classroom technology fail

Professionals in all fields have to deal with technology failures now and again. It’s a fact of life that we all find ways to work around. But, the significance of a technology malfunction varies with circumstances and deadlines. If my husband’s conference call won’t connect he may blow a lucrative deal or miss a crucial deadline that throws a whole project off kilter. It’s awkward to make people wait while you try to fix a glitch. When my interactive board won’t connect I risk losing the entire learning day, if I’m not prepared.

I’m lucky enough to work in a school with a commitment to the effective use of technology in the classroom. My principal does not just want to see teachers and students using technology to complete traditional tasks, he wants to see us creating with technology. Our students participate in coding exercises, they create slide shows and webpages to share information, they program robots and design solutions for everyday problems like how to feed the fish over the weekend (we haven’t figured that one out yet).

And in our district we have a responsive IT department and a team of educators dedicated to supporting technology’s use in the classroom. I have ample opportunity to take classes and workshops on technology use and a team mate who has been patiently coaching us on projects. I recognize that I have in place what I need to enrich my classroom and stretch my learning and teaching.

But IT serves the whole district and they are not housed in our building. So, when something goes they can’t just pop on over to my room and fix it up for me. On the 2nd to last day before April vacation, my Promethean Board lost the ability to connect to, well, to anything. It was a hardware problem, something off with the cord that prevented it from staying snug. I fiddled with it for my entire prep time and still could not get it to work. At the end of the day, I submitted a ticket to IT. I hope they get to it over break so I return to a working board.

One of the simplest things I do with that board is to post the morning work. I still posted the work last Thursday, but it looked a little different. At least I could use the board for something.

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sassing back with purpose

April and I looked at each other over the desk when the assistant principal came into the room.

“I saw that you called, sorry I missed it. What do you need?” she asked, surveying the room of off-task students.

“Please take her,” I said, pointing to April. “We need a break from each other.”

Without hesitation, or question, the assistant principal took April with her to the office. I am so grateful for her reaction. I didn’t feel judged, either positively or negatively. She came to do her job, so I could do mine. That reaction from an administrator, I’ve worked in enough schools to know, is rare and precious.

April and I had reached a standoff after a day, after days, of struggle. She wants to be anywhere but in school and in her frustration she constantly disrupts the class. This bright girl with a quick mind has made little to no progress in the past month because she is painting her new persona as a tough girl who doesn’t need these silly old ladies telling her she has to understand fractions. She sees her future and it requires  well coiffed hair and stylishly off the shoulder dresses, not organized paragraphs with correctly punctuated sentences. She is becoming proficient in girlfriend loyalty and well-timed insults and the art of choosing the right clique.

I don’t think these are unimportant skills. As she betrays one friend to support another, as she makes decisions about who to share her secrets with and discovers the dangers in those decisions, April is learning some valuable life skills. She is deciding who she is, who she wants to be, and who she wants to associate with. I’m impressed by her fierce support, giving compliments when she thinks a friend needs to hear she looks good, asking questions about how a friend is feeling and really, really listening, and yes, doling out verbal retaliations against any who cause her friends hurt. April is someone you want on your side.

But she hasn’t been on her own side.

April constantly disrupts the class by talking to friends both near her and across the room. She easily, often without effort, encourages the other girls, and quite a few boys, to join her in making noise over which no learning can happen. She rolls her eyes and sasses back and tosses her hair in reaction to every reminder or reprimand. She knows just what to say when you bring her out in the hall for a talk and even adheres to rules for a little while after claiming a desire to avoid “the drama” and focus on her own learning.

I figured she was just telling me what I needed to hear to let her back in to class. But maybe something else is going on.

My assistant principal came to talk to me at the end of that day and said, “So, I made her cry. I asked her who in the class helps her make the right choice, thinking that maybe we could move her closer to a positive role model, but she said that person who helps her make the right choice is you, Mrs. L.A. So I asked her “Then why do you treat her so badly?” That’s when the tears started.”

Yeah, that’s when my tears started as well. (OK, started again, because it had been the sort of week where my tears were ever present.) I went home to think about April.

A counselor I worked with a while ago said that she thinks some kids feel the freedom to act out their anger and frustrations at school because they feel like they will always be able to come back, no matter what. They trust us to give them another chance. They trust us to love them even when their ugly side shows. I tried to think of April with this theory in mind. April is trying to find her place in the world but that’s not an easy thing to do when you’re ten. I guess she really was participating in those hallway talks not just enduring them.

After seriously considering a career change earlier this year, I’m newly inspired to keep moving forward in teaching. I’ll continue reading about adolescent behavior and collaborating with my team to find better ways to support my frustrated students. And when I think I can’t take anymore of the disruptive behavior, I’ll toss my hair and turn to April and try again.

his motivation grew 3 sizes that day

It was always clear that the Grinch stole Christmas in an attempt to find something good for himself, even though he felt he didn’t deserve it. When he was able to see beauty, and then to participate in joy by saving the stolen presents, he heart, and his strength grew way out of proportion. Really, the strength of ten Grinches, plus two? It was a rhyme-satisfying exaggeration.

Or was it?

It is no secret that I have gotten off to a tough start to this school year. 48 days completed, just over a quarter of the school year, and I feel like I am still setting up routines, still teaching expected behaviors, and not at all teaching content. Though I Grinch-like feel that I have not actually earned the right to it, I want to walk in to a well-run class full of 10 year olds acting like ten year olds and not like cynical gang initiates.

In the midst of the despair, M stepped up. For reasons all his own, he walked into the room with an aura of effort around him and worked hard to monitor his behavior and focus on learning. He raised his hand, he excitedly shouted out answers, he rushed to get in line, he asked questions. And this fog of effective effort was slightly contagious so that, even though, yes, there were two physical fights and a whole lot of talking back and ignoring work, there were these blissful moments of teaching and, dare I say it, learning happening in our chaotic classroom.

So, yesterday morning I took some time before school started and fished out the fun sea creature shaped papers left over from a project last year and wrote a short note to M and three of his fellow do-gooders. They were short notes to the effect of “Hey, I noticed your effort. You are fabulous and getting more so every day.” (Not at all those words, of course. I used teacher words like “you’re growing your brain” and “making great choices” but the intention was “Oh lord, it’s been a craptastic 45 days and I just want to say thank you so much for bringing some light into this dungeon.”)

I left the notes on 4 desks and let them be found.

My first surprise was when K started walking around the room showing off his note, then Y wondered out loud how he might earn such a note. But then, there was M. The boy who has a personal relationship with he principal, he’s spent so much time in the office. The boy who tells others he will beat the tar out of them and they (and I) completely believe he could, and would. The boy who can’t actually sit so his desk is in the back of the room to allow pacing space and who talks to himself near constantly. This boy, who’s “not afraid of anything” quietly picked up his note.

He didn’t smile. He didn’t look toward me. He didn’t share his note. He carefully put it back down on his desk, fished out his Math notebook and sat down to work on the morning problem.

And later, during a Math test that seemed designed to inspire a meltdown of self-confidence resulting in a display of tough-guy disinterest in anything school related, he took his time, he asked clarifying questions, he showed his work.

His motivation grew three sizes that day.

He grew the strength of 10 fourth graders, plus two.

And I learned, relearned, the lesson that we all need to feel like we deserve Christmas. We need to be noticed and appreciated for returning what we stole, for fixing what we broke. And we need to be a part of a community that lets us back in after we have intentionally caused harm, with the knowledge that we didn’t really want to cause harm but to be noticed.

Thanks M, again.

strategic absence

I have 4 very difficult boys in my class, a bad case of mean girl drama with 3, 2 who egg others on, 5 who are easily distracted and not all easily put back on track, 7 typical 4th graders and 1 “can’t we all just follow every last school rule 100% of the time” kid. So, you’ll understand when I admit that I did a little happy dance when M was absent today. One strategic absence, in this case one of the top 4, makes a big difference in my day.

Too many needy personalities in one place is exhausting. Take one away and the burden of the others seems so much less.

This may not be what the Dalai Lama means when he talks about shifting your perspective, but with just one of those stressors removed I feel like I’m better able to empathize with the difficulties of being a 9 year old living with all sorts of difficult situations at home and trying to keep it together at school. I can change the context in which I see their tough behaviors, and so change my reaction to them.

Thanks for the day off, M.

See you tomorrow.

Good teaching is everywhere

Yesterday I watched the last 15 minutes or so of Anya’s horseback riding lesson. Karen kept up a near constant litany of corrections and suggestions as Anya trotted around the ring. I watched Anya for the minor adjustments to the way she sat in the saddle or held the reins but could hardly ever detect a change. They kept at it, Karen coaching, Anya riding, until the words changed. “That was perfect. Did you feel how that felt in the saddle?” Anya had made a full ring around the barn doing everything right. One more time around the ring and Karen ended the lesson, which had already gone a bit over, and asked Anya to cool down the horse with a walk around the ring several times. And, I smiled so big, not just because Anya kept at it until she got it right but also because Karen kept at it until Anya got it right. As all good teachers know, it is easier to build on to a success than to recover from a failure. Perhaps because we are the last lesson of the day Karen has the flexibility in her schedule to extend it a bit to end on a high note, but I think she’d have done it even if another student was waiting. Anya has told me, after all, sometimes when she comes out of the barn late that she got a late start while the previous student finished up.

Good teaching comes in all styles and places.