Monthly Archives: June 2014

“Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing”

One of the best hugs I received at this year’s high school graduation was from a student named Brett who literally exuded both pride and relief as we lined up for the ceremony; he’d made it! I’d worked with Brett when he was a sophomore, helping him develop independent learning strategies and executive functioning skills. I hadn’t seen him much since his sophomore year until the end of 3rd quarter, this year, his senior year, when he walked into my room and simply said, “I need help.” With those three words, Brett exhibited several characteristics that led to his successfully completing his senior year. According to Dr. Marshall Raskind, (2004), “there is a ‘spirit’ of optimism…based on knowing that, despite an early ‘poor prognosis’ or having to face great adversity, some individuals with LD ‘beat the odds’ and go on to lead productive, satisfying, and rewarding lives” because they have “certain factors like self-awareness, internal locus of control, proactivity, realistic goal setting, and strong support systems promote positive life outcomes” (King-Sears, Boudah, Goodwin, Raskind, & Swanson). Brett, self-aware, recognized he was in trouble, pro-actively determined on his own to seek help, knew where to find support in setting goals for repairing the academic damage done during that 3rd quarter, and took action steps with the first one being coming to my room that day.

Brett knew where to come for help because when we first worked together, two years prior, we had worked on several of the 6 Success Attributes listed in Robert Langston’s book The Power of Dyslexic Thinking. I didn’t realize that we were doing so, but I’m glad that I had made developing students’ self-awareness, pro-activity, perseverance, goal-setting, use of support systems and coping strategies part of my Academic Success Program. In fact, this knowledge of the 6 Attributes fits with the name of my program. When I first created the program and introduced it, I called it the Academic Support Program; after a few months and working with the kids, I realized that the name didn’t inspire. Some kids felt it meant they “needed special help” and checked out of the program, either physically or mentally. So I suggested to my administrator that we change the name to the Academic Success Program because the program’s purpose is to help students develop the executive functioning skills needed to “do school” successfully. We knew that the students were intellectually capable, but they needed to develop the strategies for success that other students seemed to inherently know or be able to do. The name stuck and for the past 10 years, without realizing it, my kids have been working on learning independence and developing attributes for success.

I will admit that imparting the value of the attributes to my students is more challenging than engaging my students in activities that develop the attributes. Perhaps this is because they are high school students who do not want to be talked “at” when they meet with me. If we get involved in doing something immediately, I can talk about the values, but an activity’s relevance to the student’s success often speaks louder than my words can. With that said, I plan to share in a series of posts how I approach sharing with my students and helping them develop these 6 Success Attributes, beginning this week with “Self-Awareness.” I’ll also mention now that I highly recommend reading The Power of Dyslexic Thinking – every teacher should dare to read this book — guaranteed paradigm shift!

Self-Awareness

Langston notes that “self-aware people with learning disabilities know the types of problems they have and how they impact their lives, as well as their strengths and talents. While they recognize their limitations, they’re not defined by them.” Sometimes when a student first starts meeting with me, he does see himself as “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” or “dumb” – a label, either directly or indirectly attached to the student, has become how he defines himself. I’ve seen those kids who sit across from me and expect me to point out their bad grades and say “this is why you need me.” I’ve had to deal with tense moments when the parent comes with the student and points out bad grades and says, “This is why you need her!” I find that often in order to help a student develop self-awareness and ‘redefine’ himself, I need to do all I can to “learn” that kid. I use questionnaires to guide conversations with the student. I like the suggestion from Ficksman and Adelizzi (2010) about using “questionnaires regarding likes and dislikes, executive functioning skills, writing samples, how well the game of school is played, and the like” (p.36). I also like questionnaires because they keep the conversation somewhat focused – I have ADHD, I am often meeting with a student who has ADHD, and I wish I could have recorded some of the meetings I’ve had when this is the case because our conversations do not follow any type of a linear path at all and I find it completely ironic that I am in this role of leading the way.

The learning issues that I typically see in my students are ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, central auditory processing disorder, Asperger’s, Autism, and related issues. When I have a sense of who the student is, how he feels about himself, his temperament, and what he understands about his own strengths and weaknesses, I can move forward in building on my own sense and helping my student develop a clear sense of his strengths. This may involve first demystifying his learning issue. For example, when I take out my picture of the brain and show a kid where his “pre-frontal lobe” is and then share that that part of the brain doesn’t mature until the early 20’s, I have his attention. I can then say something like, “You know what, Jon, your pre-frontal lobe works differently, and not only that, it’s still maturing. So you’re not “Irresponsible” when you forget about an assignment; your brain just didn’t file that input as expected. Let’s figure out a way to sort out your brain’s filing system.” When Jon realizes how his brain functions, and that he does not need to define himself as “ADHD” as if it’s a synonym for “irresponsible”, he begins to see what he CAN do because he emotionally is ready to do so.  Langston explains this in the chapter about Paul Orfalea when he reasons that when society says you should be able to do something and you can’t do it, “then in your mind—whether anybody’s saying it or not (and a lot of times they are)—you think you’re stupid. What we need to get out there is that dyslexia is about how the brain is ‘wired,’ not about being stupid” (Langston, 2014).

The kid, who believes the labels, can’t build on his strengths – too much emotional energy is being used up with the negative thoughts. When Jon says, “Oh, okay, I guess if I keep a planner, I can help myself remember,” he exhibits a positive self-awareness that then allows him to move forward so that he can later say, “I am really good at thinking up ideas for group projects” and offer that strength to others, letting someone else in the group keep track of monitoring progress on the project completion. I plan to emphasize some of the stories in our text with my students that relate to this self-awareness and building on strengths. I loved the comments from Paul Smith, who avoided his office because it was filled with paperwork that he couldn’t do and who noted, “I never did those kinds of things. And fortunately, being president, I really didn’t have to, and I think it made me a better president; ” Langston follows up Smith’s words with the insight that relates to this self-awareness I just discussed: “Paul knew what he wasn’t good at, so he focused on what he could do well” (Langston, 2014). This reminds me of a commercial that I find funny and yet true – the “Most Interesting Man in the World” philosophizes, “Find out what it is in life that you don’t do well; and then, don’t do that thing.”

References

Ficksman, M., & Adelizzi, J. U. (2010). The clinical practice of educational therapy: A teaching model. New York: Routledge.

King-Sears, Margaret E. et al., “Timely and Compelling Research for the Field of Learning Disabilities: Implications for the Future,” Learning Disability Quarterly 27, no. 2 (2004), http://www.questia.com/read/1G1-121279906 .

Robert Langston (2012-04-26). The Power of Dyslexic Thinking AuthorHouse. Kindle Edition.

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Relationships are the means and the end…

Teaching high school English and creatively approaching curriculum has always been a passion, and I am a task-oriented person; as I reflect on my position, now, as a Learning Specialist, however, I am seeing that my priority is my relationship with each of my students. When my focus is on achievement, the daily activities spur me on and provide a sense of accomplishment, but in truth, “the desire to achieve and to see ourselves mirrored in achievement” does not fulfill at the end of the day (Tompkins, 1996, p.199). Sonia Nieto (2003) quotes Karen Gelzinis who writes, “the older I get, the less it is about me feeling good about what I do” and then Karen concludes that the students are the most important (p.114). “Mindfulness” is the buzzword of the season, and yes, this must be my focus; “being in, being for, and being with” my students (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 49).
 
My renewed mission for next year, as I reflect this summer, is to develop my understanding of my students, collectively as learners and individually as gifts in my life; to prepare my students for life, showing them how to establish their own values and modeling respect and integrity; and finally and most importantly, to nurture relationships with my students that will grow out of my commitment to them as learners and contributors to my life. My specific goals, as I focus on this mission, will be to provide a safe environment for students; to establish personal relationships with each student; to establish personal relationships with their parents, to the fullest extent possible; to provide additional resources to my school’s students and parents, via web site, email and mailings; to learn more about student-motivation and learning so that I can more effectively affirm students in meeting academic responsibilities and in becoming independent learners.
 
My first goal is to provide a safe environment for students to come during their hectic day, to study, get homework help, and to work with peers. My classroom is actually designated the “Academic Success Center”. The Academic Success Center provides students with a place to study individually and with peers, in an informal environment. Students use the room as a student lounge throughout the day. I strive for comfort in the room set-up; I group tables, offer cushioned swivel chairs, and keep a never-ending supply of Hershey’s Kisses and the makings for hot cocoa available. As the students spend open periods and lunch periods in my room, I hope to develop relationships of trust and respect with them, that they will feel safe and see me as a “teacher who went beyond academics and became a mentor, confidant, and positive model for personal identification” (Vitto, 2003, p.4).  In addition, I want students to build safe relationships with each other as they collaboratively study or meet with peer tutors. I plan to set up a board for sharing “Secrets to Success” on which students can write study strategies that they have found helpful and that they want to share with their peers. If students eagerly add their advice, then we have established a non-threatening environment and relationships that encourage learning together. I want all students who enter the Academic Success Center to believe they are successful and can contribute to the success of others.
 
I meet with students individually. As my second goal, I resolve to celebrate students’ successes and to “assist them in coping with failure” (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 41). The Academic Success Program provides academic support to individual students who struggle with executive functioning. Within the program, my role of Learning Specialist includes providing individual instruction, encouragement, and accountability over the period of a full semester to a year, depending on the individual student’s needs. As I meet with a student, I want to listen more than talk, and ask more than answer. In the same way that I am learning about my teaching through reflection, I want my students to understand how they learn by reflecting on their actions as learners. All students have the capacity for success, given that they exhibit curiosity, demonstrate potential to learn, experiment with new ideas, ask questions, and examine ideas. Not all students succeed, however, due to attention issues, poor or ill-timed questions, lack of organization, inability to complete tasks, inappropriate participation or lack of participation in discussion, lack of discernment as to what information is important. I hope to ask questions that prompt each student to “be aware of the state of one’s own mind and the degree of one’s own understanding. The good student may be one who often says that he does not understand, simply because he keeps a constant check on his understanding” (Dembo, 2000, p. 23). I talk daily with students who believe they cannot learn, that they are unintelligent. These students have repeatedly struggled in school due to the issues mentioned earlier in this paragraph. My goal is to develop a relationship of trust with each  student so that when I affirm that the student is capable and gifted and will succeed, he or she will know it is true. It has been noted that “some students believe that ability or intelligence is fixed. That is, people are born with a certain amount of ability and there is not much that can be done about it” (Dembo, 2000, p. 7). My mission is to change that misperception and to advocate for, encourage, and celebrate each success. With that in mind, I will have each student compile a “Success Portfolio” to share with their parents at the end of the semester. Each student will share how they have developed their learning skills, and the parents and I will cheer and applaud.
 
Nurturing this team-spirit and including students’ parents is vital and is my third goal. Currently, I email each parent weekly after meeting with their son or daughter. My emails are chatty in nature, sharing the progress of the student and indicating areas we will work on that week. I need parental support, but I’m finding that my weekly encouragement is valued by the parents. When a child struggles with “doing school,” the whole family is affected. Every dinner conversation is punctuated with “why didn’t you do that assignment” or “you forgot that paper at home again” or “how could you not know about the test today.” Students who struggle with school struggle with life; and that is what truly frightens their parents and prompts the angry reactions to the child’s mistakes. A student who struggles in math can get help and will improve in comprehension. A student who struggles to remember to do assignments and then where he put them and when to turn them in lives life like a pinball, batted from one mistake to the next. These are the students with whom I work. Their parents are the ones I understand because I am one also. My goal is to decrease the number of angry or painful conversations at home while I help students develop strategies for handling school. I hope to serve as a facilitator / negotiator during conferences between students and parents. I promise to offer empathy when frustrations build and to “appreciate rather than to evaluate families’ successes and struggles with their children” (Kottler, et al, 2005, p. 77).
 
Relationships are the means and the end. Soren Kierkegaard was noted as saying, “The irony of life is that it is lived forward but understood backward” (Loughran, 2002). So reflecting and then looking forward, I set this mission before me to know more about my students collectively and individually, to support students and parents as I model my belief in my students’ ability to succeed and to continually nurture these relationships in my life.

References
Dembo, M (2000). Motivation and learning strategies for college success: A self-management approach . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
 
Frank, P. (1999). Becoming a reflective teacher: Define your teaching goals and continue to reevaluate them. ASCD Catalyst. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/teachexperience/tresk030605.html?mode=print
 
Intrator, S & Scribner, M (Eds.). (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 
Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
 
Loughran, J (2002). Effective reflective practice: In search of meaning in learning about teaching. Journal of Teacher Education53, Retrieved from http://www.questia.com/read/5000686594
Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.
Ritchhart, R (2002). Intellectual character: what it is, why it matters, and how to get it . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 
Tompkins, J (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned . Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
 
Vitto, J (2003). Relationship-driven classroom management: Strategies that promote student motivation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Thinking About Authentic Literacy…

Authentic literacy is defined as “text-based discussion, dialogue, and argument” and provides the focus of any study of literature in which my students participate (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 65).

When I taught high school English classes, I loved exploring literature with my students as we read, wrote, discussed, wrote, read, discussed, and well, you get the idea. In fact, I cannot imagine reading a novel such as William Golding’s (1954) Lord of the Flies using the approach of my high school teachers thirty-five years ago, which was the routine of read, discuss, and write, the end. Reading and writing, with discussion, are so interwoven that they happened simultaneously, and even spontaneously, in my classroom. Using Lord of the Flies as my core text, for example, my students found themselves journaling from the point of view of one of the characters, explaining the irony of characters’ words, and writing from the point of view of the philosopher Hobbes about the novel’s themes in a response to Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes. These activities lead us through the course of knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, and synthesis and evaluation (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10).

When reading a novel, teachers desire that students understand the sequence of events, the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. According to Benjamin (1999) this is level one thinking and includes recall of facts, summarizing, retelling, and asking “what?” (p. 10). To achieve this purpose with Lord of the Flies, after we read the first two chapters, I asked students to choose one of the characters to be for the rest of our reading. Each day, students wrote a journal entry from their chosen character’s point of view, sharing what happened to them or what they observed or what they thought as that character during the day’s portion of reading (we did something similar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar because the activity so succeeded in engaging the students with the text). The journal writing required students to consider the text and explain it in their own words. As students wrote, I moved around the room, reading over their shoulders, and positively commenting on interesting entries. I also asked students to share their entries with their group members (my students always sat in base groups) and to discuss the text from the various viewpoints represented. This provided me with a quick means of assessing students’ comprehension and enabled me to clarify or answer questions as needed. As students read the novel and wrote their journal entries, they “made knowledge their own” as they “struggled with the details, wrestled with the facts, and reworked raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they could communicate to someone else” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 9).

Furthering the process of making knowledge meaningful and providing my students opportunity to deepen that knowledge through application, I asked them to consider the words of characters and discuss the implied meanings. For example, on a test, I asked students to write a paragraph explaining why the following words spoken by Jack are ironic: “I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages” (Golding, 1954, p. 42). This lead students into higher level thinking as they analyzed the quote, considered the use of irony, and then related the two. The prompt clearly framed the task by providing students with the needed guidelines of length, focus, task, detail, language, tone, and terminology. In this way, students could show what they knew, and I could assess their understanding as they gave examples, analyzed and defended, and engaged in literate thinking.

The writing activities that I enjoy most are those moving students into even higher level thinking, synthesis and evaluation. Often I asked my students to interact with additional related texts through discussion and writing. For example, we read the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the “natural condition of mankind, a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat” and then discussed how Hobbes’ view related to Golding’s view as conveyed in the novel. After discussion, I gave the students a Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the young boy, Calvin, asks the tiger, Hobbes:

“Do you think human nature is good or evil? I mean, do you think people are basically good, with a few bad tendencies, or basically bad, with a few good tendencies? Or, as a third possibility, do you think people are just crazy and who knows why they do anything?” (Watterson, 1988, p. 71)

The prompt with the comic states:

  • After discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, write an answer to Calvin from Thomas Hobbes’ point of view.
  • Your answer must show an understanding of the key points discussed, must be written in 1st person as if you are Thomas Hobbes, and must be at least one paragraph in length.

This writing task scaffolded students’ thinking by developing complex activities and by asking questions that required that the students look more deeply and more critically at the content of lessons. As my students analyzed the philosophy of Hobbes and applied it to the question in the prompt, they also explored the relationship of those ideas to the text of Lord of the Flies, and “exercised the most relevant intellectual capacities–the ability to detect patterns of meaning and to weigh words and evidence for specific purposes” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 61). This prepared them for a culminating writing task of an essay in which they agreed or disagreed with Golding’s view of human nature.

Currently, I am not teaching high school English, but as I reflect on these activities that I have used in previous years, I find myself wishing to return to that teaching role. I love hearing my students interpret the text from the view of a character; I enjoy the AhHa! moment when students identify later uses of irony themselves; and I enjoy modeling how to write an essay agreeing with or disagreeing with Golding’s and Hobbes’ view of mankind. Too often, instruction in English classes “focuses on content or skills rather than on the process of learning” as “teachers concentrate on covering the required information;” I much prefer integrating reading, discussion, and writing and helping my students “internalize the methods and strategies for accomplishing tasks” and enjoying literature (Langer, Close, Angelis, & Preller, 2000, p. 10).

References

Benjamin, A. (1999). Framing the task: Be careful what you ask for . . . you just might get it. In Writing in the content areas (pp. 3–26). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. UK: Faber and Faber.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994 [1651/1668]) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley. IN: Hackett

Langer, J. A. (with Close, E., Angelis, J., & Preller, P.) (2000). Guidelines for teaching middle and high school students to read and write well: Six features of effective instruction. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement.

Langer, J. A. (2004). Developing the literate mind. http://cela.albany.edu/researcher/langer/IRA_Develop.pdf

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution.  http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Sanchez, S. (2001). Using journals for a variety of assessments. In C. R. Duke & R. Sanchez (Eds.), Assessing writing across the curriculum (pp. 109–118). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Watterson, S. (1988). Something under the bed is drooling. NY: Andrews and McMeel.

 

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