April 26, 2009

Outwitted by the Nitwits

Earlier this week Miss Teacha had a hot button topic with how to deal with excessive talking. Oh, have I dealt with that topic--and WORSE with my last period night class. There have been several out-of-control nights, many of which involved security and the principal. It is not my style to the call button every other night, so it's been a humiliating year for me. I keep waiting for the principal to shake my hand and say, "This just isn't working out anymore." Maybe I'm kind of wishing he would do that because I'm too stubborn to quit. I do a lot of reflecting on that class, but mostly I try to forget it as soon as I leave them. Sometimes it takes a hot shower and a drink.

Why haven't I written much about this craziness? I just told you. It's embarrassing, and I try to forget the misery when I walk off campus.

The class I am teaching is a proficiency English class. Ideally it should only include students who need help passing the proficiency test, particularly the writing exam, but I also have students who simply need English credit, some of whom have passed the test. (What I'm selling doesn't matter to them.) This is not my first gig at this alternative school, so I am well aware of the fact that students who love writing are few and far between at this school. So, I am charged with teaching writing to students who are neither good at writing nor do they enjoy it one bit. In fact, many of them hate it and will to great lengths to avoid it.

I've always felt that the power of my management comes from my lessons. If I lectured, did guided practice, offered worksheets, or included group activities I would not have half the problems I do. No, those activites are about 1/5 of the course time. I can't talk about writing all period, and there comes a point when guided practice comes to an end. Worksheets won't do the trick either. Students need to be writing. Perhaps I'm thinking from the wrong books, but I believe that if I have engaging topics or assignments, students are more likely to be on task, practicing writing skills.

I have tons of great ideas for writings and projects! In the four years that I've worked at this school, I have discovered if I think it's a great idea and that other students I've used it with have enjoyed it, my night kids will hate it. They will hate it so intensely that I can never have confidence in using it again.

(And of course, it's not all of the kids who hate it. It's majority, and it's the most obnoxious kids.)

At the beginning of the year, I had great designs to be able to use a writing and reading workshop design. I would give mini lessons and have them work on some small skills in the writing book. Students would write, I would conference and help them with their individual skills, and they would revise and edit. Rinse and repeat. I thought, and still do, that a differentiated approach to teaching them would be most beneficial.

It may not have been pure, as I gave them writing topics to choose from, and in the beginning all students had the same lessons. However, we were getting to the point where I was assigning individual students to do specific activities to help them build their skills. This is the environment we started building from the beginning, and for those students who conferred with me, it was a positive experience.

I had to abort the workshop structure to deal with classroom management:
  • I had to be constantly moving around the classroom to get students on task. While conferencing with students, I could not see everything that was going on, and many students used this to create mischief. I tried repositioning my conference location to see better, but it did not work. I could not pay attention to the student I was conferencing with.
  • I had several groups of students who had conflicts with other students/groups of students. I don't want to suggest gang warfare because not all of it was. However, it just took one joker to say something about Bloods or Serranos and it would piss someone off. Or...sometimes it would just be, "I don't like your hair, girl." Chaos would erupt.
  • There were so many behavior problems that I couldn't pinpoint 1-2 students to get rid of. In the 1st quarter there were at least 7 very loud students in a class of 26. One night in the 2nd quarter, the principal came in and asked who the worst problem was. He was going to take that student from the class. I just laughed.
  • Some students simply refused to write anything unless I was standing next to them, and then even some of those still would write nothing. Kind advice, cheerleading, and verbal brainstorming with these students eventually wears on my nerves until I wanted to scream, "Just put you damn pencil on the paper and start writing!"
  • The prevailing mentality is, "I just need the credit. What can I do to get a 60%?"
Now in the 4th quarter, I do not have the problem with conflicting groups. The most obnoxious, violent students are no longer in my class. The gang warfare mentality is gone, and some students who never talked to each other now talk to each other (sometimes too much). Right now I have 2 very loud students--both claim me as their favorite teacher although the feeling isn't mutual--but the majority of the students still do not care much about writing. They cannot manage their own behaviors, and they do not care about doing the best work they can. They do as little as they can to pass with a 60%.

How little do they have to do to earn a 60%? This is something I'm going to investigate for next year. Many of these students are pros at figuring that out. The ones who can't constantly ask stupid questions like, "How much of this do I need to do pass?" I always shrug. I really depends.

I have been more into exploring mastery of skills to earn grades, but that requires a different mentality from students than what I'm dealing with. In fact, I gave up minimum Fs of 50% after the first quarter because several students were working that system pretty well. They figured out how to do one or two big assignments to get that 60%. That's too much time on their hands to cause trouble.

I'd like to make it nearly impossible to skate by with a 60% without making it nearly impossible to pass the class. Does that make sense? Perhaps I should investigate the power of participation grades, too.

For me, it's not behavioral management that I'm most concerned about. Please believe me when I say, some of the most effective ones have been completely blown-up with this group:
Proximity? So what if the teacher hears my drama?
The glare? So what if she's looking at me?
Move seats? I'm still going to talk to my homies across the room, Miss!
Call security? (Last resort) Oh! It's getting exciting in here tonight!

I'm concerned about how to show students that it's important to be literate and it's worth their undivided attention to develop their skills. Some buy-in there would help a lot. I've worked my mind and butt off trying to engage students in interesting work. I've used just about every management tool I could think of except paddling. (It would be unwise to place anything that could be used as one in my hands at this point because I'm not sure I wouldn't go there.)

This is one of those years that I'll like some purple heart of teaching. I've brought out all of the artillery, but I'm barely surviving in the trenches.

No comments: