some of my power, but the class will most likely be restored to the hum of student conversation around the desired topic. It isn't that students don't want to talk about these subjects, it's that they do but they don't get the chance to talk about it the way they want to. Open the lines of communication across a table or desk, give them a task, give them a chance to present to the rest of the class, give them something to strive for, and get out of the way.